Earthen Ovens 101

woodoven pizza

One of my dreams, as we were developing Kapalai and learning an old style of living, was to build and learn how to cook in a wood-fired earthen oven. We have an abundance of trees many of which are invasive species and need to be removed. Eventually, our plan is to replace them with native varieties. In the meantime, there are piles of wood all around our property that need to be used for something besides ant and termite food. Staring at these potential ant nests, I began to dream of using the wood for a greater purpose such as milling for hardwood floors, heating water or cooking food. Since the Wilhelm’s are great lovers of food, I chose the later and thus began my quest to research wood ovens from all over the world. In my studies, I uncovered a rich heritage of earthen oven cooking from one end of the globe to the other. It turns out that most cultures at one time used some type of earthen oven built from the natural materials available to them to cook their food. Many cultures still regularly cook in this type of oven. In Italy and Portugal, it is not uncommon to find one of these in most backyards. I researched many different styles built from a variety of materials. Overwhelmed by the complexity of construction, I even thought about having a prefabricated one shipped from Italy! (OK, I was getting a little carried away!)

One day we were visiting another farm. At the end of our tour, I spotted the most lovely adobe (or Cobb) oven. I had to inquire who was responsible for this beautiful creation. With a few phone calls, I was soon in touch with an archeologist experienced in natural cobb building. This was a new concept for me. I knew about adobe in the Southwest U.S. I guess it is all the same. Mix some mud with some straw and you have nature’s first version of concrete. Our new friend recommended reading How to Build An Earthen Oven by Kiko Denzer. So I faithfully went on Amazon, purchased my book and thus began our adventure. Three months later after building a base, gathering all our materials, and calling some friends, we were ready to build our first earthen oven. This oven is one of my favorite features at Kapalai. We have had so much fun learning a new SLOW style of cooking. It is a whole science that requires much trial and error which means a few batches of brownies the color of charcoal and some explosions of very expensive cookware. To cook a meal it takes two hours to preheat my oven. But the results are well worth the wait. The flavors are so intense. The cooking is fast. Pizzas come out in 3 minutes (no joke). Roast chicken in 15 min with a beautifully browned crust. Homemade bread in 20. Today, we are now enjoying our second oven (after a little disaster). It is our favorite thing to fire up the oven as a family, try some new recipes and sit by the glow of the fire. I highly recommend one in everyone’s backyard.

Here are the steps:

  1. Gather your mud (we have lots of that). The more clay content the better.
  2. Mix with mason’s sand.
  3. Get a bunch of bare feet and let the mixing begin.
  4. Prepare your base and build your first layer of insulation. (we used a layer of beer bottles.)
  5. Lay your fire brick which will retain the heat for the floor of your oven.
  6. Build your form out of beach sand or other round matter that will hold under the weight of the mud.
  7. Build your hearth.
  8. Start layering your mud.
  9. We put three layers of 3-inch thick mud. The top layer is mixed with straw. We still have not put the finishing touches on as it is awaiting the final layer of lime plaster.
  10. Enjoy the most delicious home cooked meals and make some new family memories!