Cooking in a Woodfired Oven

On Saturday I went on a course to learn how to use our rather elderly pizza oven properly.  We have had it for 18 years now so, although I had been doing pizzas in it, I was sure I could do more and better!

Mike, who is the pizzaiolo of Lucca Enoteca in Manningtree, is a third generation Italian chef and turns out something like 800 pizzas a week from his woodfired oven certainly helped me look at things differently.

Rather than make this an extra long post, I will post how to make and shape dough another time as well as giving some ideas for different combos of toppings and how to make calzones.   I must, however, mention Nutella pizza   Just cook a plain base and spread with Nutella once out of the oven   I found today the Nutella had mysteriously disappeared so I used praline paste and chocolate drops instead   Delicious with an espresso to sip on

The photos are from today, Sunday, when I put what I had learnt to the test   I think I got the best results ever and am no longer worried about putting the pizza directly on the oven floor as I know how to control the ash  Here are the top ten tips I learnt 

Top Ten Tips for using a Woodfired oven 

  1. Woodfired ovens can take a long time to heat up – particularly if they haven’t been used for a while.  The amount of time varies with the type of oven. Mine, which is a small oven, took about 3 hours.  You can often see a colour change in the colour of the base to a white-ish hue
  2. Use well seasoned wood. I favour fruit woods – particularly Pear, apple or cherry.  You can use oak or ash. Remember the type of wood does influence how the food tastes
  3. Welders gloves are really useful for putting on extra logs and protecting your hands when using fire tools to move the fire about
  4. When you are ready to cook, push the fire to the side or back.  You want a slow burn at this stage not fierce flames.  Try and vary where you leave the fire burning on different occasions so the base doesn’t crack.
  5. Sweep the floor of your oven with a long handled oven proof brush.  I also sacrificed a golf ball sized piece my uncooked dough to roll over the area I was going to cook on using the back of the peel (a sheet of metal with a handle) to pick up a lot of the ash.  “Dirty” pizzas shouldnt mean completely covered with ash.
  6. You can use the heat of the oven to roast vegetables that you may use as part of your meal now or in the future.  They get a really lovely flavour.  I roasted cubed aubergines and courgettes on a metal baking sheet to turn into a salad later.  (When cool I mixed them with white beans, chopped tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil)
  7. You can roast peppers directly on the floor of the oven so the skin blackens, remove and pop them in a plastic bag, sealing whilst hot, so they steam for 5 mins in the residual heat making the skin easy to peel off and giving them a lovely smokey taste.
  8. When you cook your pizza use a peel (you use a metal peel to put in and wooden to take out) to place the pizza directly on the oven floor.  Do try and position it close to the oven wall so it gets maximum heat.  Turn it when the pizza base (skirt) starts to crisp so that it cooks evenly. The pizza is ready when the rim is crisp and blistered and the centre bubbling. A few darker patches on the dough are good but you don’t want too many dark “leopard spots”
  9. Use semolina flour rather than 00 flour to shape your pizza dough leaving a rim round the outside and the filling in the middle.  Don’t overload your toppings.  This will help keep the base crispy. Remember you can add cold toppings such as Parma ham or Parmesan once the pizza is cooked. The semolina flour makes it easier to put on the peel.
  10. You don’t have to have a tomato sauce as a base.  Pizza bianca is very popular.  My favourite is very thinly sliced potatoes coated in olive oil with chopped Rosemary leaves and Parmesan.  Four cheese pizza is also very good.

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