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Brick/Wood Fired hearth versus Gas/Electric

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James (and others):

What are your thoughts on the quality of goods made in Wood Fired/Brick Hearth type ovens versus gas or electric ovens used in commercial baking? Which kinds of breads do better in one or the other?

Is it possible to produce only certain types of results in a Brick oven? Or is this one of those things where the skill of the baker comes into play?

Thanks for joining us.

Jason Perlow, Co-Founder eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

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A few years ago, I spent some time with my great friend and mentor, Charles Barrier, at his country house in Ste-Maure, 30 minutes south of Tours ( yes, it's where thst cylindrical ash-coated goat's cheese is made and we ate it fresh in the morning and aged for lunch and dinner. The local butcher had a connection for veal liver as I had never, ever seen, and Barrier used to send some to Robuchon in Paris). We made bread one day in the house's 16th century oven, and although the bread was far from perfect, how could I not have been touched for life?

Last weekend Jeffrey Hamelman and his wife Chiho constructed a Quebec style out door bread oven, and we went to help-out, and I had the same kind of deep feelings and am eager to return when it's ready to be fired-up.

When I consider the question in more practical terms, I tend to agree with Raymond Calvel. There are two types of woodburning oven:

---- The more old fashioned wood-burning ovens have fires built in the oven itself, and once things are hot, the ashes, etc are removed and the floor cleaned so that the loaves don't become black with soot on the bottoms. The baking is then done with risidual heat, so the oven's initial hot temperature is suited for pizze and other items which are baked in a hot oven, and bakers had to time their production schedule in function of the oven's falling temperature. One the bread baking was done, housewives could bring Cassoulet, Alsatian Baeckoffe, the Quebecois Feves au Lard and lother long-simmered dishes to be baked, thus freeing themselves up for a morning of washing. Other uses included drying/sanitising down for pillows and comforters, and my friend Michel Catrice's mother used to bring her meringues to be baked.

------- More modern woodburning ovens are heated indirectly, that is, a fire is built in a fireplace which heats the bricks/stone indirectly, with a chiminy that eliminates the smoke. There is no contact, in other words, between the burning matter and the bread which is baking. The advantage is that more wood can be added on a regular basis.

The problem with both possibilities is that there is no contact between the bread and the fire or smoke. So that to see a difference, as Calvel has written, " one would have to posess taste buds equipped with fertile imaginations". For this reaso, it is illegal in France to advertise wood oven bread in connection with indirectly heated ovens.

As I said, I am fascinated by, and somewhat emotionally attatched to wood ovens, but feel personally that baking is complicated enough without the further challange of a wood oven. That said, if there were some way of conducting a controlled experiment and a blind tasting I would eagerly volonteer.

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In the mid-1970s I worked for a stint (I guess "stage" would be the better term) in a large bakery in southern Germany. Other than the tunnel oven used for some of the bulk bread production, and other than the endless marching batallions of

four-abreast kaiser rolls, and not including the extensive area devoted to pastry production, there were also 12 steam-injected woodburning brick ovens (6 more were being built). Only certain loaves baked in them. The ovens were manned by Turks, who not only did the baking, but arrived earlier than anyone else to cut the hardwood slab wood with a hand held hatchet in order to build their fires. In spite of being young and fit, I found the work to be incessant and demanding--and providing a seed of fascination that sprouted and has remained within me for over 25 years.

There are claims about the virtue of bread baked in woodburning ovens that I can not dispute. The combination of conductive, convective, and reflective heat does indeed seem to produce breads with a character that can't quite be duplicated in a standard commercial oven. The breads I ate from the German ovens were astonishing. My most lingering recollection is of a bread made with quark (somewhat akin to dry cottage cheese, but it's a cultured product); it was a straight dough, wet textured and with a rather low profile after the bake. The flavor was amazing. There was a relationship between the crust--dark but not burned, and thin--and the crumb--moist but not gummy, with large holes--that I believe was directly attributable to the brick oven bake. I made the bread every week for years and years afterwards in a commercial hearth bread oven, and it was good, but I could never quite duplicate the distinct character of the original.

Of course, other factors enter in when baking in a woodburning oven, such as difficulty in steaming the oven, and fire management. When the bread is ready, the fire better be in perfect shape. James is right--there are already plenty of challenges to the bake, and adding in the considerations of fire management is a large jump in that department. That in itself should not deter anyone from considering looking into woodfired baking. It is probably not feasible for an urban venture, but for someone in a rural area with access to plenty of wood, it might make sense. It is certainly a much cheaper start up compared to gas or electric alternatives. But it does require extensive experience and facility with bread--if skills in any aspect of bread production need improvement, it's probably better to focus on that before embarking on the added complexities of managing the wood oven.


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