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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
- 2.75 cups unbleached white flour
- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 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.
- 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
- 1.5 cup water
- ¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
Follow same steps as above recipe