Living Off The Grid: Wood Fired Ovens 101

When I moved off-grid, learning how to bake in a wood cook stove was a little tricky for me in the beginning. I learned that there is a whole process to baking you don’t get to experience with modern day stoves.

There are a few different ways you can bake using fire. You can even bake without an oven as long as you have a good bed of hot coals. Today I am going to share with you 4 different ways to bake using fire that I have had personal experience with.

Pizza/Brick Oven

Growing up in New York I got the inside scoop on fresh pizza made right in the brick ovens. I loved watching Little Joe toss the dough and make the pizza from start to finish, but the best part was watching him work that oven. So through hanging out in the pizza shops and learning from the Italians I learned the best method for using a pizza oven.

Unlike the preheat option on a modern stove, a brick oven’s fire must be started 2-3 hours prior to the first pizza. You need a nice sized fire in the center; it is important that the whole oven, including the tiles on the floor, get really hot. As the oven reaches the right temperature, you will notice the inner walls change from black to white. About a half an hour before you’re ready for the first pizza to go in, move the fire, coals and all to the back left side of the oven. This will allow the bricks to cool to the perfect temperature, as well as keep the whole oven evenly heated.

Look for the next Off-grid Cooking Series Recipe (on Wednesdays) and you can learn how to make a brick oven Pesto Pizza.

Wood Cook Stoves

I have to admit my first loaf of bread baked in a cook stove was over cooked on one side and just right on the other. I learned that there is what I like to call “the dances of open fire cooking” and each method has its own. I had to learn the dance and so I will share the wood cook oven dance with you.

Just as any wood fired oven, the fire must be started at least an hour before any actual baking can begin.  First, build your fire up to a decent size and let it burn down to coals (that takes about 30-45 minutes). You have to adjust the heat through the flames and coals to keep it right, so you end up bouncing back and forth from the fire box to the oven box to make sure all is well. About half way through cooking I rotate my pan half way so things will evenly cook. When the oven’s good and hot, slide the coals to the very back of the fire box and you’re ready to bake. Because a wood stove cooks kind of dry I sometimes add a small amount of water in a bake proof dish to keep the baked goods from becoming too dry.

Some of the wood cook stoves have a built-in thermometer so you can watch your temperature and adjust as needed. If you don’t have one you can buy various kinds, or wing it until you learn it. There’s nothing like good ol’ trial and error.

Cob Ovens

I think out of all the ovens listed the cob oven is one of my favorites. I like the look and texture of them and the way they cook. Cob ovens can be extended and cob-like benches  added to it so people can sit around the oven and keep warm. A cob oven may need a little more upkeep when it comes to the actual cob cracking over time, BUT it’s an extremely easy fix.

Using a cob oven is very similar to how the brick oven is operated. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour of a good fire for it to heat up. One of the awesome things about this oven is it will remain hot for around 10 hours so it is great for baking days. The fashion the fire is handled and moved about is the same as the brick oven, although I have found when baking or roasting meat it is sometimes efficient to divide the fire and coals to both the left and right back of the stove.

Photo Credit: "Cob Oven" by Bryan Burnoski is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Hot Coal Bed Ovens

An oven made of hot coals is good in a pinch and it also works fairly well. You simply dig a little hole in the earth and build up a nice sized fire, letting the fire burn down until you have a big bed of hot coals. You want to be sure you are using cast iron pans/pots with lids. Aluminum foil can also be used as long as the food is wrapped good and tight. When you have enough hot coals to sit the pan on, as well as to completely cover it, then you are ready to bake.

This method can take a little longer but it is efficient and somewhat fun. One of the most important things about baking with fire is to always be sure to check your fire and bed of coals. If you need something to cook at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for another 20 minutes and your coals are slowly going out, you will have to add enough wood to get a small flame in order to keep the coals glowing hot.