Earth Oven Update

If I’ve been deafeningly silent about my earth oven lately, it’s because there has been literally nothing cooking with it. Six weeks after I finished building the thermal mud layer, it is still not completely dry. I attribute this to 1) a coastal climate that sees thick damp fog roll in almost every evening and hang around until, often, midmorning or later, and 2) the fact that my oven does not live with me (or more accurately, I do not live with it) full time, and I keep it covered when I am away to protect it from rain (rare this time of year, but potentially disastrous to an uncured oven if it were to strike).

My impatience aside, this slow drying has not been a terrible thing. My mason friend assures me this is the best way to minimize the cracks that Kiko Denzer says are virtually inevitable (but usually cosmetic), and it’s true that cracks haven’t been an issue. But good grief, I can’t hold my impatience at bay forever! And if I don’t get the second (insulating) layer on soon, before the rains get down to serious business in another month or two, I may really be sorry.

So this weekend I lit a small drying fire to help things along. And lo and behold, it burned beautifully, the sky did not fall (nor did the oven), and the drying process took a giant leap forward.

Emboldened by this bit of success (and with a certain song by The Doors playing relentlessly in my head), my husband and I decided to try baking some pizzas the following day. Denzer warns that the oven will not perform well until it is insulated and bone-dry. On top of that, we got a later start than we hoped for, so we were a little short on firing time. We kept our expectations low and looked on the whole thing as a learning experience, which turned out to be a good idea.

We stoked up the oven, and an hour and half and a few hairline cracks later, it felt mighty hot inside and out (though we were without any sort of thermometer). What the heck, we just went for it, pushed the fire to the back, cleaned the ashes off the firebrick hearth with a rag, and deposited the first of two pizzas I had prepared.

In a hot-enough oven, a pizza should be done in two to three minutes. Let’s just say ours took considerably longer. It was absolutely edible, but nothing resembling the chewy-crisp, perfectly-charred pie you’d like from your wood-fired oven. By the time it was done, there was not enough heat left for the second pizza (but then we hadn’t added any more wood to the fire), so we resorted to the kitchen oven for that one.

Were we discouraged? No way. I’m ecstatic that:

  • the oven held up
  • the fire burned without coaxing
  • the hearth proved smooth enough to easily manipulate the pizza
  • the mud is now dry enough that I feel OK about adding the insulating layer

For sure, it would have been better with

  • a dryer oven
  • an insulated oven
  • firing for longer
  • harder wood (we used some hard but mostly soft)

That’s what next time is for.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sledet says

    Susan, patience makes hearts go fonder, as they say. I am sure you will have your wood-fire oven in the near future, and we will all cheer for you and your fantastic creations baked on that oven.

    Good luck.

  2. says

    I hope that you’re an Amazon associate and get credit for that link. I’ve been talking to my husband about building an earth oven, and after reading all your posts I finally decided to buy that book. I think it might have had something to do with the awesome wood-fired oven I saw in the KAF catalog today. I showed it too him and he was very enthusiastic! That is, until he saw the $10k price. So…mud it is! Haha! Thanks for journaling your experience with it!

  3. says

    Wow What an amazing oven. That is so awesome. would love that but knowing us we would get it built and then my husband would be relocated and some other bum would get to use it! If they even knew how.
    Cant wait to hear more on the subject!

  4. says

    It looks beautiful with the fire going inside! I wouldn’t have been able to resist trying to make something in it either. BTW, Light my fire has been running through my head the whole time I read your post.

  5. says

    I have NOT tried this, but, it seems to me that a very small fire would accelerate drying without causing cracking. I smoke foods and after much experience learned that a “twig” about 1″ x 2″ produced as much smoke as a log of 3″ to 4″ diameter. A lot less heat, too. Twigs have to be replaced every 15 to 20 minutes.

  6. says

    I’ve been waiting to see what happened with your earth oven — how exciting and frustrating all at the same time. Frustrating that the weather has really slowed down the process, but how fun that you got to try it out. And it’s beautiful! Can’t wait to see how you finish it…

  7. says

    Was just thinking about your ‘oven under construction’ while making flatbread the other day Susan…love it. You’re baking the oven…what fun! It does look beautiful & therapeutic…very magical!

  8. says

    I am impressed beyond words! Look how close you’ve come and the joys that await you when you get the kinks worked out…like the best pizza in the world amoungst other goodies.

  9. says

    Susan, It’s very exciting to see the pictures of your new oven, I hope it cures evenly and that you have many years of excellent home baking. I think everyone should have an oven in their backyard. I’m looking forward to seeing you apply your creative energies to the products that will emerge from the oven beast.
    Best regards, David Aplin

  10. says

    Susan -

    I feel your pain. We finished our oven last August (07!), and it is STILL wet. You have the advantage of not having your insulation layer on yet, so at least the thermal layer will dry out quickly. We have 4″ of insulation on ours.

    We haven’t had time to use it often enough, but it is clear that the only shortcut to a dry oven is to use it often. With each burn we get higher temperatures that stay high longer.

    Oh, and I heard from Kiko that he is no longer recommending that bottles be placed horizontally in the bottom insulation layer, precisely because they hold moisture for so long. (Upright is okay.)

  11. says

    Great site! We finished an earth oven using Kiko Denzer’s design in early August, and the insulating layer now apparently dry. I’m married to a potter, so I was able to use a lot of recycled clay for the slip, along with a mix of sawdust and straw. There are pictures of the construction process and other updates at The Pondering Potter blog. It turns out that we plan to cook pizza tonight, and I’m going to use a pyrometer to check the temperature. We’ve been using small-split oak to fire it, and it’s been quite hot and dry here recently. Hopefully the results will be good.

  12. shimpiphany says

    don’t worry about it not holding heat. once i got the insulation layer on mine, it held heat MUCH better, but if you want to cook pizzas in it, you really need to work a live fire and not just coals. the oven itself just doesn’t have enough real estate inside to allow enough coals to make a difference.

    last week i did a cook of 4 rounds of pizzas, 2 in each round, with a small live fire. the oven stayed at about 650 the whole time (according to my IR thermometer) and the last pizzas cooked in less than 5 minutes.

    yours looks a lot better constructed than mine, but mine also dried within two days – with huge cracks. but it still cooks great and holds 450 like a champ – i can cook three rounds of bread in it before it hits 400.

    my advice would be to burn small drying fires every day possible, then put on your insulation layer and do the same. it shouldn’t damage the oven any.

  13. says

    Somehow I missed these blogs! This is amazing!!!!!!!!!!!! Congratulations on such a huge undertaking! I can’t wait to build one :) I don’t think my landlord would let me, but I may start pestering friends and neighbors :D

  14. Anna says

    Hi, Susan,

    This is a good looking oven!
    Is it still in use? I am thinking about building one and would appriciate your input.

    Best regards,

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