Thursday, March 24, 2011

Baking bread in a wood-fired oven

 Recently I started baking bread again. I used to do this fairly regularly, but for whatever reasons, I just haven't done much of it in the last few years. It occurred to me that it might be fun to try baking bread in the wood-fired oven at the Alder Wood Bistro, so I started reading up on this process. Thanks to a fabulous book called "The Bread Builders: Hearth loaves and masonry ovens," my interest in this craft (or is it an art?) has gone to a whole new level.

I talked to Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro) who was positively thrilled at the idea of his wood-fired oven being used for baking bread. In fact, it turns out that his oven was actually designed by the late Alan Scott, who was not only the co-author of The Bread Builders, but also a friend of Gabriel's. I learned from Gabriel that in the mornings, the oven is at a perfect temperature for baking bread; also, because it is closed up all night long, the temperature has generally equalized throughout the large space inside the oven. So, feeling a bit like I was cramming for an exam, I studied hard, made a lot of notes, and finally began making my first batch of dough. This was on a Saturday; I had begun the starter (much like a sourdough starter) about a week before, and I was anticipating baking bread on Sunday morning.

I had never ground grain before, but it turned out to be quite easy. I clamped David's Corona stone mill to a large cutting board and then clamped the board to our kitchen table (this prevents denting or otherwise damaging the table itself), and poured some organic rye into the mill. It certainly was some work after a while, and it took some trial and error to get the consistency right; I wanted basically coarsely-cracked hard wheat and more finely ground rye. This was added to the starter along with a carefully calculated amount of water, plus more organic white flour and salt. I stirred it all just to the point of being well mixed, then let it rest for a while; this allows all the grains, especially the coarse ones, to fully hydrate before kneading. Then 15 minutes of kneading and the dough was ready to ferment (and I was ready to take a break).

As I had too much dough to put in our tiny fridge, I left it to ferment and rise in the cool end of our kitchen, well away from the wood stove. My plan was to let it rise slowly overnight, then pack up and head down to the Bistro first thing in the morning to shape, proof and bake. I had two kinds of dough, the one with cracked wheat and rye, and also a French sourdough. It didn't occur to me at that point to figure out how many loaves this was going to make, or what I would do with them. Did I mention the learning curve?

Sourdough baguettes proofing in a linen couche.

On Sunday morning, the dough had risen pretty much the way I had hoped it would; enough, but not too much. It all smelled wonderful, by the way. I was really excited. When I got to the Bistro, I unpacked everything, got organized, and started dividing, weighing and shaping the loaves. I ended up with three sourdough baguettes (0.5 kilos each), one large sourdough round (1 kilo), two large multi-grain rounds (1.5 kilos each) and one smaller multi-grain round (1 kilo). The round loaves were proofed in traditional "bannetons," baskets lined with coarse linen; the baguettes proofed nestled among the folds of a "couche," simply a length of thick, coarse linen (see photo above).

 Multi-grain loaf proofing in a banneton.

Once the loaves were proofing, there was nothing to do but wait. I figured it would take at least two hours. I had brought some writing materials with me, as well as a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle book, so I had plenty to do to occupy myself while I was waiting (somewhat impatiently) to be able to finally load the loaves into the oven.

2-1/2 hours later, the dough was ready (I had learned how to test for sufficient proof, although this was the first time I had tried it, so I was not totally sure of myself). Flipping the loaves onto the cornmeal-dusted peel and quickly slashing the tops, I slid the loaves one by one into the oven, right onto the hot brick floor. Here it was: I knew that in 40 minutes or so, I would find out if I'd succeeded in putting all I had learned into practice. Knowing how much of any skill is learned simply by practice and experience, I was mentally prepared for the possibility that all would not go as I'd hoped. Even so, I couldn't help feeling a sense of confidence; who knows why, I just did.

I set the timer for 30 minutes, after which time I would open the oven door and take a look. When I did, I could see that all the loaves were rising very nicely and beginning to brown. The only adjustment I made was to move the baguettes back a ways from the door; I had loaded them last, nearest the door, assuming that they would bake more quickly and would come out first. I could see they weren't browning as fast as the other loaves, though, so I moved the loaves around to make room for the baguettes further back.

10 minutes later, I decided it was time to take the bread out of the oven. It all looked beautiful, to my relatively inexperienced (and undoubtedly biased) eye. I left them to cool on racks and went back to the crossword puzzle to wait (even more impatiently) for the bread to cool sufficiently to cut.

Multi-grain loaves (left) and French sourdough loaves (center and top right).

All I can say is, if you've never tried a hearth-baked bread, you really should: The crust was incredibly flavorful, as well as having a wonderful crispy-chewy thing going on. We cut into a baguette first, since it was smaller and cooled off faster. I had never made sourdough before, but I thought this bread had a pretty nice flavor. Presumably as time goes on, the starter will increase in flavor and the bread will improve accordingly. A little while later, we cut into one of the large multi-grain loaves; it turned out quite well also, although I could see that next time I should make the dough "wetter" to achieve the more open crumb I was hoping for. The flavor was pretty good, however.

So, as I said, I'm learning, even if I am at the bottom end of a steep learning curve. In the meantime, I'm baking bread nearly every day, which both David and I are enjoying. And I always have the comforting knowledge that if a particular batch doesn't turn out right, the pigs have really good taste in bread.


  1. Vicki, I remember you making delicious bread way back in high school (that was a year or two ago!), so it doesn't surprise me that your ingenuity would take you to wood-fired baking. Keep going! I can hear the dull thump of those loaves in the photos. In our kitchen, we have a sour-dough starter from San Francisco that's about 5 years old that we named "McLovin'" And he really does have a personality (or my world is very small!). Great stuff and great blog. -- Chef David James Robinson,

  2. Even though I've actually seen the wood-fired oven at The Bistro, it's still a mystery to me, especially how one can control the variables to get consistent results. But I must say your results look amazing! I'm looking forward to my next visit-- I assume you need a willing guinea pig/taste-tester??

  3. Taste-testers always welcome, especially since in spite of good intentions, I seem to be baking lots of loaves at one time. (It's a huge oven, you know.) Given my relative lack of experience, feedback is always a good thing, not just in terms of technical expertise, but also I'm interested in individual preferences.