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Backyard Earthen Oven

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I bake a lot of bread at home and after lots of trial and error baking in our electric oven I feel like I can turn out some pretty good loaves. But I’ve always dreamed of having a wood-fired earthen oven like those that have traditionally been used to bake bread. A few years ago I read a book on how to build them and learned that it really wasn’t that hard to do. So, being the die-hard DIY guy that I am, I resolved to build one in our backyard.

bread-baking

It took another year or so for the project to come together. Justine deserves a lot of credit for enduring the growing stockpiles of broken concrete, sand, brick, etc. that occupied the end of our driveway during that time! Finally, last spring I found I had on hand most of the materials needed and was able to get hold of the rest for cheap or free. Over a few weeks of on and off work we built a working oven for less than $100.

We built ours out of urbanite (broken up concrete), sand, bricks, and potter’s clay. The urbanite came from another DIY project in our front yard where we replaced the old cement walkway with a flagstone path and patio. The clay was waste clay that came from a potter friend’s studio. If the soil in your yard has enough clay content you can even use it. The needed materials can often be found for free if you look around a bit.

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The oven was the most satisfying building experience I’ve ever had! There’s just something about working with clay that feels good. Baking with it has been equally a pleasure. The golden crusty loaves of bread it produces are delicious. I bake them in large batches and freeze them or give them to friends. And the pizza it produces is amazing too! There’s nothing quite like having a pizza party in your backyard with friends around a glowing oven on a summer evening.

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So what is an earthen oven – also called a cob or clay oven? It’s basically an above ground hole-in-the-ground built of a hardened mixture of sand and clay. One of the oldest ways of cooking food is to dig a hole, build a fire in it, and then put food to bake in the hole after the fire has died down – think pit barbecue or clambake. The heat from the fire is absorbed into the earth and then radiated back into the food evenly until the cooking is done.

Earthen ovens hold and deliver heat for a long time – mine is still warm the day after firing! One of the best things about cooking in them is the steady, even heat they deliver. There’s no cycling of temperatures like in electric ovens and the heat is delivered to the food from all directions making for more uniform cooking. With the one exception of pizza,  the cooking is done by residual heat with no fire at all burning in the oven.

So what can you cook in an earthen oven? Anything that you can cook in a conventional oven! There’s no temperature control knob but you can still cook at any temperature, it’s just a matter of timing. When I fire our oven it starts out around 750° F - a good temp for pizza. After the coals and ash are removed it begins to cool off and passes slowly through all temperature ranges over a period of about 20 hours. Since I’ve gotten a feel for its temperature curve I’ve been able to cook many different dishes on one firing. A typical lineup might include – from highest to lowest temperature – pizza, bread, a casserole or fruit crisp, and a pot of beans or soup. The next thing I look forward to trying is roasting a chicken!

4-way-baking

If you are interested in building one of your own I highly recommend the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer. It does a great job of telling you exactly what you need to do. I want to encourage anyone thinking about building their own to go for it. It’s totally doable and it’s fun!

Bread Recipes

Here are two of my favorite bread recipes and you don’t need an earthen oven to make them. It’s a method of bread making that I became aware of a few years ago in which the bread is baked in a cast iron dutch oven or other heavy casserole dish. It basically simulates an earthen oven inside a conventional kitchen oven. The recipe is a little unusual in that there is no real kneading of the dough involved, but it really does make delicious bread! The extra long rise time and small amount of yeast allow for a more complex flavor to develop. Baking inside the dutch oven gives it a golden brown and delicious crust. Try it!

Off-White Bread
A simple variation on a classic. The small amount of whole-wheat flour gives a little more depth of flavor and just a hint of heartiness.

Dry Ingredients:

- 2.75 cups unbleached white flour
- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 teaspoon salt

Wet Ingredients

- 1.5 cup water
- ¼ teaspoon active dry yeast

•    Combine yeast and water and set aside to let the yeast hydrate
•    In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly
•    Add water/yeast to dry ingredients and mix until it forms a shaggy mass – (it doesn’t need to form a ball)
•    Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 16-18 hours. It will have bubbles visible on the surface when it’s ready.
•    Turn out the dough onto a floured surface
•    Fold over itself 3-4 times and let sit for 5 minutes
•    Shape into a ball working all the seams onto the side that will be the bottom
•    Place ball on a sheet of parchment paper that’s been  dusted with cornmeal. Dust the top of the loaf with cornmeal and cover with a towel to rise for 2 hours
•    Preheat the oven and with dutch oven or ceramic casserole to 450 degrees
•    Just before loading into the oven slash a cross in the top of the dough with a very sharp knife or razor blade
•    If necessary trim the parchment paper so that’s just larger than the risen dough. Then, using the paper to lift, place the dough with the paper still underneath into the pan.  Put on the lid and place in the oven.
•    Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on
•    Remove the lid and carefully pull the parchment paper from under the loaf. It’s hot! Put back in the oven with the lid off for between 5-10 minutes until the crust is well browned
•    Remove bread from pan and let cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing, the inside continues to cook after it comes out of the oven and the bread needs this time to finish.


Whole Wheat Walnut Bread
This is our favorite bread. The extra seeds and grains make it downright hearty and the natural oil in the walnuts make it a more moist bread that also stays fresh longer.

Dry Ingredients:

- 2.5 cups unbleached white flour
- ½ cup whole wheat flour
- 1/3  cup broken up walnut pieces
*¼ bulgur (cracked wheat)
*1/8 cup flax seed
*1/8 cup sunflower seed
- 2 teaspoon salt

*approximate amount and optional

Wet Ingredients

- 1.5 cup water
- ¼ teaspoon active dry yeast

Follow same steps as above recipe

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39 Responses to “Backyard Earthen Oven”

  1. 1
    Nicole Says:

    Those loaves look lovely. Can you share your recipe?

  2. 2
    John Says:

    Nicole,
    Thanks for the request, I’ve added some recipes to the post.

  3. 3
    Amanda Says:

    YOU ARE MY HERO!!! This is incredible!

    This is a dream of mine as well… Although, we don’t own our house, so I don’t feel right building one here. Oh but I wish, I wish I could!

    My husband and I (plus a couple of friends) did an eco-project in Peru a couple of years ago and we hoped to do something like this for them as well, as a way for them to bake in the middle of the desert (southern Peru) – and maybe make some money? Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time and ended up focusing on other areas… maybe some day I will get to go back down there and do this as well.

    a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

  4. 4
    Heavy Petal Says:

    Oh wow. Willi, you are a goddess. This is incredible! It’s so pretty, and the resulting breads look delish. Congratulations!

  5. 5
    Judy Says:

    How flexible is the 16-18 hours rising time? Can it rise only 12 hours or go as long as 20, for example?

  6. 6
    Sheri Wetherell Says:

    Nice job! That is a gorgeous oven! (I never thought I’d say that about an oven). We’ve talked quite a bit about building a backyard oven and this makes me want to finally do it. Thanks for sharing the recipes too.

    Cheers!

  7. 7
    Krysten Says:

    Oh, wow! This is something I’ve always wanted to do — thank you for the great resources!

  8. 8
    John Says:

    Judy,

    12 hours could work, especially if it’s over 70degF or so. I look for the surface to be covered with bubbles, that’s a good indicator that it’s ready.
    If you let it go too long the yeast wears itself out and it doesn’t rise as well. So if I don’t have time to make bread with dough that’s ready to go I will just stick in the fridge – for up to 2 days. That puts it on hold til you’re ready to bake.
    The most common thing that I do is put the dough together before I go to bed and bake the next afternoon before dinner.

  9. 9
    John Says:

    Amanda,
    You should check out Kiko’s book. There is a section that describes possibilities for smaller and less permanent ovens. You never know…

  10. 10
    Dee/reddirtramblings Says:

    That is so cool! I am especially excited that you used recycled materials. My husband and I do that a lot, and it is amazing what you can find by simply asking. Thanks for the instruction on how to build this oven.~~Dee

  11. 11
    chassie of cb&jblog Says:

    The husband and I are trying to figure where we can put one of these in the backyard. I’m planning on going on a bread baking binge this winter I must have one of these. Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. 12
    Tom Says:

    John,

    Thanks so much for the pics and the link to the book! I went right out and got it at the library, and am looking forward to getting started.

    A couple of questions about your oven though; are you concerned about a lack of covering, and the clay/cob being affected by the weather? Also, did you repair the crack at the door, and if so, what steps did you take to do so? I’ve noticed both of those things in my brief exploration of Denzer’s book, and would love to hear about your experience.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great posts!

  13. 13
    John Says:

    Tom,
    You’re welcome of course! Happy building.

    Yes, the oven needs to be covered to keep the rain off. I’ve been using a tarp but plan to build a more permanent roof before winter.

    I haven’t repaired the crack at the door. Cracks seem to be almost inevitable, every oven I have seen has them. Any solid object that is heating and cooling, expanding and contracting that much is bound to develop cracks.

    The cracks on my oven open up more when it is hot and then close up a little when it is cool. They don’t appear to threaten the structural soundness of the dome though.

    One thing I recommend when building your oven is to be sure you use ‘fire bricks’ for the floor. I used red clay bricks and have had some minor cracking of the floor. I think fire bricks are made to withstand more heat.

  14. 14
    Sandy Says:

    That oven is just awesome! Now I want one too. Also wouldn’t mind having a outdoor stove since it impossible to can inside on such hot days.

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    Your oven is great! I am inspired….

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  18. 18
    Eric Says:

    That is an awesome looking oven! Do you know about how many pounds of clay you used?

  19. 19
    John Says:

    Eric,

    I used waste clay from a pottery studio. In all I think it was about 3 or 4 five gallon buckets full. Not sure about the weight but I have successfully googled a volume to weight conversion for clay before. The clay must be mixed with sand to make it structural. It’s actually more sand than clay – I did 1 part clay, 2 parts sand.

  20. 20
    MAd Coyote Joe Says:

    Nice site check out my blog I’m a food writer, tv cooking show host, and becoming a baker. If you surf around my blog you can see pictures of my oven build. My wife and I are opening a cooking school. I just wanted to make a connection for the future… who knows.

    Gotta go feed my starter
    Warmly,
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  21. 21
    Ramon & Laura Lopez Says:

    My husband is about ready to start building our earthen oven. I was super excited seeing yours. We live in Texas and our temps are in the 100′s now is a good time to dry. where did you get the sand for your oven Thanking you in advance

  22. 22
    Epidi Says:

    Our landlord’s wife baked bread every Tuesday in a big oven like this when we lived in Naples, Italy. Loved the fresh warm bread with cheese & some wine. I think I’ll give this a try – thanks for the tutorial!

  23. 23
    Caroline Chaney Says:

    Hi there,

    This is such a great idea! Thank you for sharing! How did you manage to do the dome? Wonderful idea! Can you tell us how it has held up? We see form some of the pics that there is a crack up top. Has this caused any trouble? We’d love to do this ourselves!

    C.C.

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