There’s something magical about preparing, cooking, and enjoying food outdoors. Perhaps it’s a throwback to much earlier times, when dancing flames and patience turned meat into a meal, turned flesh into food, and brought a sense of joy, of wellbeing, of belonging to a tribe.
Certainly our taste buds haven’t forgotten the magic. But would you like to try barbequing in a hip new way? Wood-fired ovens have come into their own lately, and it may surprise you that they, in actuality, are grounded in a long-ago past. Wood-fired ovens have featured prominently in ancient cultures ranging from Asia to Europe to the New World.
Generally speaking, a wood-fired oven can be built from any material which will retain its strength after multiple firings. Therefore, you see the tandoor oven used in Indian cuisine, an adobe oven used in Latin America (dating back to precolumbian times), and an earth oven used by the Zuni Indians. What enables fired clay material to work so effectively as an oven is that it absorbs and retains the heat generated from burning wood. Another way to describe this material is by using the Old English word of “cob,” which means “lump.” Local clay would be dug and combined with sand and straw. The cob oven is common throughout cultures from England and Europe to Asia and the New World, some from the earliest civilizations.
If you built your oven with bricks, or stone, you would be constructing something similar to that which was used in Europe dating back to the Roman Republic. Also known as a “black” oven, this version of a Roman oven cooks food in the same chamber with the direct heat from the fire. (A “white” oven, on the other hand, cooks food in a chamber separated from direct heat, and therefore the cooking chamber remains sootless, or “white.”) Descendants of these ovens could be seen in medieval Europe, where they often served the baking needs of entire communities. Frequently, a fee would be charged to use such ovens. Communal baking also helped to promote fire safety, when the average village meant thatched-roof houses clustered closely together. Later, versions of the communal ovens were brought to colonial America and New France. Stone or brick ovens both trap and radiate heat.
No matter the style of building, or what it’s been made from, all ovens have in common an opening, an oven chamber, a dome, and a floor. Depending upon how heavily the oven has been built, later baking can be done with stored residual heat. And, just as key, the oven can be heated to temperatures in the range of 650 to 750 degrees Fahrenheit: temperatures impossible for the wall-mounted oven.
So what, may you ask, does all this information have to do with barbeque? Well, the Italians discovered long ago that the cooking of meat in a wood-fired oven results in something wonderful. Grill or roast your chicken, lamb, beef, pork, sausages, or even fish via wood-fueled fire, and its smoke imparts a flavor to the meat you perhaps haven’t experienced before.
The Italian method involves building a fire to the side of where you will be barbequing in the oven; you want a small fire which is heavy on flame. Your wood choice is important: you want a wood which burns at a high temperature and which can impart a good flavor to the food. Great choices include mesquite, apple, maple, hickory, oak and pecan woods. Skip soft wood or evergreen fuels: they burn at too low of a temperature, and can mar your food’s flavor with their sap… yuck. Okay. Ready to cook? Use a two-piece, self-standing vertical grill to cook the meat; simply load the grill with meat, tip it onto its feet on the oven floor, and begin the beguine! Do tend your fire, so that its heat remains small and constant during the barbequing process.