Ovens and How to Fake It –

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The traditional oven that evolved in most settled technological cultures bears little resemblance to our modern home ovens. The traditional oven was made of refractory material: stone, brick, adobe, or something similar. The method of cooking was not direct fire as is the case in the modern home oven. A desirable refractory material has two principal properties: it can withstand thermal shock and it is a good heat sink.

Let us look at the properties and methods. To withstand thermal shock means that the material will not shatter or deform or degrade when exposed to the intense heat of the fire. A good heat sink means that the material will readily absorb a great deal of heat from the fire and release it in a slow and steady manner. With material that has these properties an oven was constructed that had a fair number of shelves to hold the baked goods. Usually somewhat of a beehive shape.

To use the oven a fire was constructed, usually with faggots rather than split wood or limb wood. The reason is that the thinner branches of the faggot burned hotter and faster than the larger pieces. When the walls of the oven had reached maximum heat and all the fuel had been consumed (1.5 to 2 hours) then the smoke vent was closed, the oven was raked and swept out and usually mopped which left the oven in a moist state. Therefore there was no smoke or ash to contaminate the bread. The bread was loaded and cooked by the residual heat. It was possible to get more than one baking from the heat before the oven had to be fired again. The mopping moisture/steam contributed to the formation of a nice crust. When we get to the medieval period the town baker needed to produce enough that the ovens might be fired two or three times a day, and the first firing was fairly easy since the oven would still be warm from the last firing.

This whole operation is sometimes known as indirect baking in a falling oven, since the oven temperature was gradually and steadily decreasing. Therefore the bread was frequently loaded into a higher temperature oven than we use and the temperature was somewhat less by the time the bread was done and removed. Oh yeah, when we talk about loading and removing bread it was not done by hand. That’s suicide in that large and hot an oven. No, a peel was used to slide the goods in and out. You can see a peel used in most pizza joints today. It does take a bit of practice to get things in and out without making a mess or getting burned.

Now the point of all the above is how are we to duplicate the old style ovens and why should we bother? Taste and texture is the answer. We cannot get the rich crustiness of the old methods in modern home ovens without a bit of ingenuity.

Refractory material makes it possible to plop a standard round loaf down and have an immediate flash of heat into the bread resulting in a nicer and fuller oven spring than can be achieved by sliding it in on a cookie sheet. There are a couple of ways to get there, other than by building a bread oven in the back yard. First, you can spend from $30 to ridiculous on a pizza stone. These are usually round and don’t fill the whole available space. However they do work quite well and require very little maintenance. The next step up is the ceramic liner for the oven. These work wonderfully, but they start high and get higher.

However, for the dedicated tightwad there is a much better option. Go to the local big box Homey-D, Lowes, or equivalent and get quarry tiles in the flooring department. These are bricklike tiles 6” x 6” by 3/8” or thereabout. Should be less than $5.00 for enough to do the job. Take out the top rack and line the bottom rack. Instant refractory oven. Note that it takes longer to heat the oven than you are used to since we want the tiles or stone to absorb all the heat possible. This will not hold the heat that a full ceramic oven would but then we are not going to be baking the number of loaves that would be done in a commercial oven.

To duplicate the burst of steam that mopping the floor of the oven would produce we need only a simple spray bottle. Squirt the oven fairly heavily at loading time. Squirt again after about 30 seconds. Squirt again after a minute. That is usually enough.

For the professional baker all this is unnecessary. The sophisticated modern commercial ovens are programmable for varying temperature over time and have programmable steam injection systems. It takes a good bit of technology to make modern ovens duplicate the action of the original ceramic ovens.

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