Guide: Outdoor ovens
Everybody loves good pizza, but the thin-crust version, cooked in as little as 90 seconds in an 850°F wood-fired oven, sets a higher standard for goodness with its crispy base and blistered crust, and the concentrated flavour of toppings that have been speed-roasted with intense heat. A hint of woodsmoke informs every bite and reminds you that this is how pizza should taste—a slice of perfection.
Aside from handmade dough and quality toppings, the secret to pizza from the gods is the wood-fired oven. These ovens are massively built, with a heavy masonry base supporting a thick hearthstone and a dome or beehive-shaped oven chamber, which can be constructed of clay, firebrick, or modern refractory materials (high-tech heat-resistant and heat-retaining materials, used commonly in industrial applications). This cooking dome, fitted with a chimney and an arch-shaped door, is insulated and covered with cladding, such as stucco, stone, or brick.
Cooking with a wood-fired oven
To cook with one of these heavyweights, set a small fire right inside the oven chamber, then slowly build it up over a few hours until the chamber is anywhere from 800°F to 900°F (425°C to 485°C). Once hot, the oven’s mass will hold heat for hours, which allows high temperatures to be maintained with just a small fire or a pile of coals, usually pushed to the back of the oven.
Perfect pizzas are possible because wood-fired ovens cook with a trifecta of heat energy: The hearthstone conducts heat directly into the crust, while the airflow created to feed the fire also cooks through convection. At the same time, radiant heat from the fire reflects off the domed interior to cook the top of the pizza. For the lower temperatures you’d use to bake bread, roast a few chickens, or braise a pan of short ribs, remove the coals and let the heat stored in the oven do the cooking over a long time period.
While not that common in cottage country, wood ovens are the next big thing in outdoor cookery, says Greg Adams, sales manager at Nella Cutlery Toronto, a dealer for Clementi ovens. “Four or five years ago, the only people who knew about them were from Italy—it’s what they remembered from back home,” says Adams. “But in the past three years, they’ve really taken off.”
Types of wood-fired ovens
There are three basic types of wood-fired ovens to consider: the built-from-scratch oven, a finish-it-yourself oven kit, or a completely pre-built oven. People have been building their own wood-fired ovens for centuries, but it is a daunting task, suitable only for skilled weekend warriors (or retired masons). The oven’s base is a relatively straightforward box, but the cooking chamber itself is a squat dome that must adhere to very specific size and shape tolerances to work properly. Still interested? Books on the subject abound, as do websites and wood-oven blogs.
Oven kits solve the problem of building complex curves by supplying pre-fabricated, heat-resistant components for the most crucial interior bits, and letting owners tackle the oven’s base and any decorative coverings. These kits usually include a hearthstone, the cooking dome (in one or more pieces), the opening arch and its door, and the chimney, along with all necessary insulation material. After installing appropriate footings, all the owner has to do is build the concrete-block support pillars and a concrete base slab, then assemble the 250- to 350‑kg kit on top of the base, bedding and sealing all those curvaceous parts with refractory cement. The oven can then be finished with stucco, stone, Moroccan tile mosaic, or whatever material the owner desires.
Yannick Bigourdan’s oven has one of these kits as its heart. It originally churned out pizzas at his previous restaurant, Splendido, until a kitchen reno sent it into storage. “When I bought my cottage, I took the oven there and basically started putting the pieces together like a puzzle,” says Bigourdan, whose oven is clad with log siding to match the cottage. “I wouldn’t recommend it if you are not handy. I did it with my neighbour and it took about six weekends. And definitely a few beers.”
Depending on their size, basic kits can range from $3,000 to $6,500. For an extra $1,000 to $2,000, some manufacturers offer more complete units, rang-ing from a finished oven that you set on a homemade base to fully free-standing models that include a base you can decorate yourself. At Ontario Gas Barbeque, owner Duff Dixon sells models from Chicago Brick Oven, Smok’n Hot, and Solé Gourmet, and he’s quick to point out that you can spend a fair amount of money building bases and decorating kits with stone. “In any outdoor kitchen installation, it’s not unusual for the cost of the surrounding structure to exceed the value of the purchased product.”
For those more interested in cooking than masonry work, pre-built ovens are ready for business, right off the delivery truck, complete with roof, chimney, and exterior finish. Unlike traditional wood-burners, where the fire is kindled inside the cooking chamber, pre-builts have a separate firebox underneath the oven proper. The fire (controlled with air intake vents) heats the hearthstone above it and circulates hot air up through the oven’s double walls. Looking like a household appliance on steroids, a pre-built can often fit multiple racks or hearthstones inside the square oven. Clementi even makes an optional charcoal barbecue that attaches to the side of the oven, complete with its own roof and chimney—making for a pretty slick outdoor cook station.
By all accounts, pre-built ovens perform just as well as traditional ovens except when it comes to heat retention. Weighing anywhere from 150 to 350 kg, pre-builts are much lighter than masonry monsters, which means less thermal mass to hold the heat. “They probably offer seventy-five per cent of the heat retention you’d get with a kit,” says Dixon, who sells both, “but they also take less time to heat up.” That said, massive heat retention is more important for a high-turnover pizzeria or bakery than for cottage entertaining—you can always add more wood to the firebox for longer cooking. Depending on the oven size and accessories, expect to pay anywhere from $1,200 to $7,000, which gives you an idea of the range of avail-able models.
Things to consider
All outdoor wood-burning ovens are a big investment—in time, money, or both—and what you get in the end is more a cooking lifestyle than a cooking appliance. According to Bigourdan, to be ready for pizza, you need a good three hours to heat the oven. Once the pizza is done, that heat remains, ready to cook a turkey or a few pans of lasagna for dinner, but you still have to maintain the fire—so you can’t just run off and leave the oven unattended. “It’s not instant cooking,” Bigourdan explains. “It’s like getting married. The idea is extremely romantic, but it requires work and passion and love. The result, though, is fantastic.”