As outdoor spaces are being cleverly transformed into casual living areas, New River Valley homeowners are raising the bar on furnishings, cooking options and accoutrements. Once a concrete slab patio, now multi-level wood decks and stone paver areas with fire pits and hot tubs. Once a charcoal grill, then a gas grill, now a built-in gas range and a masonry bake oven.
One does not have to be a homesteader living off the grid or a bona-fide chef to make and enjoy delicious wood-fired oven food unrivaled for flavor and taste. Masonry bake ovens have been found in archaeological digs in every ancient civilization, and brick ovens are as common today in Italy and parts of Europe as the outdoor grill is in American backyards.
Ovens using wood for heat have an oven chamber with a floor or hearth, an arc-shaped roof with sides like a dome and a front door or open entry point. “Black” ovens burn the wood in the same space as the cooking takes place either while the fire is going or after flames and coals have been removed. “White” ovens, on the other hand, are warmed by heat transfer from a fire in a separate chamber. This oven stays white for not ever having ashes or fire residue inside. Masonry ovens are ideal for their heat retention.
Oven temperatures up to 1,000 degrees are possible. Stone holds heat evenly, and food is cooked from all sides including conduction from the hearth. Home cooks and bakers can use this oven for different things as the temperature declines because stone ovens stay warm overnight and even a couple days. Of course, things cook very fast in ultra high temperatures, and they are especially popular for pizza because one can cook lots of pizza when it takes just two to three minutes for each one. Both Brick House Pizza in Radford and Dogtown Roadhouse in Floyd use wood-fired ovens for pizza.
Local stone mason, David Conroy of Stone Age Masonry, builds outdoor bake ovens. The one for the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum, part of Ferrum College, is used frequently. “We have an 1800 German American Farmstead here,” relates Rebecca Austin, coordinator of education outreach and interpretation. “David crafted a wonderful, authentic, beehive bake oven like what would have been used by the farming family in this period.”
The Farm Museum bakes black bottom bread every Saturday in the summer and for several special events. “The dough is placed directly on the oven floor where the fire is burning,” she says. When asked how she knows the right temperature, Austin explains: “Historically to check temp, one would throw in a handful of flour or cornmeal and watch the color for how fast it scorched. I’ve heard the same method using a chicken feather, but if I can hold my hand inside for 3 seconds before having to draw it out for the heat, I know it’s between 350 and 375 degrees.”
Radiant heat from the fire and the heat bouncing off the inside walls of the oven crisp the outside of pizza very quickly. Moisture in the dough is sealed off, which prevents the base of the dough from becoming soggy. It results in a flavorful crust that’s puffy, soft and chewy. Only a wood-fired brick pizza oven delivers a smoky flavor that cannot be duplicated. High temperatures produce other flavors not achieved by slow cooking. Vegetable toppings will be crispier than using a traditional oven. This quick cooking also allows vitamins and other nutrients in the vegetables to remain. Cheese does not burn and has good color and a smoky flavor.
The moist heat of burning wood can be credited for the enhanced flavor of food from wood-fired bake ovens, which use all three forms of heat – convection, radiation and conduction. Wood contains hydrogen and oxygen, the same components of water, so wood burning generates moisture. Anyone who bakes artisan bread at home from a book like “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoë François, knows that the baker adds one cup of very hot water to a broiler pan under the stone which holds the bread at the beginning of baking. This creates the luscious crispy crust of Old World breads.
Having a backyard bake oven opens all kinds of new entertaining and cooking options for the whole family to cook excellent meats, pizza, bread and more. Blurring the lines between indoors and outside is easy for summer entertaining, cooking and relaxing, and with an outdoor masonry bake oven, you may even eat more healthy and be more healthy.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Blue Ridge Institute & Farm Museum
Spring, Fall and Winter:
Mon-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Summer: Mon-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
[mid-May to mid-Aug] Sunday, 1-5 p.m.