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There is nothing like hearing birds sing in the middle of

the night when a masonry oven is swept of ash in preparation for baking. The smell of wood smoke is still in my shirt
and the oven is equalizing, cooling to the proper baking
temp. Heat completely saturates the thermal mass. The
oven ticks. The dough proofs. Dawn blurs the edge of the
horizon. The first sound of the morning commute comes
across the fields. And then it all comes together. The proofed
loaves are fluffy and asking to be baked. The oven is ready.
Gentle, steady wood-fired heat seems hungry for dough.
Steam is injected into the oven; I hold the scoring razor
conveniently in my mouth. And then load after load, into
the oven endlessly baking. The sun is full now, loaves are
high-graded, somebody stops by the ovenhouse to get an
early pick. Then the last load, going in with the hope of
sufficient heat. It is out. The loaves are loaded for delivery
and taken to town. Magdalena sits, resting, waiting for
the next bake day.
In 1996 I was baking bread every couple of days at
home using an old American-style baking bookone
with lots of yeast and not too much water. I started
thinking about bread all the time, and soon found
out about a new organization called The Bread Bakers
Guild of America. This was right before the American
Bread Movement gave us the voluptuous handmade
breads that are now part of the American food culture.
My wife, Stephanie, bought me a copy of Dan Leaders
book Bread Alone, one of the first books that explained
European methods and techniques to Americans. I
immediately started using a sourdough starter and the
color of my loaves deepened, as did the character and
complexity of the flavor. My bread took a step into a
different bread-baking tradition, one that concerned

itself with controlled fermentation, wet dough, and

local, whole-grain flour.
But there was something else about Bread Alone
that captivated me and ultimately changed my lifeits
information on wood-fired ovens. Dan told stories of
huge French ovens and the special routine required
for this type of baking. I was intrigued, and wanted to
reproduce something as authentic. There hadnt been
much of this type of baked goods around when I was
growing up in mid-Michigan during the 1970s, although I feel lucky to have had Polish aunts and uncles
who brought Old World, handmade baked goods like
rye bread, walnut rolls, and chrusciki up from Hamtramck, Detroits Polish suburb.
I responded to the centuries-old draw of flour, leaven,
and fire described in Bread Alone by baking at home
almost every day. Stephanie and I were living in an apartment in her hometown on the coast of North Carolina,
and at that time we didnt have the space, or knowledge,
to build a masonry oven. I did line the apartment oven
with common red bricks in a quest to bake thoroughly
fermented sourdough bread on hot masonry. These
first loaves seemed authentic and made me feel like I
was connecting to a past era. Plus, they tasted great.
This was a dynamic time in the American baking
scene. I got in touch with The Bread Bakers Guild of
America, and asked where I could learn how to bake
this type of bread. I found out about the San Francisco
Baking Institute and enrolled in two consecutive weeks
of classes, their first ones ever. I didnt know that, as a
young American baker, I was poised at the right place at
the right time. Baking education was emerging everywhere; I stumbled into it because of a book purchased
in a sleepy bookstore on the coast of North Carolina.


From the Wood-Fired Oven

During my first week at SFBI, I learned the fundamentals of bread baking and realized this was something
I wanted to do professionally. The class was taught by
Lionel Vatinet, a French baker who had gone through
the Compagnon du Devoir apprenticeship training and
was one of the first French bakers to bring Old World
techniques to the American Bread Movement. On the
first day of class he found out I was staying with friends
just a few blocks from where he lived. After that, he gave
me a ride from Hayes Street to South San Francisco and
back again in the eveningan extra hour and a half to
learn about baking from a French Compagnon!
Before I traveled out to San Francisco, I found out
about a man named Alan Scott who built brick ovens,
taught workshops, and lived an easy drive north of the
city. There wasnt a workshop on the weekend between
my two SFBI classes, but when he returned my call he
said I was welcome to visit and see his oven in action.
When I met Alan at his beautiful Victorian home in
the rolling hills of Petaluma, he gave me a somewhat
stern lecture about the importance of a whole-grain
diet before he took me out back and showed me his
oven. This was the first time Id seen a wood-fired oven
in action; it was unforgettable! This was also the first
time Id smelled bread-infused steam rolling off bricks
heated by a fire of oak and eucalyptus, and felt the oily
wholesomeness of fresh flour falling from the grain
mill. Alan also explained that wheat can be grown in a
small golden plot by a houseit doesnt have to be
monocultivated on 1,000-acre plots somewhere in the

Alan Scott in 1988 Photo by Art Rogers copyright 1988 by

Great Plains. This visit to Alan Scotts home sealed my

conviction: This is what I wanted to do. I saw the beauty
of his vision, and knew I was going to build a brick oven
and bake organic hearth breads. If it hadnt been for
Alan, I might not have done itor been able to do it.
I bought a set of photocopied oven plans from Alan.
Those plans were the basis for The Bread Builders, a
seminal book on oven building and bread baking coauthored with Dan Wing and published in 1999. By
that time the American bread-baking scene was on fire,
and the book quickly became both a classic and a bible.
The original oven plans included edits and omissions
handwritten over the typed instructionsthe mark
of a man who continued to refine his system of oven
building. His writing in the plans was sometimes nonlinear, but his philosophical spirit shone through:
For the poet and mystic in us, building an oven, gathering the wood, tending the fire and baking in this
way connects us experientially with one of our oldest
civilized rituals. Remembering our past . . . helps
us to momentarily touch base with our deeper selves
and awaken briefly to our place in the broader web
of the biosphere that supports and sustains all life.
The cost of the plans included phone consultations
with Alan, but his responses did not always entirely
answer my questions. Part of the pleasure, he said,
should be learning through my own discoveries, and his
matter-of-fact style was positive and encouraging. Alan
offered not only instruction but also inspiration and
the confidence I needed to build the oven that became
such an important part of my life.
Once I got back to North Carolina I immediately
started to build Magdalena, the oven that ultimately
gave me the opportunity to learn so much about cooking and baking with fire. I based her on Alans plans but
had the good fortune to meet Tom Trout, a masonry
heater builder who lives in the mountains of North
Carolina and explained the advantages of making some
slight construction changes in Alans plans. He also
made me aware of other building materials like refractory mortar, silky enough to create thin mortar joints,
as well as highly insulating kiln blankets.



A plot of wheat growing behind Alan Scotts home circa 1996

Oven building was just as stimulating as bread baking! I wondered if maybe I should become a professional
mason. I had surreal dreams where the universe was made
of bricks and masonry, thrust lines extended into space,
dough transubstantiated into mortar and mortar into
dough. It took over a year of weekends and several periods of focused, intense work to finish Magdalena.
And then came the bread. Suddenly my life had two
new-to-me (yet ancient) schools of thought to explore:
making European-style hearth breads, and baking them
in wood-fired ovens.
I started with Pain au Levain, a traditional French
sourdough based on Lionels formula. The crust was
dark, the fins of bread created by the quick pull of a
razor baked into a dark but not quite burntcrust.
The crumb inside was fragrant, unbelievably so, a
fragrance I had never smelled before, like caramel,
wheat, and ancient temple walls. (The crumb is the
body of the breadeverything inside the crust, not

the particles on your cutting board.) The random holes

scattered throughout the loafcalled alveoliwere
glossy, their iridescence a sign of starch gelating during
the baking process. This open structure was something
that had been lacking in my bread, and I learned that I
could increase it by ensuring a vigorous, but controlled,
fermentation and by increasing the hydration.
I used organic flour from a North Carolina mill,
25 percent whole wheat, the rest white flour, salt, and
liquid sourdough levain elaborated from some starter
brought back from SFBI and hydrated with 69 percent
well water pulled from the Castle Hayne aquifer. That
formula has changed over the yearsthe hydration has
increased in particularand is the basis for the Pain au
Levain in this book.
People loved the bread but soon asked for other varie
ties. I was fully drawn into the world of breadvarieties,
flour mixtures, and leavening systems. I realized the
general method I learned from Lionel appliedmore


From the Wood-Fired Oven

or lessto all types of bread. I could create a diverse

selection of breads by changing ingredients, their ratios,
and fermentation methods. This was a fun and creative
period of doing research and going through the reverseengineering process of duplicating traditional breads,
formulating and tweaking other ideas and requests, and
ending up with a new bread on the production schedule.
I wanted to offer a roster that included white breads,
whole-grain breads, rye breads, naturally leavened
breads, yeasted breads, breads that used copious cuttings
of fresh rosemary, spelt breads, breads suited to be baked
in a hot oven, and those suited for a cool oven. This
roster comprises the selection of breadswith additions
and evolutionsthat appears in this book.
I was lucky to be actively learning to bake during this
time. The Bread Bakers Guild was fulfilling its mission
of providing an education in artisan baking, and classes
and conferences were becoming regular occurrences at
culinary schools and bakery trade shows. The largest
event during this time was the Coupe du Monde de la
Boulangerie, a baking competition at Europain, a huge
international baking trade show. We sat in the bleachers
and watched day after day as international teams competed. It was a four-day demonstration of hand skills,
fermentation techniques, and production efficiency, all
punctuated by forays onto the trade show floor where
we ordered display baskets handmade in a French
village and bought books unavailable in the United
States. Standing around watching the competition or
having drinks, my new guild friends and I talked bread,
bread, bread and participated in the generous exchange
of ideas and knowledge, a hallmark of the American
Bread Movement and an industry characteristic for
which I am grateful. That knowledge, and its evolution
over the past 15 years, grounds the bread-baking sections of this book.
Back home in North Carolina I baked with new inspiration buttressed by a load of information. But there
was something special about our own little bakery
fueled with pecan and coast oaknot better or worse,
but different from the competition breads coming out
of deck ovens.
It was a sense of providing food for my community.
I was learning the most fundamental aspects of bread

baking. Changes in the weather, customer demand,

or production schedule often affected the consistency
of the loaves. I baked commercially out of Magdalena
for three years, until I felt the need to learn more
than I could at workshops, trade shows, and through
the guilds newsletter. In the fall of 2000 I left the
coast of North Carolina to bake at the King Arthur
Flour bakery in Vermont. It was very difficult to leave
Magdalena, my all-night companion, but Vermont
brought the promise of goods things to come. I learned
from and baked with Jeffrey Hamelman and other
talented bakers at King Arthur. A steady population of
students came through the Baking Education Center
for professional classes taught by Jeffrey, and I learned
from their questions. Some of them became friends
and colleagues, and Ive watched them transition from
their old life to the life of a baker or bakery owner. I
was especially fortunate to work with visiting instructors like Maggie Glezer, author of Artisan Baking Across
America, and James MacGuire, the chef/pastry chef
and baker who was my direct link to the teachings of
Professor Raymond Calvel, the French bread scientist
who developed the autolyse and preached the value of
proper dough temperature. I assisted James and then
co-taught with him. My formulas for Pain Rustique,
67% Rye, and Miche came from Calvel and James.
Vermont offered a concentration of bakers and
ovens, and many people Id read or heard about seemed
to live within an easy drive. Most notable was Dan
Wing, coauthor of The Bread Builders. I met Dan when
he trailered his portable brick oven to King Arthur for
a weekend intensive. At the time, portable masonry
ovens were a rare precursor to todays pizza catering and
farmers market scene. Dans class quickly sold out, and
I started to hear questions that are still asked today and
addressed in this book: How long do I fire the oven?
Why is steam important? How do I get open holes
in my bread? What is the best type of oven for me to
build? Interest in wood-fired ovens was growing.
I started teaching baguette and sourdough classes
after my shift in the bakery. There I encountered the
joys of helping people learn the skills to bake good
bread at home with their own two hands. I realized
that bread is a social leveler. There is an attraction to

bread that transcends age, gender, race, socioeconomic
stratum, and any other category you can think of. I was
humbled to realize in class one day that I was teaching
handmade bread techniques to a woman who had been
baking bread longer than I had been alive.
The teaching continued to draw me in, just as bread
baking had. So it was hard to turn down the opportunity to make the move to full-time teaching at Johnson
& Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Although we
were sorry to leave our sweet cabin in the Vermont
woods and our good King Arthur friends, it was a great
chance to gain experience in another part of the baking
world. Plus, it provided a summer teaching break and
the chance to go back and bake in Magdalena again!
It was a perfect time to get back into small-scale
brick oven baking. I had learned a lot about baking by
that time, and the organic, local food scene had gone
mainstream. The greater awareness of, and demand for,
high-quality local food increased the acreage of organic
wheat, and this greater supply allowed millers to draw
and blend from more sources and create flours with
more consistency. My old customer base remembered
my role as village baker, and word got around that
once again there was bread on Golden Farm Road. The
tourist industry was perfectly in sync with my summer
teaching break, and Kyle Swains Blue Moon Bistro,
my favorite restaurant, was happy to serve my bread
alongside his delicious coastal cuisine.
The larger wood-fired oven world continuedand
continuesto grow. King Arthur installed a woodfired oven in the Baking Education Center, and I
started regularly guest teaching classes there. I met
people who installed similar oven kits, built clay ovens
or masonry ovens based on Alan Scott plans. Some students wanted input on what type of oven to build. And
still I heard the common questions Id been aware of
since that first class with Dan Wing about firing times,
steam, and open crumb. The tips Tom Trout gave me
when I was building Magdalena began to filter into the
amateur wood-fired oven world.
By this time the wood-fired oven scene was populated by many different styles, shapes, and designs.
Domed brick Pompeii ovens. Clay bread ovens
from Quebec. Backyard bread ovens. Commercial


production ovens. Scandinavian ovens, necessarily efficient in a land where wood has long been scarce and
precious. Colonial beehive ovens unearthed from
plaster walls during renovations in old homes across the
northeastern United States. But the Alan Scott oven
design became a reference point by which other woodfired bread ovens are described. Chances are a North
America stonemason and oven builder knows the Alan
Scott oven. The Bread Builders spawned countless
micro-bakeries across the country, because it showed
aspiring bakers how to build an economical brick oven
that could turn out artisan hearth loaves earmarked
with the seal of Old World artisanship.
In addition to Alans inspirationand under the
guidance of professional masonsthe possibility of
building or having a wood-fired oven has become pretty
accessible to everyone. You do not have to be a mason
to build an Alan Scott oven, and many people came to
the endeavor through their journey as bread bakers or
piazzalos, very often with no prior masonry experience
at all. Like me, for example. I followed Alans plans,
built this magic thing, and became enchanted by the
primal essence of the fire.
Alans design and The Bread Builders still inspire and
encourage many segments of society: folks living off the
grid, affluent foodies, entrepreneurs, budding masons,
community builders, bread heads, fifth-generation
immigrants reconnecting with their Nonnas food
traditions. All these folks, helped along by input from
professional masons and combustion experts through
online chatgroups and construction site epiphanies,
have led us to this exciting time in wood-fired ovens,
fueled by a sense of community focused on fire.
Not only is there excitement for baking and oven
construction, but were also seeing the resurgence in
regional, small-scale grain production and milling. The
rise and almost obsessive interest in handmade bread,
surge of community farmers markets, and availability
of local, small-scale artisan food is helping recalibrate
our culture and economy. Not to mention a food-truck
phenomenon that includes mobile wood-fired pizza
ovens! Alans vision of communities gathering around
wood-fired bread ovens has caught on, big time, and
momentum continues to grow nearly 15 years after The


From the Wood-Fired Oven

Bread Builders was published. Alan took action to see

that this centuries-old tradition was kept alive, and he
did it well. Look around. Somewhere near you, there is
likely someone baking bread in a wood-fired oven and
sharing it within the community. Not only is Alans vision happening, its thriving.

I wrote this book to share my love and interest in

cooking and baking bread in the wide spectrum of
wood-fired oven temperature environments; to spread
the thrill (and responsibility) of efficient combustion;
and to brief you on important innovations and refinements in oven design, construction, and materials.