Why is it that everything tastes better when it’s cooked outside with fire? Maybe it’s the hint of smoke or wood that you don’t get from a gas range. Maybe it’s the outdoor air, or the comfort that fire brings. For me, it’s all that plus the meditative effect of tending a fire and the satisfaction of making good food. You don’t need much to construct and enjoy an outdoor oven—just a little know-how about the forge: the furnace or oven; the fire: what kind of wood to burn; and the food: some of my favorites.
Traditional, huge brick and clay ovens—in which you can feed a fire for days, clean out the ashes and then cook with the radiant heat—have been rekindled by professionals such as Sydney’s Frozen Custard in Grand Marais or Both Hands Wood-Fired Pizzeria & Bakery in Thunder Bay. But to be a successful backyard baker, you can make an oven with anything that will hold the heat, from rocks to bricks, or clay and concrete.
For example, my husband and I constructed a primitive stone oven at camp. To start, we made a four feet by four feet stone crib, filled with sand to raise the oven off the ground. Then, we stacked flat-edged rocks around three sides until it was about two feet high. Don’t use rocks that have ever been in water, as they may explode from the heat. For the top, I originally had a long, flat rock until it was replaced by an artsy, concrete patio stone. The door is made of poured concrete on one side and wood on the other that I just lift into place when needed. Inside the oven is a rack that elevates a pizza stone for the cooking area, and the fire burns on the bottom level directly on top of the sand.
A small fire is fine to cook pizza, but if I bake bread or cake with an active fire, it will leave a layer of black soot on top. However, since the stone oven allows heat to escape, I need to continually add fuel, so I maintain the heat in the oven by feeding it coals from a fire pit beside the stove.
At home, my husband made a brick oven covered with a layer of concrete. It works on the same principle as the stone oven. However, it is more efficient at holding heat. I can cook pizzas with a flame and then close the doors and bake whatever I want with the bed of coals left behind.
The kind of wood used will determine the kind of heat produced. I usually start a fire with softwood such as jack pine, because it burns hot and fast and helps the oven get to temperature quickly. I’ll start a fire to heat the chamber at least two hours before I plan to cook in it. Then, to cook pizza, I use small kindling-sized pieces of hardwood, such as poplar, maple, or birch. Be careful not to use birch with the bark on as it will generate a lot of black smoke. The hardwood burns longer and leaves a nice bed of coals to maintain the heat.
Every summer, I use the stone oven at camp for baking bread, fresh blueberry cake or pie, and even Thanksgiving turkey to kick off hunting season. In the brick oven at home, I love to have pizza parties with family and friends. To bake pizza in the oven, you’ll need a peel to slide the pizza onto the stone. Sprinkle the peel with corn meal to allow the raw pizza to slide off. Also, the oven may have hot spots, so keep an eye out and turn the pizza with tongs when needed.
Each oven will have its own personality. It may take anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes to cook a pizza, depending on many factors, such as how hot the oven gets, what kind of wood you use, how thick the crust is, etc.
This recipe will make 2 large pizzas. However, you can double or quadruple the recipe.
If you’re going to go use an outdoor oven, light a fire in the oven first and then start making the dough.
In a medium bowl combine:
½ cup warm water
2 teaspoon honey or sugar
1 ½ tablespoon of fresh yeast (or 2 teaspoon of dry yeast). If you are using fresh yeast, stir in the honey or sugar with the yeast until it becomes a paste and then add to the water. Let rise in a warm place until nice and foamy.
In a large bowl, combine the above with the following:
½ cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ¼ cup whole wheat flour
Mix the above well with a whisk until smooth and then add: 1 cup white flour
Knead on a floured surface until the dough is smooth and satiny. It should be the same consistency as the lobe of your ear. Then put a tablespoon of olive oil in a large bowl and roll the dough around until it is covered in oil. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for at least an hour.
Roll out the dough and add sauce, cheese, and your favorite toppings.
By Kathy Toivonen