Roasting holiday meals, baking artisan breads, and firing off crispy-bottomed pizzas in your wood oven will quickly, and easily, impress your friends and family. The key to success is proper fire building and fire management. Mastering fire management in a wood-fired oven may seem daunting at first, but it will quickly become an intuitive part of your outdoor cooking experience.
To become the wood-oven master of fire, just follow these simple steps:
Prepare the Right Wood
Wood selection for outdoor ovens is important. When choosing the wood that you will burn in your oven seek out dense hardwoods like hickory, maple, or oak. These will burn hotter, slower, and more evenly than less dense woods like pine or cedar. Once you’ve chosen your wood, spend a little time preparing those logs for the oven. You’ll need a few larger logs (about 10”x5”x5”) alongside 15-20 smaller kindling splits (roughly 10”x1.5”x1.5”). The larger pieces will be used to establish the base of the fire, and then the smaller splits will be used to give the fire small doses of fuel throughout the cook.
Building the Base Fire
Make sure to clean the oven of any ash or unburnt coals from a previous cook before starting a new fire. Then add a single large log to the back of the oven chamber, and place a second a few inches away parallel to the first. Layer in some small kindling and paper (newspaper, torn cardboard, or a twisted up brown paper bag are ideal). Then layer a few of the smaller split’s perpendicular to the base logs. Once you double check that the oven’s flue is open, you can light the paper. Leave the oven door open a crack so plenty of oxygen can feed the young fire, but any popping wood cannot escape the chamber. Once the logs are all lit and the fire is blazing, you can close the door and adjust the damper to keep the fire going.
Allow the fire to burn for at least an hour to translate its heat to the steel oven and heat refractory bricks. You can make minor adjustments to the damper if the fire looks to be fading. With a large base of coals in the fire chamber, the thermometer should climb well past your target cooking temperature.
Cool the Oven to Target Cooking Temperature
Once the large fire has heated the oven and the heat refractory bricks, allow the fire to slowly burn down until it starts to approach your desired cooking temperature. For hot-and-fast Neapolitan-style pizza look for a high-heat of 550-600 degrees, when roasting meats you will likely target ranges between 400 degrees and 450 degrees, and breads will cook closer to 300 or 350 degrees. Once the oven temperature is hovering at your target range, take a look at the fire and make a mental picture of the volume of coals. While every coal bed is different, this volume of coals should usually align with similar temperature ranges. As you are cooking in the oven, monitor the cooking temperature and add small splits one at a time, as needed to maintain temperature. Be careful here, adding too many splits at once will quickly spike the oven temperature.
Remember, when you set your indoor kitchen oven to a target temperature, it rarely cooks at that exact heat level. Instead, its internal monitors will cycle the heat on and off as the oven warms and cools throughout the cook. When cooking in a wood-fired oven, you get to become this monitor. As you learn how your oven behaves with your wood selection and the size of your wood splits, knowing when to add more splits will become second nature.
Tips for Getting Started with Your Wood-Fire Oven
If this is your first cook in your new wood-fired oven, here are a few tips that might be helpful along the way:
- Consider A Practice Run – With a brand-new wood-fired oven, the manufacturer will likely recommend an initial burnout to remove any residue from the manufacturing process (see our Care and Maintenance Tips for reference). Use this first burn as a fire management practice run. Build the fire as described above, and then see how much fuel needs to be added to adjust cooking temperatures.
- Remember Fire Needs Oxygen – A well-built fire will promote oxygen flow and circulation not just in the oven chamber but between the burning logs. As you add new splits try to lay them perpendicular to the previous fuel addition. Also, utilize the oven’s damper to control the airflow into the oven. Often a fire that looks like it is dying out just needs a few minutes with the dampers completely open, to roar back to life.
- Rotate Food as it Cooks – Just like indoor ovens, wood-fired outdoor ovens can have hotter spots and cooler spots. Try to rotate foods throughout the cooking time to even out these differences.
- Charcoal Training Wheels – If you find yourself struggling with fire management in the early stages, try adding some hardwood lump charcoal to the initial base fire. Once the charcoal has helped accelerate the fire to a solid base of coals, then you can continue to add small amounts of lump charcoal or switch to small wood splits to fuel the fire.
- Always Be Safe Cooking with Real Fire – Cooking with real fire, whether charcoal or wood, is amazing fun and will render unique flavors that you could never replicate in your indoor kitchen, but it is always important to be safe when working with live fire. Keep wood burning ovens and grills away from buildings and overhanging limbs. Make sure to have heavy-duty gloves at hand when reaching into hot ovens. Of course, keeping the proper fire extinguisher stationed nearby is always a MUST for real fire cooking.
Cooking with real wood fire is both art and science. Mastering wood fire management only takes a little practice, but it will change the way you approach outdoor cooking. With these tips for building the best fire and managing those coals in your wood-fired oven you too will be impressing family and friends with your mastery of fire in no time.