Cooking in a wood-fired oven is not very different than using a regular oven, you will quickly learn how to gauge and to regulate the temperature. The home chef can bake delicious pizza and bread, roast meat and vegetables, grill fish and lobster, and create wonderful desserts.
The floor and dome of a wood burning oven give out reflective heat from all sides, above and below, creating a wonderful convection that bakes everything to perfection, while the fire brings out a unique crisp, bubbly texture and smoky taste.
Any variety of oven-safe metal, ceramic, terra cotta pans can be used. Keep the ovenware away from the flame and don’t use in temperature over 550° F (of course, follow whatever instructions come with our ovenware).
Choosing Your Wood
Use only dry hard wood such as oak, almond, fruitwood (peach, plum), walnut, avocado, olive, pecan. Avoid resinous wood such as pine or spruce. More details about wood can be found in the firewood section. If the wood produces a lot of black smoke, it is generally an indication that you are using the wrong wood.
The kind of wood used influences the taste of the food, the fragrant smoke bringing out the taste of each dish. You may want to try the following woods in your oven, if they are available to you.
- Alder: Imparts a light flavor that works well with fish and poultry.
- Apple and pear: Nice and subtle flavor, use with pork and game.
- Apricot, Plum, Peach, Nectarine: Flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
- Hickory: The most famous smoking hardwoods, imparts a strong, hearty flavor to meats, used mostly for pork shoulders and ribs.
- Maple: Mellow smoke fragrance traditionally used for poultry, pork and seafood.
- Mesquite: Produces a very hot flame perfect for grilling steaks.
- Pecan: Sweet and mild with a flavor similar to hickory, but not as strong.
- Oak: Favorite wood of Europe, strong but not overpowering. Used for beef or lamb.
- Walnut: Heavy smoke flavor, great to bring out the flavor in mushrooms, potatoes and vegetables. Mix with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple to bring down the smoke flavor if needed.
Firing Your Oven
Start the fire in the oven approximately one hour and a half before cooking (time depends on size of oven) in the middle of the oven floor.
Use dry wood and a non-toxic fire starter such as Weber. Add some small pieces of dry, split firewood on top of the fire starter and then gradually feed the fire with two or three larger pieces. The flame will reach the top of the dome and come forward, this is normal, just make sure the flames don’t come too far out of the oven opening.
Continue to feed the fire until the center of the oven dome starts to turn white or clear, with no black soot, this will take about 20 to 30 minutes. Then, add wood to the sides widening the fire toward the walls, thus allowing the entire floor and dome to absorb the heat. Once the whole dome has turned white and the black soot has been carbonized by the heat (in another 45 – 60 minutes) the oven will have reached about 750° F+.
Cooking in your Wood Fired Oven
At this point you have choices. If you want to cook pizza, the oven will be at the right temperature. For other dishes you will need to let the temperature come down a bit until 600° F – 450° F.
You can also choose between keeping the fire in the oven or scooping out the embers altogether. It depends on what you want to bake.
Cooking pizza is done at high temperature, between 750° F and 650° F, with the flame moved to one side of the pizza oven. Pizzas are placed with a peel on the oven floor and are ready in 3 minutes. See recipe for pizza.
Cooking with a flame is done by moving the fire to one side of the oven, just like for the pizza, and by keeping a small flame going throughout the cooking process. Roasting is achieved very nicely this way, depending on the dish you may have to cover it initially to allow it to cook fully before browning. You may want to rotate the pans and roasts, alternating the side facing the coals. The door may be kept off to lower the temperature or positioned on the landing or just inside the arch to increase the heat, which can also be done by adding small pieces of wood. The temperature will usually keep between 600° F and 450° F.
Grilling with wood is a lot of fun and achieves great results, keeping things crisp on the outside but juicy on the inside, thanks to the convection flow of heat in your Italian oven. Move the embers to the front-middle of the oven floor, and place a freestanding grill over them. Great for steak, fish, lobster, shrimp, vegetables.
Cooking without a flame is done by removing all the embers from the oven. Traditionally this is how bread is baked. Wonderful pies, and desserts are prepared this way too. Roasting meat, fish and other dishes can be done as well, keeping in mind that the oven will have to be pre-heated well in order to retain enough heat for cooking without fire, if you are planning to, say, roast a turkey. The temperature will be of 500° F and gradually going down. Baking beans is ideal when the temperature has dropped to around 300-200° F.
As you learn to use your Italian wood fired oven or your brick oven, you will discover a whole new culinary experience and you will find it very rewarding to join your family and friends around the fire, eating delicious meals, licking your fingers, and talking a lot (side effect of spending time around an Italian oven).
We have listed some favorite wood fired Italian recipes for you to print out and try.
If you want to share a dish that is just too fabulous to keep to yourself, email the recipe to Los Angeles Ovenworks and we will publish it on our website.