My story of becoming a baker is intimately connected to the story of building an oven.
Inspired by Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, I had started baking bread in my small OTG equipment. It works well for bread made with refined flour. But with 100% whole wheat flour, I was not getting what is known as “oven-spring”. More reading revealed that a good oven-spring is best achieved in bread baked in a hearth. Artisanal bread acquires certain unique characteristics when hearth-baked without the support of pans: that is, the fermented dough is placed directly on the hearth of the wood-fired oven and baked – the traditional way people baked bread for hundreds of years.
So, I wanted to try hearth-baking and set out to build a small earth oven. With the help of friends and family, we built it over a month. I was really thrilled to see the very first loaf baked in the earth oven getting towards that desired oven-spring! It was way better than the OTG. At that point, it was very clear in my mind that a masonry wood-fired oven had to be built and sourdough bread was an achievable project.
While baking more with my earth oven, I started researching building a masonry oven. “The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens” book by Alan Scott and Daniel Wing. It was the only book at that time describing in detail both the bread and the oven. It has detailed designs to build a masonry oven. Alan Scott had spent much of his time conducting workshops and overseeing the building of community ovens.
All of the materials mentioned in the book were available locally except vermiculite/perlite for the insulation of the oven. I tried to source it for months without success. Had I managed to purchase vermiculite, the oven construction would have been completed much earlier, but the design efficiency would have been not as good as what I was able to achieve later. In hindsight, it was all for good.
I then read “From the WOOD-FIRED OVEN” by Richard Miscovich. This book starts from where ‘The Bread Builders’ left off and describes how ovens have evolved in the intervening 15 years. The core oven design remained more or less the same but there had been advances in the materials used from the times of Alan Scott’s in the 1980s and ’90s.
With months of reading on the Internet, looking at images of different masonry ovens, and going through the books back and forth, we were able to piece together the design and specifications of the oven and its components. I would be often glancing multiple times at whatever details were available on their websites, getting a grasp of each design element, and taking notes. Like a teenager browsing through electronic gadgets, I was admiring all the bakers and bakeries mentioned in the books and websites that I came across.
Finally, after months of deliberations, it was going to be an oven with a hearth measuring 5 feet wide by 6 feet deep and 9 inches thick. Quoting from the book about what Allan Scott had said to Richard Miscovich “Part of the pleasure, he said, should be learning through my own discoveries”. And so it was for me.
I visited a few foundry material suppliers and gathered data for all the required materials. Three to four months was spent identifying the sources, specification, cost of materials, and firming up the design of the oven.
It was indeed quite a lot to know about and execute: sourcing refractory bricks, fire cement, insulation bricks, calcium silicate insulation board, ceramic fiber insulating blanket, thermocouple probes, multi-channel thermocouple reader, finding the big size iron sections and channels, fabricating the chimney with a butterfly valve, and hauling all the heavy materials to the site.
The project involved quite a lot of iron and metal fabrications onsite. The buttress for the arched vault and chimney lintel involved heavy iron channels, sections, and plates. It took quite a lot of inquiry with all the big iron /scrap dealers. I scouted their godowns an entire day before finding the heavy 7 inches or so wide and 7 feet long L section for the chimney lintel support. Probably that was the only piece of stock left in the entire city at that time.
Thankfully all the nitty-gritty of the masonry work was taken care of by our master mason Robinson. He was trained under the team led by the renowned British-Indian architect Laurie Baker. Robinson made it look easy, especially building the low bonded arch dome of the oven. Had it not been for Robinson, I would have learned many ways to mess it up. Some learnings are not desirable 😊.
Quoting the book, From the WOOD-FIRED OVEN, “Alan was also interested in helping community-based micro-bakeries establish a foothold by teaching them to economically build the major piece of equipment necessary for a hearth bread bakery – the oven itself.”
Here is my vote of thanks to him: “Alan, much gratitude to your guidance and inspiration.” You are assured of authentic sourdough bread and other goodies if you happened to land in our place.
If you are interested in building a masonry oven, do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I will do my best to help you avoid all my mistakes. And egg you to make some of your own!