The Wood-Fired Blog

I can’t Wait!

I have been building this up for months to all my friends, family, colleagues, the gardeners, the repairman and anyone else who would listen.

Ever since I decided I wanted my own Forno Bravo wood fired pizza oven, I have been talking about all the wonderful things I am going to bake in the new oven – breads, meats, and most importantly the pizza everyone was dying to try. I spent hours researching the different dough and sauce recipes. I pored through the forums to make sure I didn’t make any rookie mistakes. 

Now, I am not a serious chef. In truth my wife handles all the cooking except manning the barbeque or the occasional baking adventure to satisfy my sweet tooth.  But this was going to be my new adventure. As I waited for my oven to ship, I spent my evenings watching the Food Network and dreaming. I envisioned awesome summer get-togethers with the whole family and elegant evenings sipping wine with friends on the trellis-covered patio. A new lifestyle that you can only dream of was going to come true. 

Once the oven arrived, the anticipation intensified. I eagerly waited as the lift-gate on the delivery truck lowered the crate to the street. The driver talked up the coolness that is wood-fired pizza ovens as I convinced him to help me push my massively heavy new toy up the incline of my driveway. Once we had it up the driveway I couldn’t wait any longer. A few minutes later we had the crate apart and we were staring at a thing of beauty. This was the golden ticket, the desired passport to the summers I had always dreamed of. 

The coming weeks were hard as I waited for weekend days when it was warm enough outside for me to spend the day tending the fire so the oven would cure properly. It is kind of like giving a child a toy and saying they have to wait for batteries. I live in Colorado and in the winter the weather is unpredictable. I can now tell you from experience that maintaining a low temperature fire, like those required to cure the oven, is a challenge when it is 20 degrees outside. I spent days bundled up running in and out of the house as I dreamt of making and tasting that first slice.

Once the oven was cured I was ready to have people over right away. I checked the weather and did a little happy dance since it was going to be 40 degrees outside that weekend and we had no other commitments. My Denver Broncos had already disappointingly been eliminated from playoffs so my Sunday afternoon was free! I invited some family over to help witness the awesomeness that was going to commence, and I spent Saturday afternoon making sure everything was in order: homemade San Marzano tomato sauce, homemade dough, 5 cheeses, 6 meat choices, herbs and drinks. There was nothing I was going to miss.

I woke up the next morning with a big smile on my face. Today was the day. I went outside and triple checked the fire starter stack I had meticulously built. I checked the dough and set out the plates. When the time came I lit the fire, and watched the flame dance across the dome. I felt the warmth of the fire on my face. I knew this was the start of something special.

I’ll save the details and challenges of that first attempt at pizza for another post, but I can tell you this much: it wasn’t perfect and that didn’t really matter. Some day I might be able to make the perfect pizza, but it’s not about perfection, it’s about the joy of the experience. The challenge. The food. The laughter of family. This summer and all subsequent summers and springs and falls will be filled with amazing gatherings of friends that center on our new oven, and I can’t wait. 

Five Pounds of Sugar in a Three Pound Bag (or Loaf Pan)

I’ve been having a mismatch between my desire to use Baker’s Percentages in grams and American loaf pans. Baking in grams is one of the best things to ever happen to me. OK, that might be an exaggeration, but it’s still a big deal. Weighing everything on a digital scale eliminates measuring cups and measuring spoons, it’s faster, it’s more accurate and there isn’t anything to clean up afterwards. What could be better.

And doing all of it in grams is so simple. It’s the 10 scale with zero fractions and very little complicated math. As a funny aside, the decimal system does seem to upset some people. One of our YouTube videos discusses making pizza dough balls by weight using grams, and one of the commenters wrote — “you are American. Quit using grams and use something we all understand. Cups or pounds and ounces”. I think he was serious.

But on to my mismatch. I bake bread in 500 gram increments, usually either 500 grams or 1kg per batch. Again, it just sort of makes sense, and the math is really easy. 20 grams of salt per 1kg of flour, and 10 grams of salt per 500 grams of flour. Even I can remember that.

But a typical 500 gram loaf of bread with some oatmeal or flax bran, seeds, nuts or raisins tends to weight about 1.2-1.3 pounds. Which means that is too big for a 1 pound loaf pan and too small for a 1.5 pound loaf pan. haha. I know in the big scheme of things that this really isn’t important. But here is a 500 gram loaf in a 1 pound loaf pan. Tastes great; looks too tall — and some times the top comes off in the toaster.



Most people who bake bread or read some of the really nice bread cookbooks out there (and there are some really good ones) know how important pre-fermentation is. It extracts more complexity and flavor from you flour and it allows your yeast more time to work on your flour, giving your bread better flavor and better shelf-life.

Or, as the good people at Wikipedia (oh, wait. That’s all of us) put it:

A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.

For me, the tricky part of this has been putting what I know into real practice. I think it came to a head when I tried making a straight white bread dough the night before, and then putting it in the refrigerator overnight. I brought the dough out the next morning, hoping to revive it, and make a nice baguette. Sort of left-over pizza dough, but without the pizza. But it was really disappointing. The dough lost its elasticity, to where it seemed to break up into short strands and the baked bread was really pretty darn poor. It seemed as though the dough lost its life and its spring.

All of which forced me to actually think about the pre-fermentation process and how I could make it work with my day-to-day bread baking — which is when something important (maybe) stuck me. I could start my pre-fermentation very easily, without making a mess or really adding any time to the process. The trick was to put some basic proportions in place and stick to it, which would free me up to finish the dough the next day. That way I would get the dual benefits of simplicity and pre-fermenation.

Here’s how I am doing it. At the end of the evening (after cleaning up dinner but before I get too sleepy), I measure all of the water for the dough (80% by Baker’s Percentage in the case of most of my whole grain, whole wheat loaves), and 70% of the flour, which for me is all whole wheat. Plus all of the salt for the finished loaf and just enough yeast to get it going. Perhaps 4-5% — just enough to get it started.

For a simple 500 gram loaf, that is 400 grams of water and 350 grams of whole wheat flour, plus 10 grams of salt and 2-ish grams of yeast. Then, I mix it with the beater attachment in my stand mixer — not the kneading hook. Sometimes I go to bed and leave it out overnight, and sometimes I refrigerate it; I haven’t really worked out if one method is substantially better than the other, and if it is worth the extra steps and having to clean up an extra bowl.

The next day, I add the finishing flour — some combination of 150 grams of white whole wheat, whole wheat and AP flour to reach the 500 grams of flour, plus some nuts, seeds, oat or flax bran, honey, molasses and/or olive oil. No more yeast and no more salt. The extra flour gives the active, lively pre-fermented batter the fuel it needs to make a light and airy loaf using whole grains; and it all builds on the pre-ferment and the extended time the dough, the yeast and grains have to develop.

My bread has consistently been a lot better.

All of which reminds me of a story. A long time ago, we had a client who was a world-class authority on object-oriented software development, and his company often used skiing as an analogy for learning advance development methods, saying “you can’t learn to sky from a book. At some point you have to hurtle your body down a mountain in order for the intellectual aspects of the sport to become real”. For me, the is my hurtling down the mountain moment. I’ve made bread with pre-fermenats before, but I really only did it by following recipes. This time, maybe I really understand it. Maybe.

Dough Storage and Refrigeration

Time to get a covered, air-tight dough storage container. If you take a look at this photo, you can see that a pretty thick and dry skin developed on my whole wheat oat dough overnight while it rested in the mixing bowl covered with a towel. I stretched and folded it out, and it will get re-hydrated inside the dough ball, but I don’t think this is a good thing.

Dough and Refrigeration

Longer fermentation times release more flavors from the grains we use and gives the yeast and enzymes in our dough more time to break down the carohydrates that are present. I recently read that a well developed dough can have up to 300 different flavor molecules. My guess is that we all pretty understand this at some level, but in general we might be too busy or rushed to actually do something about it. I know that all too often I simply decide to make bread and compress the entire mixing, kneading, stretching, folding, fermenting, shaping, proofing and scoring process down into a matter of hours.

But good bread needs more time. They keep telling us, and I am trying to listen. So recently, I have been starting to take the time to plan ahead and refrigerate my dough. Once I can internalize the processes and make them natural — and make sure that I do more planning ahead — I think this will be a big step forward in improving my bread.

Thinking for a minute, there seem to be a number of different places in the break making process where you can retard fermentation and slow things down. Off the top of my head, you can use ice water to mix your dough, you can mix your dough and drop it straight into the refrigerator, you can bulk ferment  your dough (and stretch and fold it), and then put it in the refrigerator, and you can shape your loaves and put them in the refrigerator. I’m sure there are other methods that I haven’t thought of.

The other day, I was behind in firing my oven and knew that waiting for my pizza oven to cool down into bread baking temperatures could take a long time and that my loaves would over-proof. So I put them in the refrigerator and only pulled them out right before I loaded them into the oven. It might not have been pre-planned or even the right way to plan things, but it worked out really well. I think it’s a new tool in my bread baking kit.

One thing I need to think about is how to best protect my dough from the air and things going on in the refrigerator. The loaves above were stored for 4 hours after they were shaped, and I covered them with a towel. You can see that they developed a pretty thick skill top. Though in this case, the “top” was the bottom, as I flipped the loaves onto a peel, and scored them. I think I need to think about a system with plastic covers. Well, maybe.

Of course there are lots of hobbyists and professionals who always ferment their pizza dough overnight, and sometimes longer. The extra time your dough matures gives it great flavors, and it improves how well your pizza “chars”.

So tonight, I just mixed a 1Kg batch of whole wheat oat and oat bran batch and it’s going to sleep overnight in the refrigerator. Tomorrow I will let it warm up, and stretch and fold my way into what I hope are a couple of nice loaves.

Cuisinart Update

It might be as simple as learning to work with a new appliance — or perhaps the Cuisinsart mixer does not have a comparable mixing action and bowl design with the KitchenAid. But I seem to be having trouble getting my entire batch of dough to mix into a nice ball, where the mixer leaves unmixed flour at the bottom of the bowl. There is also a lot of dry flour build up on the side of the bowl, none of which is good. As a lazy baker (someone who tries to be really efficient so that I can focus on the aspects of my hobby that are really fun and have the biggest impact), I don’t want to spend a lot of time messing with my mixer after I have weighed my ingredient.

In an attempt to stop this from happening today, I “mixed” the dry ingredients and the water using the kneading attachment in my hand. After weighing the dry ingredient, I added and weighed the water and then gave it a good mix before attaching the kneading arm and turning on the mixer for 10 minutes. After the cycle was complete, I took a look under the dough and there was still dry, unmixed flour. Blah. I mixed it in my hand and turned the mixer back on for another five minutes, and it all eventually was done. Then, six folds and back into the bowl for bulk fermentation.

I can see that the bottom of the Cuisinart bowl does not have as deep an indent as the KA bowl. Does that matter?

This needs a great deal more testing until I either figure out how to make it work easily — or decide that the Cuisinart isn’t the mixer for me. More to come.

Today’s batch is Whole Wheat Pine Nut (because I had pine nuts in the cupboard). Sounds good!

Steel Cut Oats

According to Wikipedia, steel cut oats are:

Steel-cut oats are whole grain groats (the inner portion of the oat kernel) which have been cut into pieces. They are commonly used in Scotland and Ireland to make porridge, whereas rolled oats are used in England, other English-speaking countries, and Scandinavia. They are sometimes named after the grade of cut, e.g. pinhead oats; steel-cut oats from Ireland are sometimes called Irish oats. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than instant or rolled oats due to their minimal processing, typically 15–30 minutes (though much less if pre-soaked). The flavor of the cooked oats is described as being nuttier than other types of oats, and they are also chewier.

All of which makes a lot of sense in the context of bread baking. Recently, I have been making a lot of whole wheat oat bread with rolled oats (or old fashioned oats) that I have soak in hot water before adding them to my dough. In this batch, I simply (and pretty lazily) added 100 grams of raw steel cut oats to a 500kg batch of whole wheat dough — no pre-soaking. One boule.

The results were interesting, though not 100% good. While the oats became a little softer and they added a little bit of a crunchy texture to the dough, they were just too hard and even a little bit gritty. You can see the oats (like little pellets) in the crumb of the loaf.

Here is the formula:


300 grams whole wheat
100 grams white whole wheat
100 grams general purpose
100 gram steel cut oats
30 gram olive oil
30 grams honey
25 grams mollasses
375 grams water (75% hydration)

Now I want to work out whether rolled oats are simply a better type of oat for whole wheat bread, or whether I can get a better result by soaking my steel cut oats (either overnight in tap water, or for a short period of time in boiling water). Time for some Internet research. Also, our good friend Peter Reinhart has written an entire book on baking with whole grains.


Pizza Oven Bread Baking Temperature

There is a trade-off when baking bread between higher temperature baking, which gives you a lighter, crisper crust, and more moderate (lower) baking temperatures, which give your bread a thicker and denser crust. Of course not all breads are the same, and a sourdough miche typically sports a thicker, chewier crust, why traditional light, yeasted breads, such as baguettes and ciabatta’s, have the thinnest and crunchiest of crusts.

But I think you can take this too far. In my impatience to bake (and often real-world time constraints), combined with a slight (and totally unwarranted) bit of nerves that my oven will cool down too fast to where my bread won’t bake — I have been baking my light breads at temperatures ranging from the high 500F’s into the low 600F’s. Which means that my bread is baking very quickly. Sometimes as quick as 10 minutes. And the balance between the crust and the crumb is OK, with the inside of the loaf reaching 200F-210F while the outside is a warm brown.

Still, I think the crust on my loaves might be too thin and too light. Next step — I am going to make a conscious effort to give my pizza oven time to fall into the low to mid 500Fs before I load my bread. I know that the oven will retain enough heat for a very solid bake, so now all I need is the convictions and patience to actually do it.