Mutterings of a Fool

Man, Dad, Runner, Chief dog walker

Tag: WFO

A wood fired pizza oven cooking day

One thing you learn when you have a wood fired pizza oven is that it takes quite a bit of effort to get it fired up and at the right temperature for cooking, so once it’s hot you might as well maximise the use of it. It takes me about 2.5 hours to get mine hot enough to cook a pizza, then less than 30 minutes to cook 8-10 pizzas for a pizza party. Which is probably still worth it as the pizzas are awesome but why not keep the fire going and cook more?

Which is exactly what we did last weekend; we cooked some pizzas for dinner with the kids and then kept the fire going to cook some tapas in the evening for just the adults. It takes a bit of prep work but then if you want instant cooking using a pizza oven probably isn’t for you. We had a friend over for the weekend so once the fire was burning nicely we set to work on the prep, checking on the fire occasionally to add an extra log or 2.

Pizza oven fired up

We mixed up some dough for the pizza and also for some pita breads to go with the tapas. I’ve been wanting to make bread of some kind in the oven for a while and these seemed like a good starting point, I’m also itching to make naan breads which should puff up perfectly. Once the doughs were proving we got the tapas ready, on the menu was; lamb koftas, lemon and chilli scallops and some marinated squid. All cook really quickly so although the prep takes a while the cooking bit is easy and of course you just serve straight from oven to table.

Pita breads cooking

Our cooking weekend also timed nicely with the delivery of a pizza challenge from Morrison’s, they’ve launched a new in store pizza service available until 21st June to celebrate father’s day where children can build their dad’s face on a pizza. My challenge was to make a pizza that looked like me with a little help from Matilda and Henry. Now while the Morrison’s pizzas taste great, I bet none are quite as good as the ones cooked in a real wood fired pizza oven. There was much debate about how to make best use of the vegetables supplied to create a pizza, I’m particularly pleased with our use of the black part of the mushrooms to make eyebrows. The result I’m sure you’ll agree is an uncanny likeness, they do say you are what you eat….

Pizza in the shape of my face

Making a day of the cooking was so much fun, quite tempted to expand it to brunch also, the choices really are endless and while it’s a steep learning curve understanding how to cook in an oven that doesn’t have dials it really is a fab way to spend a day. This tapas cooking could easily be extended to include many more dishes and by cooking one course at a time then eating it make a great evening dinner party with friends.

The combination of the rich lamb with the spicy scallops was perfect and the pita breads were amazing. The dough for them was quite weird but once they were in the oven the just puffed up perfectly. They’d be really good with some slow roast lamb in them and some good homemade coleslaw (I’m salivating a little just at the thought of it!)

pizza oven tapas feast

I would also thoroughly recommend the wood fired oven cookbook, it has some great recipes in it and instructions on how to use you oven, but it also gives you some ideas for menus and cooking days so you can maximise the heat in your oven. This was our first real attempt and I learned a lot about how to maintain the fire and the size of log that was most effective to add to it each time, there’s definitely an art to cooking this way.

Disclosure – Morrisons sent me the ingredients to make pizza, but all words and opinions here are my own.

Wood fired oven brunch

Matilda enjoying her muffinI think I’m starting to get the hang of this cooking with fire lark; each time I use the pizza oven I seem to get better at managing the fire and getting it to the right temperature. So fuelled by this confidence and the prospect of a glorious late summer lazy Sunday morning I decided it was time to branch out and cook something over than pizza. What could be better than a wood fired oven brunch cooked and eaten al fresco?

My wonderful colleagues at work bought me this awesome wood fired oven pizza oven cookbook when I changed jobs and it has ideas for menus and cooking days at the front. Perfect to get you to start thinking about how to make the most of your oven every time you fire it up cooking different things as it heats up and cools down.

Taking inspiration from the book the plan for brunch was to make some English muffins and serve with slow roasted tomatoes, chipolata sausages, smoked bacon and scrambled egg. The challenge (and fun) about cooking in this way is you do need to plan ahead a little as it’s not as simple as just turning on the cooker, so the schedule looked like this:

8am – make the dough for the muffins and leave to rise

8.30am – light the pizza oven then prep the other dishes

9.30am – put the tomatoes in the oven, in a relatively cool spot on the side. Roll and cut up the muffins then leave to rise again.

9.45am – put the sausages in the oven (probably would have put in earlier if fatter sausages).

10am – put the muffins in the middle of the oven

10.15am – take the muffins out of the oven and put the bacon in.

10.30am – feast on brunch in the sunshine!

I’d never even contemplated making English muffins until 2 weeks ago but they’re now a firm favourite, so quick and easy to make and only need proving for about 90 minutes in total. These big, fat, fluffy piles of warm breadiness are a long way from the packets of Warburtons muffins you buy from the supermarket I can tell you. Henry and Matilda love helping me make them, I get them rubbing the butter into the flour and then they of course help me with the kneading. Then after the first prove they can help cut them out using a round cookie cutter. They take less than 15 minutes to cook and can sit to cool a little while you finish the rest of the cooking, not too long though because you want them warm so you can melt the butter in when you spread it.

Muffins cooking

The only other real prep that needed doing was chopping in half some tomatoes from our greenhouse and sitting them on a sliced red onion (also from our veg patch). Then I drizzled (love that word) some rapeseed oil over and sprinkled on some chopped thyme and some black pepper. This then goes in the oven in a casserole dish to slowly roast, I love tomatoes like this anyway but the onions went really sweet to go with it and give a nice kick of flavour to the breakfast.

The only thing I didn’t cook in the oven was the egg, but actually could have done that fairly easily if I wanted. What I really love about this way of cooking is the theatre of it and getting the kids really involved. They can help with the prep work and then see it actually being cooked right in front of them in the oven. I’m also enjoying the challenge of fire management with the biggest learning being to chop my logs much smaller. That way you can add ones that are 2-3 inches thick every so often, these catch light quickly and help keep a relatively stable temperature going. If the logs are any larger it just swamps the fire and absorbs all the energy, but too much smaller and they just burn out quickly.

pizza oven brunch done!

As a final little bonus we knocked up some meringues quickly and put them in the oven once everything was cooked. This falling temperature is ideal for cooking them and was about 150 degrees when we put them in. I then blocked the doorway with some bricks (this winters job is building a door) and left it for 4 hours. When I came back they were cooked perfectly and the oven was still 60 degrees so shows the insulation etc works. We had them for our pudding in the evening and they were perfectly chewy with a very delicate hint of smoke that I really quite liked.

Now to see what else I can get cooked in there before the last of the summer sun leaves us.

meringues fresh from the pizza oven

How to build a wood fired pizza oven

Warning; this post contains gratuitous photos of pizzas and manly cooking on fire. Readers may experience sudden urges to eat pizza and devote half their garden to the art of cooking the ultimate pizza.

A wood fired pizza oven has long been on my bucket list of ‘things to build when I have a big garden’, sure you can probably build one in a small garden but our last house was a Victorian terrace and I think the neighbours would probably have needed a lot of bribing with pizzas to put up with the smoke. Also not sure the kids would have been quite so excited if I’d got rid of all the grass to build it.

You may remember quite some time ago now I wrote a post right at the start of my build which was full of hope and excitement. Well as is inevitable with these things it took a little longer than planned to actually build it (the small matter of training to run 100km got in the way) but it is finally done and we have cooked our first pizza’s on it. Was it worth the effort? You bet it was, they were AMAZING. So if you’re inspired to have a go at building one or just curious on the process then read on. I will add that while I’m always willing to have a go at DIY I really don’t have any skills in building or much knowledge but it was a great experience building it and also doing something physical in the evenings that tested my brain differently to work.

Finished oven

Planning

You don’t necessarily need a massive space for the oven, my base measures just 130cm square, but some people build on worktop area and mini outdoor kitchens around it so can scale up to a much bigger area. You also don’t need to worry about what’s behind the oven, it doesn’t get that hot on the outside (if it does your insulation isn’t good and it won’t cook well!) you just need some space in front to be able to put the pizzas in etc. However do think about your neighbours, it’ll produce some smoke at the start so probably best to do it away from both your back doors and your neighbours.

Do spend time planning and researching, there are some great resources online and spending time at this stage planning and making your design decisions will make the build much easier. The inspiration for my build came from reading Flossie Teacakes blog about the one her husband had built, it made me realise it was possible even for someone like me and then he produced a handy guide which you can read in this post on her blog. It’s a great place to start and formed the basis of my build. Every build is slightly different and I took pieces from his guide and adapted slightly after reading the wonderful UK Wood Fired Oven forum. The guys on there are really helpful and the build posts give you a great way to see how other people have tackled the issues you face or designed their ovens.

I’m not going to reproduce the detail of that guide but will share some specific things I did and the design choices I made. Always happy to answer questions if you have them though as it’s my new favourite obsession.

The decision you make on design can greatly impact the cost of it, I was on a very tight budget and I think spent around £400 in total. Many people easily spend £1000+ so there is a big range. I chose to make my dome out of red house bricks as I could get these free from my neighbour, you can also build with fire bricks which are designed to withstand the heat and then hold onto it. They will make for a better oven but obviously at a cost so you have to decide what works for you.

I did however use the fire bricks for my hearth, as this is what you cook on I thought it worth the investment. I also wouldn’t scrimp on insulation as this is the key to your oven getting really hot and holding the heat to cook on. Particularly if you want to cook breads and other things in the oven which need longer to cook so heat retention is key. I used thermolite blocks under the hearth as they’re really effective and cheap, then on the dome I had some special insulation blanket plus the very weird vermicrete. The rest of the materials you can get from your local builders merchants easy enough and the guide above as all the details on those.

Size is important for pizza ovens though, mine has an internal diameter of 30 inches which is probably about as small as you want to go to be able to cook decent size pizzas and also bread. It can definitely be much larger though if you want it too.

The build

Once you’ve decided on your design you’re ready to start building and this is of course the fun bit. But don’t expect to be done in a few days, I would guess that I invested 50+ hours easily in the build and there was quite a few late evenings working in almost darkness. If you could dedicate a few solid days to it you might get done quicker though but for me evenings were the only real time I had to do it.

Doing the base was the easy bit, I used sleepers for mine as I really didn’t want to attempt bricklaying and in theory it should have been quicker. Hand cutting them was a fun task though! I also quite like the aesthetics of the wood and it fits in with our garden, but if you have a look on the forum you’ll see that most people build the base from bricks.

I then put the thermolite blocks on the sleepers for insulation and fire bricks on top of that for my hearth, then it was time to start the dome. This started off fairly easy you simply make up some mortar (which is made from cement, sand, lime and fireclay) and start making your dome shape. I used a circle cut from cardboard as my template with a piece of string in the middle. Each time you go up a layer you use the string to ensure it’s the right distance and angle from the centre.

Building the dome was relatively simple apart from 2 bits; going behind the arch and then the final few layers. I had to build a former from a sheet of wood with sand on the top for the last few layers to stop them falling in. The only other painful bit was the arch itself which fell down a few times when I tried to build too quickly and then ended up a bit wonky. Beyond that it’s really just time, I managed to get a layer done each night and there was 8 in total I think so it does take a while.

With the dome built more insulation goes on the outside and then I built a chimney on the arch where I’d left a gap during the build. Then all was needed was a few curing fires to get the moisture out of the insulation and mortar before you can fire it up properly. There were certainly some frustrating moments and it’s definitely not going to win any prizes for style or build quality but it cooks pizzas and that’s what matters!

Cooking the pizza

The moment I’d been waiting for! It took about 2 hours to build up the temperature so it was hot enough, I got up to about 530 degrees so pretty darn hot (an infrared thermometer is a very useful tool here and can be bought for about £10 off Amazon). You get through a few logs in this time as well so you do need to keep feeding the fire and tending to it periodically. You can burn any hard wood as long as it is seasoned of course.

Then once you’re up to temperature you’ll notice that the soot clears from the internal walls on the dome and you’re ready to cook. You’ll need a pizza peel here and ideally a long handled wire brush (although for now I’m using my peel). You push the fire to the back and sides and then clear the ash from the hearth. The pizza will then cook in about 2 minutes, it’s amazing to stand and watch it bubble up. You’ll probably need to turn it during this time so that one side isn’t too burnt.

Pizza cookingFinished pizza

And that’s it, you now have the means to cook the most amazing pizza outside of Italy and it sits in your back garden. Plus that’s just the start, I have an amazing wood fired oven cookbook with menus for cooking days. Yes that’s right a whole day of cooking on the oven using different temperatures as the oven rises and falls. Can’t wait!

If you have any questions at all do let me know, more than happy to help out.