A Workable, Portable Outdoor Oven

This article has been in the works for some time. What I wanted to do was to come up with a portable oven for events or reenactments. Some of the ideas here have not been fully tested, but I am hoping that some of you will be prompted to experiment and let us know how it worked out.

Some considerations: The oven must be able to be assembled quickly, and it should not take up too much room when broken down. It needs to have a surface for baking. The walls need to be thick enough to retain heat. The oven itself needs to be easy to heat.

Here are some ideas for the base of a beehive oven: fire bricks, stones, a Freon can, a large flower pot with an opening cut in the side or a specially constructed iron frame covered with hardware cloth (metal screen).

First you need to clear an area around the oven site to prevent the grass from catching fire when the oven is heated. For convenience, you will want to place your oven near your regular cook fire. If you are going to bake directly on the ground, you need to put down a layer of clay. Puddle the clay (walk back and forth on your clay pile) until well mixed and make the floor like a big mud pie. You will place your oven over this. Allow the floor to dry as much as possible before building the rest of the oven. An alternative to the mud floor is to bring a ‘bake stone’, those large circular ceramic inserts for your oven that you can buy to bake pizza on. You could also get a potter to make a clay slab for you. A second alternative is to try the iron oven with the sheet-iron floor.

Next you construct the oven of your choice. Figure 1 shows a number of different methods which might work. Once that is completed you need to insulate the walls. They need to be thick enough to retain heat. Insulate the walls with a thick layer of mud or clay mixed with chopped straw (horse or cattle dung mixed with clay is great, but will probably turn off some of your less authentically-minded guests). Allow the “mess” to dry well, probably at least overnight. If you start your fire slowly, it will help with the drying process.

Now, all you need is a door for your oven, a fire, and a peel (the shovel-like thing you use to insert or remove the baked goods) and some dough.

For the peel, choose some non-resinous wood like oak and make a paddle shape with a tapered broad end (Fig. 2). Do not put any kind of finish on the wood, just sand it smooth. For a door, you can use a piece of non-resinous wood, a rock or a cast-iron pot lid.

To fuel the fire authentically, you will want to make some “fagots”. To do this, you bind bunches of dry twigs together into tight bundles. Make sure they will fit through the door of your oven. You can also use dried cow dung, known as cow ‘pies’, cow ‘pats’ or cow ‘flops’. These make a hot fire, but again may turn off the less authentically-minded. Defense: the heat kills the bacteria anyway. You could also use charcoal to fire your oven. Place the coals in the oven after you have lit them and gotten the started so you won’t have starter-residue flavored bread.

To use the oven, first begin by making your bread dough. This whole process calls for timing. Make the loaves small enough to fit through the door of the oven and (important!) small enough so that when they rise while baking, you will be able to get them out!

While the dough is rising, build your fire. Place bundles of fagots in the oven and light them. Add more from time to time if needed. When the dough is ready and the oven is hot (timing! timing!), rake the coals out of the oven with a stick and mop the oven floor with a damp rag tied to a branch.

We’re not after spanking clean here, just get out the loose ashes. Place the risen dough on the peel, which you have sprinkled with flour to keep the dough from sticking. Carefully insert it into the oven and shake the peel a little to dislodge the dough onto the oven floor. Hurry --you’re loosing heat! Now place the door over the opening and seal the edges with mud.

How long will it take to bake? This is an excellent question and not one for which I have an exact answer. I suggest you try this: place your hand in the oven before you insert the bread. Count the seconds before you cannot stand the heat any more. This gives you a rough approximation of the heat--about 100ºF per second. Add a little time, because the heat is not constant. Of course, the thickness of your loaf will make a lot of difference as well. Start with thinner loaves until you get the hang of this.

A second method is more subjective --go by the smell escaping from the cracks in the oven. You could also crack the door from time to time, but you have to reseal it.

You now know almost everything I know about how this sort of oven works. Think about how the smell of baking bread would add to your reenactment site and let us know how your experiments go.

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