Bread Baking in a Wood Fired Oven
Wood Fired Oven Bread
Last month I had the pleasure of visiting friends who had built an outdoor wood fired oven on their patio.
I was offered the opportunity to bake my artisanal baguettes in that oven. See bread post for the recipe. Here is how the bread baked in that oven differed from the loaves made in my regular home oven.
Wood fired ovens operate differently from conventional gas or electric ovens. They heat mainly by conduction. That’s to say that they heat the bread by touching the bread to a very hot brick surface.
Conduction Versus Convection Heating
Here’s a way to understand the difference between conduction and convection. Think about getting burned. Touching a hot skillet or getting splashed with boiling water will always causes burns. But holding one’s fingers over a flame or having a hand in an oven allows one a little time to pull away before getting burned. Touching a hot solid or liquid is conduction, and being bathed by hot air is convection.
Convection ovens, both those for the home and for professional kitchens are regular ovens with a fan that circulates the hot air. Moving hot air around food speeds up the heating but it is not as effective as conduction for heating.
Wood fired ovens are amazing. When the bread is placed on the hot surface, heat quickly transfers to the bread and the water in the bread. The water turns to steam and the other gases in the bread heat and expand. This happens so quickly that the gases can’t escape the loaf. Instead the gas and steam expand the air pockets in the bread; this is called oven spring and makes for a well risen and moister loaf.
Notice the picture above, the bread baked in the wood oven is much taller than the loaf baked in a conventional manner. Both are the same recipe. The bottom picture is the bread dough just before it went into the wood oven. It was able to almost double in height when heated by conduction instead of convection.
Another benefit of a wood fired oven bread is that it develops a browner crunchier crust with a moister crumb. The bread also bakes very quickly. It took 10 minutes instead of the usual half hour to bake. Of course the oven started off at 600°F instead of 425°F.
Unfortunately, wood fired oven are not a time saver. They need to be preheated for at least 8-12 hours before you can use them. One has to build a fire and then keep it going. Then just before baking one needs to sweep away the wood ash and mop the bricks clean—a hot job. Only then can one bake, and then only a limited number of loaves before you have to reheat the bricks. Wood ovens are a big production. You have to love baking and love food. Bread produced this way is a special treat!
Professional pizza ovens are also conduction ovens—the modern version. They have a thick heated metal floor that holds a lot of heat. In baking pizzas the dough is placed on a thin metal pan directly on the hot metal. This allows for a lot of conductive heating and is why pizza cooks so quickly.
In the home kitchen we have the Pizza stone. Placing the pizza right on the stone allows for some conductive heating. Unfortunately pizza stones are thin and don’t have the large thermal mass needed for adequate conductive heating. There are some baking hacks that use a tray of clay bricks in place of the pizza stone. This provides more thermal mass for conductive heating, but it also takes hours to preheat a tray of bricks and even then they will not reach the 600°F of a wood fired oven.
Bread baking is something that was left to the professionals since the middle ages. People brought their loaves to a bake shop or just purchased the baker’s bread. Nowadays we can make good bread in our ovens but it is not the same product that you find in a proper bakery with a conduction oven.
Do you bake bread? What is your favorite loaf?