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Monday, July 11, 2011

Cob oven, part II - the first bake (prototype)

Fruits of the mud oven
By Chris Siciliano

Regular Buzz readers might remember this post in which I document the building of a wood-fired mud oven on family property north of Baldwin, Michigan. That was back in June. More than a month later I'm pleased to report that the small test oven, nicknamed Mini Oven ("MO" for short), is still standing and, more importantly, that it actually works!

Two Saturdays ago I fired it up for the first time with intentions of using it for bread (previous firings were intended solely to drive remaining moisture from the thick mud walls). After allowing the oven to reach what seemed an appropriate temperature -- it took about an hour -- I raked out the fire and coals and in their place I slid a small square of focaccia (flat bread) dressed to the nines with hot peppers and oil. Much to my delight the oil on top soon began to spit and sizzle just as it would in a conventional oven -- a sure sign that MO was capturing and retaining heat with the efficiency needed for thorough cooking and baking.

I didn't think to record how long I left the focaccia in the oven to bake. Fifteen minutes? Twenty? At any rate, it was long enough for the dough to plump up nicely and then develop a crackly, golden-colored crust on the bottom; it was also longer than the short time it took the finished focaccia to disappear from the cutting board and into the mouths of hungry on-lookers, all of whom assured me my first attempt with MO was a success.

Decent flavor, the crust was lacking

When the focaccia was done I maneuvered two small loaves of simple white bread into the still-hot oven. Like the focaccia, these baked thoroughly and with satisfactory taste, though neither achieved the kind of crust I look for in a top-notch loaf of bread. Rather than a dark chestnut color the bread came out far too yellow for how long it baked, almost 50 minutes (this time I did pay attention to the clock). I attribute the poor color and crust to a premature loss of heat, probably resulting from several fixable inefficiencies, including:

    • A poorly fitting wood door which allows heat to escape too quickly - a better fit should help retain heat longer, leading to better crust development and color.
    • A lack of insulation - this being a test oven, not intended for repeated use, I decided against adding more, separate layers of mud/cob to the basic structure. A layer of insulation would ensure the oven stays hotter for longer.
    • An insufficient firing - knowing how long to fire the oven will only come with experience apparently; maybe I fired long enough, maybe the oven could have used another hour under flame. I won't know for sure until I try again (and again).
It could be too that substandard dough led to inadequate crust color. How can dough be substandard? Simple. Spike it like I did with entirely too much yeast in order to get it to rise as fast as possible. The fast rise meant the dough never fully developed, which in turn meant that, outside of burning it, a good, dark color became impossible (along with really excellent flavor)*. Normally I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, but since this was an experiment with a new mud oven, and not an experiment with bread, I figured the bread gods would forgive me the transgression just this once.

Substandard or not, the dough did not go to waste. The bread it became disappeared almost as fast as the focaccia did. Maybe cooking outside just makes everything taste better. These brats and veggies (pictured below) were certainly flavorful!

Does it get any better?
Stay tuned for future installments in our cob oven series. Next up, we build the foundation of "BO" (a.k.a. Big Oven).

* Typically I prefer a very slow, cool rise during which time all sorts of natural sugars develop in the dough. In a hot oven, these sugars caramelize and undergo certain chemical reactions, all of which contribute to the color of the crust.

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