Starting in the summer of 2007 I have been strongly considering the idea of building a wood-fired oven at my family’s cottage north of Toronto. I’ve engaged in a lot of talk and reading though not very much action but this year it has become a family-wide affair and looks like it’s going ahead.
I think it’s important we deal with the why before addressing the when, what, where, and how of oven construction. Outdoor ovens do many things better than their city cousins. They act as the focus for social gatherings, can add a slight smoky taste to food and keep the kitchen cool in the heat of August. There is one thing that they can do that home ovens absolutely cannot: cook authentic Neapolitan pizza. Some like Jeffrey Steingarten–who broke one oven and carbonized a pizza in another while trying to use the self-clean feature–have tried but without total success. As discussed in my second pizza post from March 2009 Heston Blumenthal’s cast-iron pan method (that I borrowed from Serious Eats and the guys at The Paupered Chef) comes the closest. A well-built, properly-tended outdoor oven can more easily reach the 750° to 850°F needed to cook an authentic pizza in less than three minutes.
Before going any further a bit on the interchangeable names, at least as I understand them. Some of these ovens, especially when prefabricated and mass-produced, have the option to use a fuel like propane but ours will use wood so I’ll often call it a wood-fired oven. The structure that holds the fire and food is usually made from clay, stone, tile, or bricks often held together by mortar so they’re also called masonry ovens. These all can be built inside–sometimes as part of a larger fireplace structure–but ours will be outside so it’s also distinguished by its location when I call it an outdoor oven. So, pizza oven, outdoor oven, or masonry oven all work but for online purposes (and with Google word selection matters) wood-fired oven (or “WFO”) is best.
For all the other details there is a plethora of information available online and offline. So much that it can contradictory and confusing. The highlight from the world of books (remember them?) is Daniel Wing and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders. This book (which, strictly speaking, is more focused on bread ovens than pizza ovens) is supported by the website and and associated business Alan Scott started: Oven Crafters. Otherwise, I’ve found the best online source of information is Forno Bravo and their online forums where users post step-by-step updates on their oven builds (like these: Dino’s and Dave’s). Forno Bravo also sells pre-fabricated ovens, complete kits for building and using an oven, and a variety of the separate materials needed to build an oven “from scratch”. Best of all, they provide the plans for building a fairly advanced oven for free (pictured above, printed in the three-ring binder).
I plan on making this post the first of many but I also hope that my voice is one of many in this discussion. If you have tips, hints, questions, or random outbursts please leave them in the comment section.