Oven Building Course, September 2014

Thanks to everyone who came to the oven building course at The Sustainability Centre on Saturday. I had a really great time with you all. Here’s the group photo I promised to post.

Happy building!

Simon

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9. The Best Pizza Ever!

Pizza cooking in the ovenPizza cooking in the oven

I’m not exaggerating when I say that pizza cooked in a fiercely hot clay oven is the best you will ever taste. Why are they better than pizzas cooked in the gas or electric oven in your home?  It’s all about the heat!  The oven in your home will reach a maximum temperature of around 250° C.  A clay oven, fired for a few hours, will reach temperatures well in excess of 400° C and it’s this furnace-like heat that turns a thin circle of dough, topped with oil, meats and cheese, into an absolute gourmet treat! Pizzas cooked in a clay oven take no longer than 2 minutes to cook.  They have thin, crisp and slightly charred bases while the toppings remain delicious and full of flavour. Is your mouth watering yet?  Mine is! so lets get on with the main thrust of this post which, if you haven’t guessed already, is about making pizzas in a clay oven.

Firstly, if you want the best pizza ever you really need to buy the best ingredients you can get your hands on. Make sure you buy good quality flour, organic if possible.  Dried yeast is perfectly adequate so don’t worry about trying to get hold of the fresh stuff. The toppings are crucial too so don’t scrimp and buy cheap ingredients – you don’t need masses, so splash out and treat yourself to quality.  The following recipe is borrowed/copied from Dan Stevens, a chef from River Cottage HQ (Dan has recently written the River Cottage Bread Handbook which is due for release anytime soon I hope!). 

Dough (this is enough to make at least 15 small pizzas)

250g strong white bread flour

250g plain flour

350ml warm water (room temperature)

5g dried yeast (10g of fresh)

10g fine salt

A glug of olive oil

My "work station"

My "Workstation"

 

Add all of the dry ingredients to a large mixing bowl and give it a quick mix.  Next add the water and mix into a rough dough. Finally add the oil and squidge it well into the dough.  Flour a surface and tip your dough out onto it – it’s time for kneading! You can use a electric mixer with a dough hook to do this if you prefer but I like to get working on the dough with my hands – it just seems right somehow! You will find that this dough is quite wet (sticky) compared to traditional bread dough.

A tip about kneading. There are lots of methods you can use for kneading dough but I like to use this one (again thanks Dan at River Cottage). Hold the dough ball to the surface of your table with the tips of your left hand. Then with the heel of your right hand placed in front of the fingers of your left, push the dough forward, stretching it along the surface top then, in a fluid motion, pull the dough back towards your stationary left hand. Rotate the ball and repeat. I normally knead for about 10 minutes or so. Lightly oil a large bowl, put the dough into it, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise until it is double the original size. That’s it – dough done! 

Toppings

Ingredients at the ready

Ingredients at the ready

The choice of toppings is totally up to you but here are a few essentials as far as I am concerned:

  • A mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic and herbs is, for my money, a much better pizza base topping than the traditional tomato sauce.  Just drizzle or paint it over the surface of the dough before you add the rest of your toppings – it’s delicious!
  • Grated cheese (mozzarella, Gruyere, Cheddar)
  • Chunks of other cheeses (buffalo mozzarella, blue cheese)
  • Mixed cured meats (spicy sausages like salami and chorizzo chopped or sliced, chunks of good organic ham)
  • Roasted artichoke hearts
  • Fresh basil
  • I would have suggested anchovies to give that powerful salty, fishy blast but unfortunately anchovies stocks are in crisis due to over fishing so I no longer buy them – I suggest you do the same for the time being.

Other things you’ll need (ideally)

  • A rolling pin
  • A wooden chopping board
  • A bakers peel (pretty much essential)
  • A sharp knife

Making the pizzas

One of the best things about making pizzas outside using your own clay oven is building your own pizza – rolling out the dough, selecting various topping mixes from pots of delicious, fresh ingredients, sliding it onto a peel and finally into the hot oven.  It is enormously rewarding and great fun so I always get everything ready outside then let friends and family make-up their own pizzas as they go – trust me everyone loves it! The process is simple:

  1. Make sure your oven is really hot.  I normally fire mine for about 2 hours before cooking. Leave a fire burning at the rear of the oven and keep feeding this throughout the cooking period with extra wood.  Scrape clear the floor of your oven.  I normally push any embers to the back of my oven using the upside down blade of my bakers peel. 
     
  2. Grab a small piece of dough and roll into a rough ball – about golf ball sized should do.  I prefer to make smallish (maybe 7-8″ diameter) pizzas because they are much easier to handle in and out of the oven.
     
  3. Flour your rolling surface and rolling pin well but don’t over do it with flour.  You need enough to stop it from sticking to the surface but too much and it burns on the base of the pizza once in the oven.
     
  4. Roll the dough out into a very thin disc (mine often come out in strange “country” shapes but it doesn’t matter).  Add more flour if it sticks.  Critically you want to ensure the base is NOT sticking to the surface because you will have all sorts of problems getting it onto your peel once the toppings are on otherwise.
     
  5. Paint or drizzle the base with the olive oil or traditional tomato topping.
     
  6. Throw on your toppings.  Hint: don’t pile too much on your pizzas because toppings have a tendency to fly off when you slide the pizza from the peel into the oven!
     
  7. Slide the pizza onto your bakers peel – I find if you lightly dust it with flour first, then lift one edge of the pizza and with a quick, fluid movement pull it onto the peel.  Practice makes perfect!
     
  8. Next you need to slide the pizza from the peel onto the hot floor of your oven.  Again you might not get this right the first few times but persist and you’ll have it cracked!.  The technique you need to master is “yanking” the peel from underneath the pizza  – very much like pulling a tablecloth from underneath a fully laid table without breaking the plates or spilling the drinks!
     
  9. Let the pizza cook for about a minute – keeping a close eye on it.  I normally then slide the peel underneath it, take it out of the oven and rotate it through 180° so that the side that was facing the open oven entrance is now facing the fire burning at the back of the oven and vice-versa.  You might end up with a pizza burnt on one side if you fail to do this.  Pop it back in for a little while longer until you are happy that it looks cooked.
     
  10. Slide the pizza out of the oven onto the peel then transfer onto a wooden chopping board.  Slice and serve.
     
  11. Savour the best pizza ever and feel smug that you have created such a spectacular thing!
     
  12. Repeat until you and your guests can’t move for eating pizza.

I’d love to hear how you get on and maybe you can also share some of your own pizza recipe ideas.  

Good luck and happy eating.

 

The finished pizza.  This photo does them no justice whatsoever!

The finished pizza. This photo does them no justice whatsoever!

7. The Final Layer

The final layer.  The oven is complete!  The final layer. The oven is complete! 

So at last we reach the final layer.  Once the insulation layer is dry you can crack-on and finish your oven.

The last layer uses the exact same technique as the first layer so you should be an expert by now. Using the same proportions, mix a batch of sand and clay together applying the good old puddling technique described earlier.  Again, the amount you need depends on the size of your oven but remember that this last layer will require more than the first layer due to the greater surface area you need to cover.  You will also need some spare mix to extend the chimney (if like me you didn’t make it tall enough first time round!) and to keep for filling cracks.  Make “bricks” as before and gradually build-up the final layer. After you have inserted the last brick, pull-up a chair, open a cold beer and sit back and admire your work.  Well done, your oven is complete!  

Next time I am going to provide some pointers on firing the oven so you can get the best use out of it when cooking. 

Finished oven from the front.

Finished oven from the front.

1. Building a Clay Oven – The Basics

[PLEASE NOTE THAT THE LINKS TO THE OTHER 7 PARTS OF THIS ‘HOW TO’ CAN BE FOUND ON THE LEFT HAND COLUMN. ALTERNATIVELY JUST CLICK THE LINK AT THE BOTTOM OF EACH SECTION TO GO TO THE NEXT PART]

Welcome to the first installment of building a clay oven.  This post will cover:

  1. Background – including what is a clay oven?, what can you use it for? can I build a clay oven?
  2. What you will need – Materials and equipment
  3. The build order
  4. How long it will take to build
  5. How long will it last?

Background

The Finished Clay Oven in My Garden

The Finished Clay Oven in My Garden

I assume that most people who have found this site will already know what a clay oven is, however it is probably useful if I define what I mean by a clay oven for the purpose of this blog.  Before I do that though a quick word about nomenclature.  I will use various names for the clay oven interchangeably, these include “clay oven”, “traditional clay oven”, “wood fired oven”, “pizza oven” and “traditional bread oven”.  If you browse around the web you will also see the name “cob oven” being used – cob being a mixture of clay and straw (+ or – sand).  As I am not using straw in my build I will not use the term cob but will include it in my definition as this type of construction is probably the most ancient of all clay ovens.  Another name commonly used is earth oven.

In my definition then, a clay oven is any hollow, dome-shaped structure constructed out of clay, clay and sand or clay and straw, used for the purpose of baking and roasting food.  It has a brick floor and usually a chimney.  Most traditional clay ovens are built outdoors and may or may not be covered with a simple roof structure.  You will find some amazing examples of clay ovens, particularly huge pizza and bread ovens, built inside restaurants.  The oven I have built is much smaller but still suitable for cooking for large groups of people.

Clay ovens are amazing things.  They look incredible and create a feature in any garden, large or small.  The most important reason for having a clay oven for me though is for cooking.  If you have never eaten a pizza cooked at 450°C for 1 minute in a clay oven – you have never eaten a pizza!  Just imagine a thin, crispy, slightly charred base covered in hot melted cheese, olive oil, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, dried cured sausage, smoked ham, anchovies…do I need to continue?  How about loaves of hot bread cooked to perfection, cracked open and smothered in real dairy butter or a large joint of lamb or pork belly cooked slowly with herbs over night in the oven’s residual heat, falling off the bone when you come to carve it the next day.  OK OK enough of the M&S style adverts already!  I think you get the picture.  Cooking in a traditional clay oven is wonderful, it feels different and definitely tastes different.

Building your own clay oven is not difficult.  I am by no means an expert when it comes to DIY but am normally happy to give things a go.  I have never built anything like this before but managed to complete my oven without any major disasters.  The beauty of building a clay oven is that you use mostly natural and, if you are lucky, recycled or free materials.  There is something very primeval about building one of these ovens.  The process is a direct link back to our ancestors who would have used similar techniques for cooking many millennia ago.  I thoroughly enjoyed building it! It is a very physical and tactile experience – you will handle and form every single piece of clay, sand and wood that goes into it and the finished product is something that you will be extremely proud of.

What you will need – Materials and equipment

OK lets crack on with getting this baby built!  Here I will list most of the equipment and materials you are going to need to build your own clay oven.  I will provide details such as quantities later on as I step through the build process.

Materials

  • Builders sand
  • Clay
  • Water
  • Rubble / hardcore
  • Wood shavings
  • Normal building bricks (e.g. London Bricks) for oven base
  • Large wooden “beams” or bricks or stone for plinth (I used beams as you will see later)
  • Cement if you are building plinth out of brick
  • Right-angled brackets and screws if constructing plinth from wood
  • Glass bottles (optional)
  • Old Newspapers
  • Plastic rubble sacks
  • Wood for burning in the oven

Equipment

  • Saw (chainsaw?)
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Bucket
  • Tarpaulin or thick plastic sheeting
  • Shovel
  • Spirit level
  • Large knife
  • Hands and feet!
  • Wellington boots or other sturdy boots

The Build Order

So you have your equipment and materials list.  Next I thought it would be useful to outline the order of construction.  This will also form the basis for the rest of the posts in this series, each post providing details for each stage in the build process.  Simple – I hope!  As you might have guessed already, I love a good list so here goes another:

  1. The plinth foundation, plinth and brick oven floor
  2. The clay-sand mixture and puddling technique
  3. The dome sand-former and first layer or the oven layer
  4. The oven entrance and chimney
  5. The wood shavings and clay slip layer or the insulation layer
  6. The final clay-sand layer
  7. Firing the clay oven
  8. Cooking in the clay oven

How Long Does it Take to Build a Clay Oven?

Construction involves quite a few steps and each step takes variable amounts of time to complete.  Probably one of the most time consuming processes is puddling (mixing with your feet!) the clay-sand mixture.  One batch (two buckets of sand to one bucket of clay) will take about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the consistency of the component parts.  If you get a group of people to help then obviously you can speed the process up.  Many feet make light work of puddling!  Building the oven layers is also very time consuming and you need to leave drying time between each layer if possible.  The other major factor which effect the length of time it takes to build your oven is the weather.  You can’t construct anything other than the plinth if it is raining and it does tend to rain quite regularly in the UK!

What with interuptions (both weather and non-weather related) from start to finish my oven took 6 weeks to build on my own.  However if you have a spell of good weather and a few helping hands (and feet) I think you could build one in a week.

How Long will a Clay Oven Last?

To be totally honest I have no idea how long it will last.  I have only had mine in my garden for a few weeks now.  The good people at River Cottage HQ suggest a couple of years but obviously this will vary by your location, local temperatures, weather conditions, air moisture content, the type of cover or shelter your oven is housed in, the amount of use your oven gets, the type of clay you use for construction and many other factors.  They are pretty robust but they are organic structures and they do crack after repeated heating and cooling.  This is not a problem if cracking only effects the outer layer – you can fill the cracks with spare clay-sand mixture.  However, once you get cracks in the internal oven layer then the oven’s days are numbered.  I say, don’t worry too much, enjoy it and use it and if it falls apart you can build another one!