Michael Pollan wrote a piece for the New York Times this past Wednesday about a 36-hour community potluck where all the dishes - from roasted goat to apricot and saffron gratin - were cooked in an outdoor cob oven. The food sounded delicious, but we were most pleased to see Pollan drawing attention to wood-fired earthen ovens in general, the subject at the core of Kiko Denzer’s Build Your Own Earth Oven .
Earth ovens combine the utility of a wood-fired, retained-heat oven with the ease and timeless beauty of earthen construction. Kiko’s book is fully illustrated with step-by-step directions, including how to tend the fire, and how to make perfect sourdough hearth loaves in the artisan tradition. The average do-it-yourselfer with a few tools and a scrap pile can build an oven for free, or close to it. Otherwise, $30 should cover all your materials–less than the price of a fancy “baking stone.” Good building soil is often right in your back yard, under your feet. Build the simplest oven in a day! With a bit more time and imagination, you can make a permanent foundation and a fire-breathing dragon-oven or any other shape you can dream up.
Earth ovens are familiar to many that have seen a southwestern “horno” or a European “bee-hive” oven. The idea (pioneered by Egyptian bakers in the second millennium bc!) is simplicity itself: fill the oven with wood, light a fire, and let it burn down to ashes. The dense, 3- to 12-inch-thick earthen walls hold and store the heat of the fire, the baker sweeps the floor clean, and the hot oven walls radiate steady, intense heat for hours.
Home bakers who can’t afford a fancy, steam-injected bread oven will be delighted to find that a simple earth oven can produce loaves to equal the fanciest “artisan” bakery. It also makes delicious roast meats, cakes, pies, pizzas, and other creations. Pizza cooks to perfection in three minutes or less. Vegetables, herbs, and potatoes drizzled with olive oil roast up in minutes for a simple, elegant, and delicious meal. Efficient cooks will find the residual heat useful for slow-baked dishes, and even for drying surplus produce, or incubating homemade yogurt.