Nothing compares to traditional wood fire cooking. It offers flavours and textures that you simply can’t get with a conventional oven. However cooking with a wood fire oven, whether it’s an backyard alfresco pizza oven or a commercial oven, presents its own set of challenges. Unlike your basic kitchen oven, you can’t just press a button, turn a dial and trust the oven to do the rest.
Wood fire cooking is an involved process that requires selecting the correct wood, properly building and positioning the fire, monitoring the temperature and more. So before you get cooking, let’s have a look at 4 wood fire cooking mistakes to avoid.
1. Cooking in an uncured oven
If you have a newly built oven, it will need to be properly cured before you start cooking. Building a wood fire oven involves a great deal of moisture. The mortars and cements are made with water and if you’re using bricks they will generally be soaked during the construction process. That means that once the oven is completed, it will contain a lot of residual moisture. If the oven is rapidly heated up to full temperature with this moisture still present, it can quickly convert to steam, which can cause cracks and fissures in the masonry.
Curing the oven involves gradually heating it over a period of several hours using fires of increasing size and heat. This will slowly evaporate the moisture from the masonry materials in a way that doesn’t cause any rapid temperature changes or significant moisture expansion. Once the oven is properly cured, you can quickly fire it up to full temperature without risk of cracking the masonry.
2. Using the wrong wood
Choosing the right wood is essential for good wood fire cooking. Your choice of wood will affect the temperature of the fire, the rate of the burn, the amount of smoke and ash the fire gives off and the flavour of the food. Avoid using any timber that has been treated, painted, oiled or stained, as these will give off harmful and corrosive chemicals when burned.
Avoid using any timber that hasn’t been properly dried, as it will contain too much moisture. Timber with more than 20% moisture won’t burn well and will give off a lot of smoke. On the other hand, timber that’s too dry will burn too fast and too hot. While you can collect your own firewood, you should aim to use professionally kiln-dried hardwoods for all your wood fire cooking. You should also store your firewood in a dry, sheltered place, as improperly stored wood can absorb atmospheric moisture.
3. Incorrectly positioning the fire
Incorrectly positioning the fire in the oven will significantly affect the heat distribution and make it difficult to maintain a constant cooking temperature. When heating the oven, you should build the fire in the centre of the floor to ensure the dome is evenly heated. Once your oven has reached the desired cooking temperature and you’re getting ready to cook, shift the fire to the side of the oven. Keeping the fire to the side helps to draw in cold air through the oven mouth, which will circulate around the oven and helps to maintain an even cooking temperature. Each time you cook, you should also try to alternate which side of the oven you place the fire. This will help to maintain even curing and cooking wear across the oven dome.
4. Incorrectly maintaining the fire
Once the oven has been heated and the fire properly positioned to cook, the fire needs to be maintained to ensure the oven is kept at the correct temperature. It’s important to keep the flame lively and bright and to keep a clear flow of air.
Avoid overloading the fire with big logs as this can impede airflow and smother the fire. Add small pieces of wood as necessary to keep the flame burning bright. For best results, place the new wood in the oven on the opposite side of the fire. Once the new wood is burning, shift it onto the fire. This will reduce the risk of slowing or smothering the fire with the new wood.
You should also avoid leaving ashes under the burning wood. A pile of ashes will block the airflow under the wood, slowing the burn. Periodically clear away the ashes while cooking so the burning wood is sitting on the oven floor.
Wood fire cooking requires experience, intuition and careful monitoring. Getting it wrong can mean smoke and ash, ruined food and even damage to your oven. But getting it right can mean perfect pizzas, mouth-watering meats and brilliantly baked breads. If you’re just learning the ins and outs of wood fire cooking, it’s important to take the time to understand how the oven works and how to handle the fire.