By Larry Kilbourne
This past June brought me back to King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont where a year ago I reveled in a three-day workshop on the classic French breads team taught by Jeffrey Hamelman and James McGuire. I described it as summer camp for adults who like playing with dough.
Cycle forward a year for the reprise. This time the course was on baking (and more, cooking) on wood-fired ovens (wfo's), taught by a peripatetic physician, welder and builder of wfo's named Dan Wing, who along with Alan Scott, wrote what is considered by most as the 'bible' of wood-fired oven construction, The Bread Builders.
Dan brought with him his own 2-ton masonry wfo on a trailer towed by a pretty neat '53 Chevy pickup. What more could you ask for? Some dough to bake, perhaps.
And so a dozen of us did bake on and consider the mysteries of wood-fired ovens over the next 2 days. My fellow travelers were a varied bunch in terms of ages and interests. Some had built wood-fired ovens, some were planning to, and a couple, myself included, were there mainly to learn more about actually baking (successfully) on them.
I soon discovered that it is not only possible to bake magnificant breads in wfo's, but that they work spendidly for cooking all sorts of foods. Our first day's bake included focaccia and wonderful boules of sourdough rye baked in Dan's portable oven that measured about 5' in length by about 3' in width.
And for dinner that night, the staff at King Arthur Flour fired up the bakery's French Le Panyol wood-fired oven.
And with our assistance they cooked an incredible dinner of roasted chickens stuffed with herbs (approximately 4 lb. birds cooked in just over 40 minutes), roasted fennel, leeks and asparagus, custard tarts with cheese and oven dried tomatoes, and other fabulous treats.
Lesson #1: wfo's are not just for pizza!
The next day was spent, by the way, baking pizzas among other things. In between mixing various doughs, Dan spoke about new advances in wfo's, including, notably, Kiko Denzer's novel earthen ovens that can be built for a fraction of the price of a traditional wfo. Indeed, Dan admitted that if he had to do it over again, he'd probably foresake his 2-ton masonry oven for an earthen one with a covering to keep it from turning back into mud with each rain or snow.
Other important lessons included the necessity of implanting temperature probes at varying depths during the oven's construction in order to allow you to accurately determine the thermal heating of the oven so that you can bake rather than incinerate hearth breads (something we managed to do on the Le Panyol which, curiously, had neither thermal probes nor an ash box built in).
In the end, I came away with a wealth of tips and tactics for improving my own results baking on wood-fired ovens. But perhaps my greatest eye opener was being introduced to the seemingly infinite uses to which they can be put. For someone who has only baked pizzas in their wfo, I can only say: find a cast iron frying pan and a chicken to experience something that is as near nirvana as any meal you'll ever taste!