How to use the adobe oven

"One tested the oven by placing one's elbow inside. I remembered being taught how to judge the temperature by the colour of a piece of brown paper left on the oven shelf for two minutes. A friend said sharply, 'Well my mother would have called that incompetence!'" 
(from "Stephanie's Australia", Stephanie Alexander)

I have only just bought my oven thermometer, after owning the oven a couple of months. I don't know whether I've gone about it backwards or what, but I thought it would be a good idea to get to know my oven, and judge temperature by "feel" rather than reading a gauge. Then again, maybe I'm just a tightwad who didn't want to spend $30 on a thermometer.

No matter. Suffice to say that thermometer or no, each oven has its own personality, and you need to do lots of cooking, lots of experimenting, to learn how to best bake in your oven. Still, you'll get no argument from me: thermometers are handy, and will save you the guesswork and maybe a few grey hairs. Now that I have my thermometer (for $8 instead of $30, oh joy!) I feel confident about tackling more delicate items such as cake and bikkies.

You'll need wood. Lots of it.

Here in my part of Australia we have access to lots of gum (eucalypt) which is full of those highly combustible oils that alas, make our bushfires so devastating.

I begin by scrunching up some paper into the oven, and topping it with a teepee of twigs. Set a match to it, and up it goes. Once the twigs are lit, add small wood, and when that is lit, progress to larger wood. It is important that the wood always be sitting on something other than the bottom of the oven, because the air needs to circulate around it for it to ignite. Also, the fuel needs to be burning well before you add another layer on top.

It is difficult to provide exact quantities of wood, since each oven will have different needs. The idea is to feed the fire regularly over the heating period. I usually add one or two logs (depending on size) at a time. As the coals burn down, push them to the back of the oven, and towards the end of the heating period, push them forward closer to the entrance. We don't use a screen: we prop the door up on bricks so the air can circulate, and the door heats up beautifully to help hold heat in.

From cold, the oven will take about 4 hours to heat up. If it was used the previous day, it will take about 3 hours, and if it was used more than two days running, about 2 hours. The oven will be hot to the touch.

Depending on the size of the wood you're using, stop feeding the fire about 45-60 minutes before the heating time is up: you do not want to deal with the snap, crackle and pop of flames and sparks. The goals should be glowing and very hot, but there should be no sparks; small flames are okay.

If you are roasting, you need coals. Have your meat and veg on trays, prepared as desired, ready to go. With a poker or shovel, move the coals to one side of the oven. Shove in the trays. At this point, I toss in handfuls of freshly-cut herbs from my garden on the coals. Immediately they release a cloud of dense aromatic smoke that flavours a roast as nothing can. Working quickly, insert the door, and seal up the chimney with a towel soaked in water. In some parts of the world, the edges of the door are sealed with mud. I must confess that until I'm more experienced at baking in my horno, I will not be trying this! I need to be able to check on the cooking if I'm feeling nervous (which if you know me, you'll know is often).

Again, how long your roast takes depends on the oven itself and the initial temperature.

The following guidelines, adapted from Sunset Magazine, are just that: guidelines, not rules. Halfway through cooking, take the roast out, turn it, give it a poke to see how it's going, and rearrange the veg. If it's browning too fast, cover with foil. Although the oven has no window, nor light, nor a Pythonesque machine that goes "ping!", you are not isolated from the cooking experience. The adobe is porous, and seals cannot be perfect: soon you will be able to sniff the delicious aromas. I only check my roasts once because I do not want any more heat loss than is absolutely necessary.

Chicken (1.5-2kg) .......... 45 min to 1 1/2 hours
Turkey (5-7kg) ............. about 2 hours
Leg of lamb (2.5-3.4kg) .... about 2 hours
Beef rib roast (4.5kg) ..... 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours
Whole fish.................. 10-20 min

Vegies (roast unpeeled):
Peppers .................... 1/2 to 1 hour
Corn ....................... 20 to 30 min.
Eggplant ................... 1 to 1 1/4 hour
Garlic bulbs ............... 1 hour
Onions ..................... 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hour
Spuds ...................... 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hour
Sweet Potato/Kumara/Yam .... 1 1/4 hour
Pumpkin pieces ............. 1 1/4 hour
Parsnips ................... 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hour
Tomatoes ................... 45 min to 1 hour

To ensure a tender roast, cover meat loosely with foil and allow it to rest 15 minutes in a warm place before carving.

A word of warning here: I have seen instructions for wood burning ovens that specify taking the coals out before roasting. This might be fine for small joints and birds, fish, and vegetables, but not for larger roasts. Roasting needs to be done at a consistently high temperature, and without coals inside, the oven's temperature drop is fast and dramatic. Attempt roasting at a temperature lower than 180oC, and diners may well ask, as that character in The Accidental tourist did when viewing the pallid turkey, "Is this the Thanksgiving we all die?"

If you are roasting, you don't need coals. Hypothetically, one could cook a roast and then bake some bread, but I have not yet attempted this. Once a roast is ready, it has my undivided attention! An Aussie Sunday roast is one of those meals that Laurie Colwin said "takes a long time to eat and even longer to digest". I plan my roasts, however, for the day before I bake. It warms up the oven so that the next day it doesn't take as long to heat up.

Before you begin, it's useful having two things on hand:

First, a supply of stiff cardboard rectangles. This is what I use to prove my freeform loaves and assemble my pizzas. The cardboard is readily accessible, cheap (or free), and helps reduce washing up. Get into the habit of cutting up cardboard boxes as they come in the house. If the cardboard's origins are a bit suspicious, cover it with baking paper. Before setting the loaves on the cardboard, sprinkle it generously with cornmeal or semolina. Cornmeal and semolina do not burn as readily as flour, and are "slidier" for the loaves. Another good idea is to form your loaves in wicker baskets which have been lined with cheesecloth and dusted with flour. Simply upend these onto your cornmeal-dusted peel, remove cloth and basket, and slide your perfectly-rounded loaves in.

Second, you will need to make a peel. A peel is a flat paddle with a long handle, used to putting in and taking loaves out of the oven, as well as arranging them inside. Seeing old peels can leave you awestruck, as they reflect the size of the oven they were used in. Just a few days ago I was at my local antique shop - a huge, hangar-like place - and saw some peels, recovered from the last of the old local bakeries, recently dismantled. The peels were huge! Long as an Aussie Rules goalpost, they only fit into the shop lying down.

Now to work. You've got to get the coals out of the oven, and get it clean, so you'll need to have on hand: a metal bucket full of water, a shovel, a straw broom, a plastic bucket full of water, and a mop. The garden hose is optional but I swear by it.

Shovel out the coals and dump them into the metal bucket full of water. Sweep the ashes out with the broom. Clean the interior of the oven with a wet mop.

The oven is now ready to be used. Pizzas need the highest heat, but I have found you cannot put them in immediately after cleaning the oven or the bottoms burn quite spectacularly. So wait a little while before putting them in. Pizzas will cook in about 3-5 minutes.

Rather than wait for the oven to cool before putting in the bread, I follow Alfred Mendoza's suggestion and give the inside of the oven a squirt from the garden hose. This not only cools it down, but gets rid of any residual ash, and - best of all - creates a steamy atmosphere which makes deeply crusty bread. At this point, a brief wait (10-15 min) with the door on is a good idea for the oven temperature to even out; those "hot spots" are murder because you can't judge exactly where they are, and might end up with half perfect loaves, and half with black asbestos bases.

Although the Sunset Magazine guide suggests baking bread when the temperature is at about 180oC, I have found that baking for a shorter period at a high heat gives crustier, lighter bread.

Here's what I do:
After cleaning out the oven, I give the inside of the oven a squirt from the hose. The steam will gush out and it will be very hot, so be careful to protect your hands and face. A steam burn is absolutely horrible.

Test oven temperature by tossing in a handful of flour. If you can count to 15 before the flour burns, the oven is ready. Slide in the loaves. Insert the door and seal the chimney with a towel soaked in water. Two or three times during baking, remove the towel from the chimney and insert the hose nozzle, misting the inside with a light spray. Again - be extremely careful, as the steam coming out of the chimney is even more concentrated than that which comes out of the door.

Bread baked in a very hot oven will cook in 25-30 minutes. Bread baked in a moderate oven (180oC) will take about an hour, depending on size of loaves.

Recently I was lent a copy of a lovely seed-to-loaf-cooked-in-homemade-oven book called The Bread Book, by Thom Leonard. In the book, he quotes Alan Scott's method for getting the most use out of a firing. First, Leonard clears a spot free of coals and mops it clean, and slips in pita and pizze. After cooking these, he completely rakes and cleans out the oven, and bakes two batches of bread. Next go cakes, pies, and cookies. Then go beans and grains for overnight cooking (I would also add granola, zweiback, and biscotti). And finally, in go kindling for drying out, and yoghurt for incubating. Yes it's work! But it is so rewarding to set aside a day that is arranged around the firing - as is the week-long hassle-free enjoyment of pre-cooked loaves, cereals, and baked beans and chili of gutsy flavour that the prefab pushers can only dream about.

A couple of caveats:

- Although baking in an adobe oven in sweaty work, don't be tempted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Wear sleeves, and protect your legs.
- Use potholders made of natural fibres only. I have lots of crocheted potholders and have found that although potholders made from acrylic work fine in the kitchen, they melt when handling the intensely hot items straight out of the adobe oven.

"An oven"
Gallo-Roman mosaic, first half of the third century A.D. Detail from a Calendar of Country Life. Musee des antiquites nationales, St.Germain-en-Laye.