Bread oven

Bread oven
Building a bread oven was until a few years ago a job for the professionals. But now you can buy a kind of kit which allows you to build your own bred oven without professional masonry know-how. You should know that the kits only provide the main part of oven, the hearth, where you light the fire and cook. All the other parts, need to be designed and made yourself, and it takes a lot more work and time than the hearth.

Here, in a few pages, is how I built and use mine the "Bernard Belpois" model, from my father's name who do almost everything in this saga, from a model 99 kit of the Panyol company.
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Last modified on: June 3rd 2024



The principle of the Bread oven

Unlike a conventional gas or electric kitchen oven with a constant source of heat, in a wood-fired bread oven we start by lighting a fire in it, leaving the door open, until the right temperature is reached. During this period, the whole mass of the oven (made with firebricks or equivalent) stores up heat. Then we remove the fire and embers, put bread dough in, and close the door. The accumulated heat is givien off by the oven fabric, and bakes the dough into bread.

This method, called "closed fire", is used for bread, cakes, brioches, croissants etc.

On this diagram you can see the temperature in the centre of the oven.

Measuring starts at H0, after two hours of heating when all embers are removed, with oven at 430°C or 806°F, and outside at 15°C or 59°F on that November day.

You can see the great temperature stability, after 24 hours the oven was still at 40°C or 104°F...

Temperature diagram

Click on the diagram to enlarge.

You can also use the "open fire" method, still heating the oven as before, but leaving the embers in, and door open, during cooking. This method is used for pizzas and pitta bread.

Lighting, heating and cooking

Start by lighting a small fire in the centre of the oven.Wood oven: Starting fire
When this small fire is going well, add bigger pieces of split wood Split wood burns much easily than whole branches or logs.

Do not use pieces that are too big, because they burn slowly, and flames are better for heating than embers.

Wood oven: Regular fire
To begin with, the inside of the roof oven turns black, that's normal due to soot.Wood oven: black inside
Continue adding wood for about 2 and a half hours. After this time, the oven pyrolyses: the soot disappears and it becomes perfectly clean again (magic!).Wood oven: white inside
The volume of wood is a bit difficult to gauge. To give you an idea, here is the pile before starting...Wood oven: Wood before
...and at the end.Wood oven: wood after
From here on, it's open fire cooking: pizzas for example, still keeping a small fire going at the back or sides of the oven.Wood oven: Pizzas
Once all pizzas are cooked, spread the embers over the whole oven surface and leave for about one hour, to get an even temperature.Wood oven: Embers
Then remove all embers and ashes, and clean the sole using a broom or a mop.

Leave the temperature to drop slowly to about 250°C or 482°F with the door closed (from 30 to 60 minutes or more).

Now it's ready for baking bread.

Wood oven: Breads
Then cakes, tarts, pies, etc...Wood oven: Cakes
If you plan to make meringues, wait until the oven is at about 100°C or 212°F before starting, so you will be sure to get nice white ones.Wood oven: Meringues
Still at low temperature, you can dry fruit or other items.Wood oven: Dry fruits
Ideally of course, you should optimize your heating by cooking a range of things at the right time. Here is a brief example of timings:
  • 08:30 AM: Kneading bread dough.
  • 09:00 AM: Start of resting time for dough.
  • 10:00 AM: Lighting fire in the oven.
  • 12:30 AM: Pizza cooking.
  • 01:30 PM: Embers spread on sole.
  • 02:00-02:30 PM: Removing of embers, cleaning, temperature drops slowly...
  • 03:00 PM: Bread dough goes in the oven.
  • 03:30 PM: Bread removed. Brioches, cakes and tarts go in.
  • Around 05:00 PM: Meringues and/or fruit to dry.
Wood oven: Full day products
And finally, the amateur baker know that if he (or she) puts his wood in the oven overnight to dry, the next fire will be much better.Wood oven: Drying wood

Recipes around the bread oven

See list here.

Some books and links

Marcel Pagnol

"I will make you bread like you have never seen before. I will knead each batch half an hour longer, and I will mix rosemary in the faggots for heating the oven. And while it bakes, I will not sleep as usual, but I will open the door every five minutes and not take my eyes off it. I will make you a bread so good that it will no longer serve as an accompaniment to other things, but will be food for gourmets... You will no longer say `I have eaten cheese on a slice of bread', but `I've enjoyed a slice of bread under some cheese'. And each day, on top of my usual batch, I will knead 5 kilos for the poor... And in each loaf that I make, there will be great friendship and abundant thanks".

I love the dialogues by French author and director Marcel Pagnol in general, and especially this one, from the film "The Baker's Wife".

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