Baking Bread in a Wood-Fired Oven Easy Step-by-Step

In my opinion, there is no better way to bake bread than in a wood-fired oven. Getting to know your oven will take time and patience. Once you have made several small drying fires and your oven is cured, you are ready for your first bake! Learn more about the materials needed to make a cob oven in our post on Earthen Materials. The video below is a rough guide to baking in a wood-fired oven, in a mini oven I made at a summer rental. For a detailed guide on baking in a wood-fired oven continue reading this comprehensive post.

The oven tools you need: a peel, a rake, a mop, a poker, a metal container for coals, a metal scoop, a water bucket, and an oven door. Signup for our newsletter on the homepage to receive a free PDF with details on building your own oven tools.

Fire safety: It is important to have tools with long enough handles so you don’t need to reach inside the oven. Your 5-gallon water bucket should be full of water before you begin as a safety precaution and to keep your door-sealing cloth and tools wet. Wear close-toed shoes and have leather gloves on hand.

Each oven is unique as to the amount of time it takes to get up to temperature, how long it will hold the heat, and how much bread you can bake. For a typical home-sized cob oven I suggest trying 2-3 hours of firing. Remember you are baking with the stored residual heat of the oven, all the fire and coals are removed. In most cob ovens I have been able to bake three loads of bread with one firing. This is where knowing the quantity of bread your hearth holds and how many loads you can bake are important factors to calculate and adjust as needed.

In my opinion, there is no better way to bake bread than in a wood-fired oven. Getting to know your oven will take time and patience. Once you have made several small drying fires and your oven is cured, you are ready for your first bake! Learn more about the materials needed to make a cob oven in our post on Earthen Materials. The video below is a rough guide to baking in a wood-fired oven, in a mini oven I made at a summer rental. For a detailed guide on baking in a wood-fired oven continue reading this comprehensive post.

Oven Variables

Oven size, amount of thermal mass, the efficiency of insulation, the amount of bread you are baking, and the quality of wood you are burning are all variables you need to take into consideration. The larger the oven the more fuel it will take to heat up, and the more bread you will be able to fit per load. The more thermal mass your oven has, the longer it will take to get up to temperature and the more heat it can store. The increase in mass also means using more fuel to fire the oven up to temperature. The more efficient your insulation is, the longer your oven will maintain its temperature, which will determine how many loads you can bake.

The quality and dryness of your wood is also a key variable in how much firing it will take and how much wood per firing you will use. Kiln-dried hardwood is ideal, as you will get the most heat in the shortest amount of time with the cleanest burn. You can kiln-dry your own wood after each bake. Simply load your firing wood into the oven (back to front), close the door, and leave it until the next day. Just be sure there are no live embers in your oven before loading it.

The firing time will also vary depending on what you’re going to bake, the wetter your bread, the more heat it will take to bake. Another thing to consider in your preparation is how to take advantage of the exponentially decreasing heat. By having other food ready that need lower temperatures to bake you can use as much of the residual heat as possible. When my wife and I were baking for a farmer’s market we would put a big clay-pot of beans and vegetables into the oven after the bread was finished, and on returning from the market our dinner would be cooked to perfection. This is a very satisfying use of all that energy the trees has gifted to us.

Firing Your Oven

To start the fire you should have paper or birch bark, small kindling, and medium-size wood. Put your crumpled up newspaper or thin strips of birch bark on the hearth just inside the door, and cover it with your kindling, (small twigs, sticks, wood shavings, etc.). Flank the kindling nest on both sides with medium logs. Ideally, these logs are split wood so they have some flat sides and angles, this helps to keep your wood from rolling around. Having the bottom of your fire open to the door is a key factor in good firing. The oven stratifies the air in the door, the bottom half is drawing in the fresh air and the top is exhausting the hot air. Stack another set of two medium logs going the opposite way on top and repeat again creating a log-cabin styled tower.

This way of building the fire allows the fire to get sufficient air when starting to create the draft. Once the draft is established meaning your fire is burning good, you can push the fire to the middle of the hearth. Use your rake and poker to push the bottom two logs into the center of the oven, being careful to not tip the tower. As your tower burns down and collapses, try to recreate a similar airy structure with the bottom having some space for air to move under the fire. This can be achieved by using your poker to clear a narrow channel through the middle of the coals and then rebuilding the tower over the channel. You want to avoid wood from resting up against the side and back of the oven, this typically leads to choking out parts of the fire. Keeping a modest amount of wood on the fire at one time ensures good airflow. If you are busy working on your bread you might need help to ensure the oven fire is maintained.

Understanding the stratification of air in an oven (especially without a chimney) is important because the air exiting the top of the door is very hot and can burn you quickly. Whether you’re leaning-in to look or putting a log on the fire, be aware of this invisible danger spot just at the top of the oven entry. Another handy tool to have for firing,  is a copper pipe 1 inch in diameter and 3-4 feet long, with one end crimped to a slot opening. The slotted end of this blow tube can be placed near the base of the fire and the other end blown into to boost the fire. Choosing the orientation of your oven when you build it, is also an important factor to consider for good firing. If your door is facing the prevailing winds you will have difficulty firing. If you are having trouble with wind try to set-up a wind block. If the wind is blowing across the oven entrance you can set-up your door or some bricks along the side of the door to block the wind.

Managing the Fire

Once the oven is up to the desired temperature, it will be too hot for baking. I recommend starting with a 3-hour firing for a home-sized oven. Let the wood burn down to coals and spread them evenly across the hearth with your poker. Wait about 20-30 minutes for the hearth temperature to even out. Now you will need your coal removal tools, the rake, mop, or cloth to drape over your rake, a metal tub for catching the coals, a scoop, and a bucket of water. Removing the coals can be the most dangerous part of the firing, so be sure you have plenty of water on hand and clear all combustible items from the area. Place the metal container in front of the oven door and rake the majority of the coals into your scoop to dump them into the container, then dowse them with water. Using your coal scoop to place the coals into the metal tub is a more controlled way of doing it, but use what works best for you. Be aware of any live coals that may have fallen in front of the oven and dowse them as well.

Once the majority of coals are out, you will use a wet mop, or drape a wet towel over your rake as I do, and mop out the majority of coals and ash. Don’t worry about getting it completely clean because you don’t want to lose too much heat, and you’ll be mopping it out again later. Now that the oven is empty, close it up. If you’re using a plug door, sufficiently wet a towel, double it and drape it across the back (inside) of the door. Push the plug door into the opening with the wet rag as a sealing gasket. Typically you should wet the towel again in 5-10 minutes, or it will burn through. After 30-40 minutes the heat should have evened out and you’re ready to check the oven temperature.

Checking the temperature of the oven: Take a small handful of white flour, open the door carefully and place the flour in a pile near the middle of the oven hearth. Close the door and count 20 seconds and look at the pile. If it’s only browned, your oven is ready to bake. If the edges of the pile are burned, the oven is still too hot. Mop the oven out again, close the door and wait 15-20 minutes before testing it again. If the edges of the pile are still burned then the hearth is still too hot. Mop the oven out thoroughly with a very wet mop again, close the door, wait 10-20 minutes and test again. Repeat until the flour only browns in 20 seconds. You are now ready to bake! The reason why we fire the oven to be too hot for baking, is because we are charging the mass with heat. During this time of the oven being too hot, the mass of the oven is still absorbing the heat which is slowly evening out throughout all the materials.

The Bake

Hopefully, your loaves are perfectly proofed at the same time your oven is ready. If you do see your loaves are going to be over-proofed, you can put them in a cool place or in the fridge while the oven firing is finishing. You can bake in bread pans (they have their advantages), though there is nothing like a hearth kissed loaf. Typically sourdough loaves are either proofed (left to rise) in baskets, cradled in the folds of cotton canvas, or free standing on a board. In all cases thoroughly flour the surface of the basket, canvas, or boards before putting your loaves down. When first using canvas, flour both sides heavily on the first use with white flour, pushing it into the fibers of the fabric. After this initial “priming” of the canvas with white flower, only a light dusting will be needed in subsequent bakes (whole grain works best). Use a sifter or colander to apply the flour in a thin even coat. To keep the canvases from molding shake them out and hang them to dry after each use.

Have a table or shelf set up to the side of the oven door (on your dominant side). If using canvas you’ll need to transport the loaves to the oven on the surface they were proofed on. Use a board or tabletop that fits through your doorway without being tilted. Baskets and pans can simply be carried outside. Now you need a peel, a razor blade, and some flour.

Flour the peel, and transfer the loaf from its proofing place onto the peel (with bread pans you just slide them in). If using canvas, place the peel next to the loaf on top of the canvas. Place your hand on the other side of the loaf under the canvas, lift the canvas and roll the loaf onto the peel. I put 2-3 loaves on a peel to save time and heat, by loading the oven faster. Use a razor blade or sharp knife to score the top of the loaves to help its rise. When placing your loaves in the oven leave some room in between the loaves or they will combine into one. With time and practice you will load your oven quickly. It should be a quick and smooth operation. It takes trials and errors, so have patience and soon enough you will succeed!

The reason you want it to be quick a quick operation is that the first loaf you put in the oven has baked the amount of time it took to load the last loaf. Depending on your oven the bread could be done in 20 minutes. Check your loaves by peeking if they are risen and look baked. Pull one out and tap on the bottom, if it sounds hollow it is done. In the case of a second or third bake, leave the oven empty 20 minutes for the thermal mass to reheat the air temperature in-between bakes. As the oven temperature drops you can use it to bake different things that take less time to bake, like pies and cookies. Finally, leave a stew in for a couple of hours or throw in some root vegetables directly. Be creative! After you are all done with food, you can fill your oven with your next load of wood to get it kiln-dried for a really great burn next time.

 

We will be posting our own sourdough recipes in future posts, click the bell to get notifications of future posts. I hope this post made the process of baking in a wood-fired oven more clear and gave you some tips that you have found useful. Please help our efforts by sharing this post and our website with your contacts. If you have a question or comment please write them below or start a thread in our forums.

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