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Remembering How to Cook with Fire
It is in our human spirit to build ovens, behold fire, bake bread, cook food, and provide for ourselves. Every one of us has a part in that story. Cooking and baking with the heat of a wood fire is not an exotic foodie trend, but a skill known and practiced by everyday people since the dawn of humanity. Early American housewives built and managed fires for cooking, first on hearths, then in the firebox of cast-iron cookstoves. It was only by the mid-20th century that this basic knowledge began to be lost, so that now in the early 21st century, it is foreign to many of us. This dissipating knowledge mirrored the loss of other traditional practices like keeping small-scale chicken flocks, knitting, and plant medicine. These life skills were largely depleted (but luckily not lost) in the mid-1900s as “better living through chemistry” and the dramatic rise of a consumer culture trained us to seek products on a shelf instead of being self-reliant. Luckily, beginning with the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s, a whole generation began to rediscover Rhode Island Reds, their grandmother’s needles, and the plants our ancestors once relied on for spiritual and physical medicine. And we were also building ovens, playing with fire, and fermenting grain to bake bread. Living with the products of these lifestyles has a cumulative tonic-like effect on your health and quality of life. Your own eggs with yolks the color of a beautiful sunset. A favorite knitted hat. An old-growth medicinal garden. Pizza parties, the annual turkey, and countless batches of bread. How satisfying it is to see the neighbor children improve their pizza skills, make a comforting casserole, put up some venison jerky, and practice a routine that provides handmade bread to your family, friends, and community.
In addition to the romance of masonry, fire, and food, this book is written out of the reemergence of, and need for, resilience in both our global food culture and everyday lives. I’ve always been interested in being self-reliant. As a child I loved reading stories of mountain men and pioneer families who blazed trails to open the West with only their wits, their courage, and the equipment they thought to take along. Mountain man Hugh Glass survived a mauling by a grizzly bear, was left for dead, and crawled 200 miles to safety without his firearm. And how about Laura Ingalls’s family, breaking prairie sod, knowing nothing but a snout-to-tail approach to using livestock, and cobbling together a Christmas celebration even when the brutal winter of 1880–81 closed railroad service to the Dakota Territory? These stories inspired me to sharpen my own survival skills— keeping warm when Michigan’s gales of autumn came
From the Wood-Fired Oven one of them expressed to graduate school reporters from the Columbia University School of Journalism. In these times of uncertainty, it is important to avoid having all our eggs (free-range or not) in one basket. A quest for efficiency has consolidated our culture’s dependence on fewer and fewer providers, most of which are dependent on the petroleum industry: food production from the Central Valley of California, trucks to transport the produce across the country, lights in the market, registers to ring up the sales, the range in your home. But what if the food you eat is grown in your backyard—or in your community, where farmers gather without the need for lights or registers? And what if you can cook that food in your own oven and with regenerative fuel that was harvested in your community? Being lucky enough to live in this way makes me feel secure and luxurious. Does this mean we should put all our eggs in that “local” basket and return to medieval fiefdoms, cut off from adjacent communities? No, but shouldn’t we build the strength of our local food systems and economies so we are more resilient in the event of short- or long-term disruption of our supply chain? “Green living” is different from resilience. Most of us are now environmentally aware enough to know it is important to use high efficiency lightbulbs. But resilience is about designing buildings to take advantage of natural light so electric lights are less necessary. Resilience is also about the mind-bending task of planning for the unknown. This is important when you are planning to build your oven. What size should it be—not for what you are cooking now, but for what you may want to cook five years from now? This isn’t to say sustainability isn’t important—just that we may end up sustaining a system that ultimately may need to collapse, for instance if the power grid becomes permanently unavailable or economically inefficient. This may actually be okay and a positive evolution for our cultures. Consider the systems that went away after people decided to stop politically or financially sustaining them: British rule of the American colonies, slavery, Prohibition, the Vietnam War. When the US embargo cut off Soviet supplies from reaching Cuba, it wasn’t long before tractors ran out
early, making satchels out of squirrel hides, dehydrating wild apples in my parents’ 1970s-era avocado-colored gas oven. For years I thought those impulses were due to Cold War anxiety, but over the course of writing this book I realized I’m simply interested in being prepared for any event so I can rebound and deal with systemic changes over which I have no control. To me, being resilient means having the foresight to have systems, skills, and infrastructure in place that provide basic physical and emotional needs when things change beyond my control. My pitcher pump, within sight of Magdalena, and a source of fresh water even when power is interrupted during a hurricane, gives me great satisfaction. So it is not surprising that I was eventually compelled to build a wood-fired oven, my own power plant providing heat, food, and the magic of fire . . . even when modern utilities are disrupted or obsolete. Wood-fired ovens aid resilience: the ability to return to an original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched. Resilience shouldn’t be confused with robustness—although that quality is beneficial in resilient systems. And adversity isn’t necessary to exhibit resilience. In fact, resilient systems can help avoid adversity. The resilience that comes from having a wood-fired oven draws its strength from flexibility (of design and materials), diversity (of how the oven can be used), and applications that enable self-sufficiency. In the autumn of 2012, Superstorm Sandy churned up the eastern seaboard of the United States and crashed into New Jersey and New York City, leaving behind scenes from post-apocalyptic films. Dark below 39th Street. Debris scattered in the streets. Light traffic. It was hard to imagine, even with the not-so-distant memory of Hurricane Katrina. Flooded subways? Wall Street shut down? Suddenly there was a new cognizance and appreciation of previously under-considered priorities such as electricity, gasoline, hot food, and mobility. Over on Spring Street, however, Lombardi’s brick oven pizza was open. An off-the-grid oven isn’t affected when the grid goes down. It just rolls along, unconcerned with the lack of electricity or breakdowns of the system delivering fuel. Storm-stressed and obsessed, hungry citizens paid candlelit cash for the good fortune of buying a hot meal. “Thank God for brick oven pizza,”
Introduction of fuel and were left to rot in the fields. What were the Cubans to do? They turned back to agriculture’s roots and started growing food on a small, community-based scale. Urban gardens were started—a full decade before they became fashionable in American cities—fertilized by rooftop vermicomposting. These weren’t a bunch of back-to-the-landers. These were resilient people figuring out a way to build a reliable food supply. Wood-fired ovens provide reliability and resilience and the foundation of Maslow’s primary needs: food production and also, if need be, warmth, sanitation, and community. Wood-fired ovens fulfill resiliency’s requirements: flexibility, diversity, and a backup system to ensure self-reliance, instead of helplessness. This resilience is societal mise en place, the idea that everything is in its place and organized for the task ahead, even when that task is weathering the storm for six days while power lines are repaired or when the details of the task—or the task itself—are not yet known. Generous sharing of information among bakers, millers, and oven builders increases our community’s resilience. Even wood-fired oven construction is resilient. That is why 100-year-old ovens reliably bake away, churning out bread and taking days or weeks to cool down after the last fire.
Chapter 2 explores how wood-fired ovens work— through either retained-heat or live-fire applications— and explores thermal mass, insulation materials, and thermal breaks. The question “What makes an oven a bread oven?” is answered in chapter 3; classifications based on firing method, shape, and building material are discussed as well. This will help you decide what type of wood-fired oven is right for you. There are also things to know about fire. One goal of this book is to educate people about how to burn and manage wood fires as efficiently as possible to restore the reputation of wood as a viable, sustainable, and environmentally responsible source of fuel. This is addressed in chapter 4, Fuel and Combustion. Using these techniques will make you a more responsible oven burner and add a warm ripple to the satisfaction of a wood-fired lifestyle. Chapter 5, How to Operate Your Oven, is the manual for scheduling, firing, producing, and monitoring any type of wood-fired oven. A short list of tools you should seek out to facilitate use of your oven is included.
Part Two, Bread Baking: The Process
Chapter 6 explains how to make bread, the staff of life, in both wood-fired ovens and home ovens. The process described in the first chapter of part two is reinforced by a closer examination of the Essential Ingredients for Wood-Fired Breads in chapter 7. Chapter 8, Standards and Conventions for Bread Formulas, makes note of this book’s terminology, ingredient standards, and codified formula methodologies. In addition to discussing systemic fundamentals of the bread-baking process, there is a tip of the hat to some of a baker’s most reliable tools: thermometer, timer, and the metric system.
How to Use This Book
This book is separated into three broad categories: (1) How wood-fired ovens work, a brick menagerie of ovens, and techniques to catch a fire, (2) how to make bread, especially in the context of wood-fired ovens, and (3) enjoying the ride: using a live fire or retained heat to make something to eat. These ideas are explored in parts one, two, and three, respectively.
Part One, Ovens and Fire
The first chapter begins where Alan Scott and Dan Wing’s book, The Bread Builders, left off and describes how ovens have evolved over the past 15 years.
Part Three. Using the Full Heat Cycle
Chapter 9, Cooking with Fire: Tips and Techniques to Get the Most Out of Each Burn, sets the contemporary
From the Wood-Fired Oven for blazed tomatoes or gentle thermo-cradle oil infusion spas. And so much comfort food to be had two days after the pizza party. You have the heat; why not use it? Look to the appendices for materials supporting the text. Appendix A provides design recommendations to construct an oven as energy- and personally efficient as possible. Modifications to the Alan Scott design anyone can make in order to get the most out of his or her oven are included. Other appendices focus on baking and include a selection of micro-bakery commercial yield formulas, a treatment of the powerful and essential baker’s percentage system, templates for production schedules, oven temperature logs, and sourdough starter genesis and maintenance.
context of cooking with fire, and offers easy ways to adapt and/or alter the cooking environment. Turn to chapters 10 through 14 if you want to just start cooking. Many wood-fired ovens are used for pizza and bread—and indeed, those two staples are well treated within this book—but there are rich opportunities for cooking at a wider range of temperatures. Imagine standing on the eve of a weekend set aside for wood-fired cuisine. What comes first, and how much can you send through the oven before it returns to ambient temperature? How exciting to have a blazing fire contained in a masonry box or a gentle dehydrating environment, held there solidly for 12 hours by tenaciously warm bricks! You can create inferno whiplash cooking environments
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