The wood-fired ovens are part of the history of mankind, once the fire was discovered “the first Neanderthal chefs” and the first wood-fired ovens known consisted of making a hole in the ground, inside this hole they would place stones, and then light a fire to heat. Once there were embers at the bottom and the stones were hot, they would place the different parts of the animal or other food, covering them with more earth to avoid heat loss.
This type of cooking was extremely slow and effective (Neanderthal chefs already knew about low temperature cooking). Archaeological excavations in Europe have found these types of ovens with an approximate date of 20 thousand years.
In the Neolithic period, with the discovery of pottery, ovens began to be made of terracotta or brick, which was a great evolution from the previous ones as they allowed for fixed installations without having to be reactivated each time they were baked.
In the area occupied by ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq, Turkey, Syria), they began to make flared earthenware vessels, very similar to the current “tandoor” still used in India and Pakistan.
Around the year 500 B.C. the Greeks placed the tandori oven horizontally and incorporated a door and a stone or ceramic base to the wood ovens achieving a greater thermal stability and a great saving since less quantity of wood was consumed and it retained the heat much better when cooking; so we can say that they are really the inventors of the modern wood oven.
The Romans and Arabs perfected and expanded the use of wood-burning ovens by improving their construction, providing them with walls of brick or refractory ceramics and a series of insulating layers to keep the heat as stable as possible, against more layers of insulation better thermal inertia of the oven, for longer we conserve heat and less consumption of wood we have.
This type of traditional oven is made up of several layers (mud, clay, refractory bricks, volcanic stone, arlitas, etc.) in order to provide them with the necessary insulation to be able to maintain an operating oven for many hours without having to reload wood.
Types of wood-fired ovens
• Traditional, a single vaulted chamber in which first the oven is heated, then the wood is cleaned or removed and then the food is placed.
• Two chambers, one dedicated to the fire (usually at the bottom) and the clean cooking chamber (at the top).
Types of wood suitable for a wood-fired oven
• Very good quality firewood: Holm oak, ash, birch, elm and beech
• Not recommended woods: Spruce and willow
• Invalid woods: Pine and Alamo
How does a wood-fired oven work?
• A layer of about 15 cm of wood is prepared inside the oven starting with thin wood and placing thicker wood on top. The best firewood or charcoal is that with a high calorific value and slow burning, that is why pine wood is not recommended, it burns very fast and has little calorific value.
• It is important to control the draught, because it will regulate the amount of oxygen that enters the oven. When the draught is lit, it should be open to facilitate combustion (initially it may also be necessary to open some of the oven doors to allow more oxygen to enter, until the oven starts to heat).
• Once the firewood inside the oven is well lit, close the throws to a minimum so that the wood burns slowly and transmits all its calorific power to the walls of the oven.
• You will be feeding the wood oven for about two hours, the aim is that the walls of the oven absorb as much heat as possible, and then radiate it to the inside of the oven. The temperature of the oven will reach about 500º once all the wood has been consumed.
• Once all the wood has been consumed, and only embers and embers remain, you must close all the throws (not everything so that smoke is not generated) and remove all the embers to the sides of the oven, so that the center is free to put the containers, trays, etc..
• At this time you can also burn aromatic herbs inside the oven to give a special touch to your roasts, bakery etc.
• At this point you should leave the oven closed while it heats up to about 200º, at this temperature you can start introducing the food.
Safety measures in a wood-fired oven
• The greatest danger from wood-burning ovens is burns. The doors are usually made of metal or iron, so any small friction with them is a major burn.
• When you open the door, be careful of the heat that can come out of it. Traditional ovens don’t usually give off a blast of heat from their opening, but if you happen to get close to it and stick your head in it, the softest thing that can happen is to scorch your eyelashes in an instant by onlookers. Breathing air at 400 or 500º is not very good for your health.
• When you put the different plates, trays, pots, etc, you have to leave them on the edge, and push them with a tool, until they are placed at the bottom.
What can you cook in a wood fired oven and what cooking time they need?
Depending on the type of food to be cooked, the food must be in the wood-burning oven for a certain time, and the temperature must also be respected (although this is a bit difficult as it decreases over time):
• Fish: To cook fish you will need at least 1 hour at an approximate temperature of 150 degrees, as long as it is over 5 kg, if it is smaller it will need less time, it can be checked after 40 minutes (and then every 10 minutes), taking it out and pricking it, with the tip of a fondue skewer. The fish will always be wrapped in silver foil, which we can remove after the last check so that it browns a little, on top.
• Lamb: To cook the lamb, you will need about 20 minutes per kilogram of meat approximately, for example for 5 kg. of meat you will need 1 hour and 40 minutes, at a temperature between 250, or 280 degrees centigrade (you can check its cooking, by poking it at the time of cooking more or less, also turning it over, you will start cooking it covered, to uncover it in the last revision so that it ends up crusting).
• Piglet: It will take at least 40-50 minutes on each side of the piglet, depending on its size, it will be checked after 40 minutes on each side, we will place it in a slotted tray (see pottery) and this inside or on top of a tray where the fat will fall, it is not necessary to cover it, at a temperature between 180, or 200 degrees centigrade. For pork ribs, at the same temperature, it would take about 30, or 35 minutes on each side.
• Pig’s foot: The oven should be between 250, or 280 degrees centigrade, needing a time of about three to four hours depending on size, we can start with an hour and a half covered with a plate, turn it over and continue for an hour more, we can repeat the operation once again, but already uncovered so that it browns on the skin, so that the crackling is well formed.
• Chickens: To roast chickens in a wood-fired oven, you will need it to be between 180 and 200 degrees centigrade, and it will take between 50 minutes and 1 hour, depending on the size of the chicken, and if it has been put whole or in pieces, we will start by putting it in covered with silver paper, until it is turned over after 30 minutes, then it will be left to brown until the end of cooking, we will put it on a rack inside a tray. There is a type of clay tray with a raised edge to stick the chicken in and make it easier to do.
• Bread: to cook the bread, it should be between 200, or 230 degrees centigrade, for about 30 minutes, preferably placing it on the clean floor of the oven.
• Pizzas: to cook pizzas, they should be between 250, or 280 degrees centigrade, for a time of about 5 minutes, placing them preferably on the clean floor of the oven, and then take them out and put the ingredients to taste, putting them back in for about 5 more minutes, they can also be put in special pizza trays. It will also be good for baking all kinds of pies.
• Sponge cakes and donuts: These always have to wait until the end, when the oven has lost heat, as about 100 degrees centigrade will be enough, for cooking, the cakes will be placed in a container suitable for cooking, and the donuts instead we can put on the floor of the oven, as if it were bread, we only need about 40 or 45 minutes. The same for all kinds of cakes.