COOKING WITH FIRE: Outdoor wood-oven envy

I've got wood oven envy and want to learn everything about the hottest new appliance for outdoor dining. The experts advise what to buy and how to cook with wood, when the backyard gas bbq just won't do. And they share a pizza recipe, too!



By CINDA CHAVICH


The cosy space behind Mara Jernigan’s historic home in Fernwood is a food-lover’s haven, her tiered garden beds bristling with winter kale, and russet red hens clucking in their coop.

But the new star of this chef’s farm-to-table set up is an Italian import, a sleek steel pizza oven with the bright flames of a wood fire dancing inside its gaping maw.

“For me, a wood oven is about community,” says Jernigan, a local Slow Food founder and culinary Italophile, who loves bringing friends together for pizza parties around her new outdoor oven. “It’s a chef’s toy.”


Mara Jernigan and her son n Obererlacher play with their new backyard "toy" — an Italian wood-fired pizza oven.

Today the wood is burning hot and the gauge on the outside of the oven is at it’s maximum 500˚C (a searing 950˚F). As Jernigan quickly fires pans of eggplant and stuffed zucchini blossoms into the ovoid opening, her chef son Julian Obererlacher prepares pizzas on their outdoor granite island, and we sip cider while the oven works its Maillard magic.

A tuna loin that Julian sets on a grate next to the fire is perfectly seared, with a rare pink interior, in not much more than a minute. He swabs the ash from the firebrick with a long spatula, wrapped in a wet cloth, and slides a pizza onto the deck, shifting it for the minute or two it takes to cook to smoky perfection, the cheese melting into tasty pools with the crust rising in charred bubbles around it.





Jernigan has a long history when it comes to cooking in wood ovens. This is her first imported Italian model, but it’s not the first time she’s played with fire in the backyard.

Twenty years ago, Jernigan enlisted the help of local artisan baker Cliff Leir (now owner of Fol Epi) in a Slow Food project to revive Canada’s historic Red Fife Wheat. Leir hones his early baking skills in a portable wood oven he built himself, and when he moved into his first bricks-and-mortar bakery, Jernigan bought that outdoor oven for her home in the Cowichan Valley. In 2005, while running the guesthouse at Fairburn Farm, (and helping to develop Canada’s first buffalo milk mozzarella), Jernigan invited the late Alan Scott, California’s wood oven guru, to host an oven-building workshop on the farm. That workshop begat other wood oven aficionados on the island, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s why Vancouver Island University became the first Canadian school with an operating wood oven for its culinary and professional baking programs, and likely why there are so many other wood-fired ovens in bakeries, restaurants and backyards here today, turning out traditional artisan breads and crisp Neapolitan-style pizzas at Wild Fire Bakery, Fry’s Bakery, Fol Epi, Pizzeria Prima Strada, Standard Pizza, 900 Degrees Pizzeria and Woodshed Pizza in Sidney.


COOKING WITH WOOD

It’s only in recent years that we’ve seen a range of modern wood ovens emerge for the home, but cooking in wood ovens literally reaches back millennia.

Jernigan recalls the bread ovens of Pompeii — 33 of their domes survived the devastating volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD — some of the earliest Italian ovens ever uncovered by archeologists.

“You could literally light a fire in them and use them today,” she says.

These brick and clay “beehive” ovens were popular in both ancient Greece and pre-Colombian indigenous civilizations. Baking in a communal wood oven was also part of medieval village life in France and Italy, a place to gather while awaiting the family’s daily bread to emerge. Our grandmothers and great grandmothers cooked with wood, too, on cook stoves with offset fireboxes that heated their ovens and cast iron cook tops, and water in adjacent reservoirs.

But it’s the domed shape of traditional brick or ceramic ovens that produce the radiant heat and natural convection to bake crusty breads and pizzas to perfection.



WOOD OR GAS?

Kreg Graham, the executive chef at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, learned to cook with fire in his parents’ backyard wood oven and when they designed the upscale FARO artisan pizzeria at the hotel this year, they installed a Wood Stone oven, fuelled with natural gas.

The large, domed oven, from a maker in Bellingham, Washington, can be fueled with wood, gas or a combination of both, but due to regulations in Oak Bay, only gas is an option. Still, Graham says the oven reaches similar temperatures to a wood oven, the deck a perfect 600-650 degrees for Neapolitan-style pizza, and the dome (where pies are lifted on peel for their final bake) a searing 850 degrees.


“Wood can get a bit hotter, but that’s not always a good thing,” says the chef. Though both wood- and gas-fired ovens have a gauge to measure the temperature of the hearth and the oven, you can’t dial in an oven temperature, so the hands-on cooking style is similar.

A wood-fired oven may add a touch of smokiness to your food, but Graham says it’s important to wait until the flames mostly die down before starting to cook.

“You don’t want to be cooking with huge flames,” he says, adding it takes an hour, or two, before the wood has burned down sufficiently to heat the oven properly.

“A live fire can leave a bitter flavour,” he adds. “You need to be patient and plan ahead. The stone in the oven is so thick, it retains all of the heat, and that is really how the pizza cooks.”

Graham says it’s important to rotate the pizza while cooking, but you must return the pie to its original spot on the hearth.

“When the dough contacts the hearth it cools it, so if you move it to another spot it will burn,” he says, noting the entire operation is complete in just a few minutes.

“When the base is cooked, the pizzaiolo lifts the pizza up into the hot zone at the top of the oven for 30 seconds to finish the top,” he adds. “It’s an art.”


BRINGING THE ART HOME

If you want to own an outdoor (or indoor) pizza oven, you’ll need to spend some time perfecting your cooking skills, and do a little research.

If money is no object, you can invest in a residential version of the FARO’s Wood Stone oven — the kind used in other authentic pizza kitchens, from Wolfgang Puck to Whole Foods — for a mere $10,000 to $20,000 (US).

But there are other more affordable options.

The experts at Capital Iron sell the a few versions, from the American-made Fontana Forno that Jernigan purchased (prices start around $3,000) to portable tabletop pizza ovens made by Ooni, essentially miniature versions of the larger models, fired by hardwood pellets or propane ($400-$800). You can even buy a stone-lined metal box from BakerStone (about $200-300), a 13-inch pizza oven that’s heated on top of a three-burner gas barbeque.

And while there is a wide range of prices for a wood-fired, outdoor pizza oven, ranging from a low of about $1,500 to a high of $12,000+, as the sales staff at Capital Iron explains, price differences relate to size, materials and engineering. Brands from Italy, the home of the wood oven, are generally more expensive than those made in China, and have better availability for parts and service, they say.

The price is reflected in the type and degree of insulation, too, important to retain heat and reduce fuel consumption. All ovens have a stone, firebrick or cordierite hearth for baking, but some are otherwise lined with metal. Better ovens are entirely lined in firebrick, promising higher and steadier cooking temperatures, achieved faster.

The ovens can be built into a permanent outdoor kitchen, or purchased as freestanding appliances with metal stands. A spring-loaded door fits into the oven opening, and a tall stove-pipe vents the oven, which should not be smoky while in use. Most manufacturers say their ovens can reach temperatures of 800-1000˚F so exterior insulation is important for safety.

It also depends how you want to cook. Some of these ovens are strictly designed to cook one small pizza (with a 12-inch opening). Others accommodate larger or multiple pizzas, allow for more manipulations while cooking, and are large enough to roast meats and vegetables, too. Some ovens are wood-fired only, some use gas, some offer both fuel options.

While making pizza and flatbread is relatively easy to master, baking bread in a wood oven has a much steeper learning curve, and requires lots of trial and error.


IF YOU BUILD IT

The rise of the portable pizza ovens means you no longer need to build one from scratch, but DIY remains popular. There are plenty of videos to consult online for inspiration, but consult your local municipal office or fire department first — in parts of the CRD, open fires are restricted and this can affect your plans for an outdoor oven.

A good book is another place to start. The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Alan Scott and Daniel Wing (1999) inspired many artisan bakers to bake with wood. The latest tome on the topic is From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire by Richard Miscovich (2013), with oven design ideas and plenty of technical information about using a wood oven.

Or you can hire a local stone mason to create an outdoor kitchen, complete with an oven built on site.

Gordon Doucette of Serious Masonry (seriousmasonry.com) has built a variety of unique and functional brick pizza ovens for local customers.

“I’ve done five ovens so far, starting with one I built at my own house,” says Doucette. Most were built from scratch, barrel shaped or domed ovens made with refractory firebrick and cement, set on stone pedestals and enclosed in stone and brick structures. But the last oven he built for a local client started with a modular pizza oven kit from Forno Bravo in California that arrives in three pieces. “It was quite a revelation. I would never go back to doing an oven with brick agaia

Still, labour is the big cost for a custom masonry oven.

“It’s about $2,000 for the kit, and then $8,000 to $9,000 for my end,” he adds, noting his ovens are designed to fit the site. “And you can get very creative with the exterior, with all different kinds of stone, tile or brick.”


OUTDOOR DINING

The wood oven is just one component of the popular outdoor kitchen, made even more popular as an entertaining space during the time of COVID-19.

Like outdoor heaters, gas fire pits and other gadgets to make gathering in the garden more cosy, wood-fired ovens are in high demand.

With the pandemic keeping her close to home this year, Jernigan says she couldn’t resist the chance to bring this hands-on, communal kitchen experience home again.

You may need to eat a lot of pizza to recoup your investment, but if gathering friends in the garden for wine, conversation and a little culinary theatre is your thing, there’s nothing like the warmth of a crackling wood fire in your own cool, communal oven.

Cooking with fire is hot — in more ways than one!


RECIPE:

WOOD STONE PIZZA DOUGH

This comprehensive recipe is from the Wood Stone oven company and their test kitchen in Bellingham, Wash. Based on their Commercial Wood Stone West Coast Dough recipe, this is a “24-hour dough,” one that rises slowly in the refrigerator overnight and is ready to bake the next day. They use this “versatile pizza dough recipe for everything from pizzas to crackers to Focaccia.” www.woodstonehome.com


1/2 tsp. dry instant yeast 1 tsp. sugar 2 tsp. salt 2 cups water, 100-110 F 1 cup semolina flour (Bob’s Red Mill is great) 4 1/2 -5 cups all-purpose flour

Olive oil


In a 5 qt. mixer, fitted with the dough hook, dissolve the first 3 ingredients in the water, mixing over low speed for 3 minutes.

Add the flours and mix at low speed for 2 minutes; check the consistency of the dough. It should be releasing from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour. If it is too dry and climbing up the dough hook, add a bit more water. Mix for 7 more minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and turn out onto a work surface. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.

Shape it into a thick log; then cut it into 6 pieces (about 7-oz. each). Roll the dough on the work surface in a circular motion with your hands, forming a smooth ball and place the balls on a lightly oiled baking sheet or plastic dough box with a secure top.

Cover the surface of each ball with a bit of olive oil to prevent the dough from forming a skin. Cover the dough with plastic wrap refrigerate for a minimum of 8 hours or for up to 48 hours.

Before using the dough, remove it from the refrigerator and let it rest at room temperature at least 1 hour. You can keep the dough at room temperature for up to 3 hours or longer. The dough will continue to get soft as it rests and becomes easier to stretch and more delicate at the same time. The dough is over-proofed when it becomes too soft to work with and bubbles form on the surface.

Opening the dough

Flour both sides of the dough ball and using the thumb and pointer finger of both hands, about a 1/4-1/2-in. from the edge of the ball, begin pulling the dough apart, pinching and stretching as you turn the dough like a wheel in your hand. Gravity will help as the dough opens and stretches.

You can continue to stretch the dough in your hands, forming a round pizza skin as thick or as thin as you want. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have a perfect round or get holes in it at first; it’s all about practice!

Put the skin on a semolina dusted work surface and top with your ingredients. Slip the large pizza peel (with a little semolina on it) under the dough and gently lift the dough with thumb and pointer finger. The motion is: push with the peel and pull with your fingers.

If you want to freeze the dough balls for later use, let them rest in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours and then put them individually into airtight freezer bags. To thaw frozen dough, transfer to the refrigerator for 5-6 hours or up to 12. Bring them to room temperature about an hour before you want to use them.


This story originally appeared in EAT magazine