Brick Oven: Building and Maintaining a Fire

Fire Walk with Me–Twin Peaks

There actually is a process involved in building and maintaining a fire in a brick oven. Begin with completely dry soft wood, and then add hardwood if you want to build up a bed of hot coals. Here I start with yellow pine, and then go to a pine/oak mixture. We might as well start at the beginning.

More than Fahrenheit 451

Aristotle said a good plot had a beginning, a middle, and an end, in his Poetics; a good brick oven fire begins in the front, is pushed to middle, and then to the back. This is especially true for all applications involving cooking meat or pizza.

TV chefs will bring out something dramatic to light a fire, like a propane blow torch. I use two cardboard egg cartons and one match. The results are the same–fire.

All this with just One Match

Time for a break now that the fire has been pushed to the middle of the oven. This tool keeps me in firewood.

Sometimes Technology is Good

That’s a 24 volt electric chainsaw. I liked it so much I bought a 24 volt weed whacker, and a 60 volt lawnmower to go with it. I charge up the batteries with a solar generator, which is in turn charged by a single 100 watt solar panel. I’m inching toward sustainability, and did I mention the thirty percent tax credit on solar panels and batteries?

Mmmm. Vidalia Onions

Push the fire to the back, and sweep and mop for pizza. A pie with sliced Vidalia onions makes all the work worth it. And I get to play with matches, and a chainsaw.

Pizza

Green, White, and Red–It’s either an Italian Flag, or Pizza Margherita

The forecast for Sunday was for a high of only 93 degrees F, so I decided to build a 900 degree F fire, and cook a couple of pizzas. Why the hell not?

Speaking of Hell, Dante would have Loved this

Fortunately, I spent most of my time indoors, making the crust and sauce. I will do a step by step explanation of this process in a series of posts, but here’s an outline of what to do. I will also give an alternative cooking method, for those who do not have a bakery-sized brick oven. The following is for a Pizza Margherita, one of the originals, and still the best.

Ingredients

Dough for two Pizza Crusts–1 1/2 cups OO Italian Flour, salt, water, yeast

Pizza Sauce, preferably made with Italian or locally grown Tomatoes

Italian Mozzarella Cheese

Fresh Basil

The basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven. It probably wouldn’t look too sporty, otherwise, after a couple of minutes of this.

Out of the Saucepan, and into the Fire

Other than eating this, the best part is smelling the basil cook on top of the really really hot pizza, right out of the brick oven. Simple and complex–the heart of a good pizza.

Herr Orff, one of my German Professors at the University of Alabama, came to class one Monday, and said, “I had some of that food that you people eat every weekend. What do you call it? Pit-sa. It was very good.” That actually is the correct pronunciation of the word pizza-if you’re German. Good thing he didn’t eat one of these. He might never have gone back to Deutschland.

Italiano

Believe it are not, according to latitude, we are farther south than Italy. However, Italian food can be simple and complex at the same time, just like Southern. Much of our cuisine is also based on la cucina povera, or poor people’s food. So here’s a Southern take on a few Italian classics.

P.S. Buy that book.

Brick Oven Tools–Mop and Fireplace Poker

Keeping It Clean and Hot

These are the last two tools in the catalog of devices needed to cook in a brick oven. One is the first tool needed, the other one of the last, but also one of the most important. We’ll begin with my trusty industrial sized mop.

My wife eventually gifted this mop to me after she found it to be too big and bulky to use in our house. I immediately drilled a hole through the handle, tied a piece of accessory cord threaded through the hole into a loop, and hung it on the rafters on the oven. It’s been there ever since.

The mop is the final cleaning tool used before baking either bread or pizza in a brick oven, as the baking is done directly on the brick surface of the oven. The brush takes away the larger bits and pieces, and the mop finishes the job. Usually two passes with the mop is necessary to provide a surface suitable and clean enough for cooking. Some dispensation must be made to provide a way to rinse the mop off between passes-I have a lawn hydrant adjacent to my oven.

Hydrant, Camellia, and Mop Remains

This mop occasionally gets set on fire while making pizza in a 900 degree F oven, but the cotton part can be replaced, and has been. I think these are still made in the US, and can be found fairly easily. I also use it for mopping the slate top on my Rustic Cabinet, which is connected to my brick oven. Would also be great swabbing the deck of an eighteenth century frigate.

The first tool anyone starting a fire in a brick oven is going to resort to is a fireplace poker. This one was made by an Amish blacksmith in Ohio. It’s the best I have ever seen, as it can multitask. It’s thick steel and hook end make it perfect for lifting the lids on cast iron Dutch/Camping ovens. Best used with a pair of welding gloves, as it’s only drawback is that it can only reach so far into a brick oven. That’s when the scraper comes in handy.

So gear up and get to cooking. We plan on doing just that again this weekend, unless we get walloped by the tropical storm that is currently lurking on the Gulf Coast. Our current forecast is for two to four inches of rain. Guess that’s why I put a roof over my oven.

Brick Oven Tools–Scraper/Brush Combo

A Multi-Tasking Tool

Two essential tools for the efficient use of a Brick Oven are a scraper and a brush. Many people buy them separately, but why? This old US made scraper/brush combo is over fifteen years old, and has years of use left. And I leave it outside hanging on the oven.

Just last weekend I cooked pizza for nine people on the hottest day of the year, with a blazing hot oak/pine fire, and never even broke a sweat. I could do that because of the efficiency of the scraper/brush. Let’s begin with the most useful side–the scraper.

Scraper and Bulldozer

The scraper side serves two important functions, which are scraping, and bulldozing. As a scraper it performs both maintenance and cooking functions. The long handle allows its use as an ash remover, as it reaches all the way to the back of even a large oven. Many modern ovens, like mine, have an ash slot where the remains of yesterday’s fire can be easily scraped away.

Secondly, if you’re making bread or even just baking, the scraper allows one to reposition the fire and/or coals easily, which is a skill that I will address in a later post.

If you’re into pizza or baking, this thing can bulldoze any fire into the back of the oven, which is a necessity when making pizza. Once that is done, it’s time to put the brush to work.

Don’t Brush Your Hair with it

That rather dangerous looking wire brush is really a preliminary clean up tool. It removes most of the ashes from a working fire, as well as small embers and stray pieces of wood. It prepares the surface of the brick oven for the final tool that is needed for the cooking of a pizza–a mop. That will be one of the last two tools I will discuss, but that is a whole another post.

Brick Oven Tools–Welding Gloves

Out with the Old, in with the New

When I first bought my copy of The Bread Builders, from which I took the design for my brick oven, I loved the cover. It was a picture of a hippy looking dude with tattoos all over his arms, taking a round loaf out of a bread oven. Only most of his arms were covered up by a whacking big pair of welding gloves. Why welding gloves?

Check out the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the official group that lays out the rules for traditional pizza. First, it can only be cooked in a wood burning oven. Second, it has to be cooked in a temperature range of between 806-896 degrees F. 900 degrees F is also a common metric. That’s hot enough to burn the soot off of the interior of the bread oven. And in fact, it does. Hence the need for welding gloves.

My new pair of gloves are identical to what my original pair looked like, though they are still blue (they won’t stay that way long). I left my old pair outside on the oven one night, and a varmint, probably a raccoon, absconded with the right one. The bad news is that I am right handed.

So it was time for Amazon once again. Fifteen years later, they were still the same price. Our corporate overlord Bezos comes through again.

Brick Oven Tools–Pizza Peels

Traditional Peel–Sort Of

Pizza peels are handy things, if you want to keep the hair from being burned off your arms. The one above is the traditional wooden variety. It was too short, so I added a handle made from a broken hickory axe handle, making this possibly the sturdiest peel in the world.

Metal Peel

These aluminum peels are popular in the pizza industry, and they are light, thin, and durable. Not as long as my wooden one, but can live outside at the brick oven. Note the straight, not curved, front, which makes it easier to scoop up a pie.

Round Peel

These little round peels are surprisingly useful. I use mine to move pizzas around inside the brick oven, though a welding glove is a good idea if you go that route.

Peels are also good inside the house, especially if you have a pizza brick of some kind. I use one of those giant Lodge cast iron pizza pans as a hearth, and turn up my oven as far as I dare. Wait a few minutes for it to reach temperature, then use a peel to throw a pizza on it. The results are surprisingly good. And, of course, bakers use these for sourdough loaves, and other concoctions.