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Cooking done good and slow: Why you need a wood oven right now

The dry heat from the wood oven in Chris Nuttall-Smith’s backyard cooked this chicken’s skin golden-crisp.

Chris Nuttall-Smith/The Globe and Mail

The dough wouldn't budge. It wasn't merely sticky or sticking, but fully, completely stuck, as though I'd mixed flour and yeast with BondCrete and dumped it in the oven. The fire in the far corner raged to 800 degrees as I poled in a metre-long lifter, called a peel, to try to free it. That was when the scent of my first-ever backyard wood oven pizza hit me – the smell of carbonizing San Marzano sauce and blackened fior di latte mozzarella mingled with a rather precocious bouquet of singeing knuckle hair.

My second pizza wasn't as bad. (I'd needed to use more flour, I realized.) My third pizza: sheer genius. The edges – the cornice, as Naples's pizzaioli call it – had puffed and blistered in seconds, and the sauce and cheese were bubbling as furiously as the lavas of Mount Vesuvius. It was a gooey, creamy, delicious-smelling mess.

I scattered some basil leaves, wiped the flour off my glasses and stood back to admire it. Here was a pizza just like in Naples. This, with only 90 minutes of experience to my name.

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For nearly as long as I've cooked, I've dreamed of owning an outdoor oven. I craved huge cuts of smoke-imbued, fire-crackled pork, like the ones that emerged from the embers of Au Pied de Cochon's wood oven, in Montreal. I dreamed of roasting whole fish, like at Hearth, in New York, as well as golden, blister-skinned chickens, and pans of molten eggplant parmigiana that would taste faintly of smouldering oak logs and apple wood.

I'm hardly alone. Sales of wood-fired ovens, "the ultimate foodie accessory," according to Jamie Oliver, are booming.

Though hard retail figures are difficult to come by, both interest and sales have exploded in the last decade, said James Bairey, the founder of Forno Bravo, a pioneering California-based manufacturer. Before Bairey started the company, the only option in the United States was to import a modular oven from Europe, he said. "You had to be both wealthy and willing to invest a lot of time to install an oven," he wrote in an e-mail. Though it's still a niche market, there are now dozens of options, priced from less than $1,000 for basic models.

Carmen Parisi, president of Chicago Brick Oven, another major U.S. maker (several of its ovens are endorsed by Mario Batali), said his company's sales have grown by more than 50 per cent in each of the past five years. Costco now sells them through its U.S. website. Even Lowe's has seven wood-burning ovens for sale.

A big part of the boom is a natural progression: Where just a few years ago the term "outdoor cooking" typically meant "a propane grill, a couple chairs and an umbrella," as Parisi put it, ambitious home cooks have turned to full outdoor kitchens, with backyard smokers, charcoal kettle grills and $1,200, ceramic-domed Big Green Eggs. It was inevitable, perhaps, that the wood oven craze would follow. The Neapolitan pizza mania that hit at the end of the aughts also helped.

Yet what appealed most to me wasn't fashion. More than nearly any other cooking device, wood ovens force you to slow down, to disavow modern cooking's exactitude, to work at their pace.

A baker friend whose family comes from Puglia once described how they would make pizza in the morning, when the oven was hottest, then breads and casseroles and joints of meat as it grew cooler, then pastries and biscotti late in the afternoon, when only residual heat was left. The entire neighbourhood would gather on those days. The simple act of cooking, of being there together around the glow of the oven's embers, was the celebration just as much as the eating, he told me. I couldn't get that idea out of my head.

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So I called up Ontario Gas BBQ, a terrific shop north of Toronto with 12 different wood-burning oven models in its showroom, and asked to borrow a demo model. A week later, a delivery crew wheeled a curvy, stainless steel, Italian number called the Alfa Forno 4 into my yard. It weighed more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms) and could roll out of the way when I wasn't using it (i.e., never), yet it was large enough inside to fit a pair of chickens on a roasting tray, or two whole wild striped bass or, say, a whole, 10-pound rack of pork, plus a loaf of sourdough or a pizza and a fire, all at once. It retailed for $4,500. "Of course I wouldn't buy one," I lied to my wife.

The cooking quickly became intuitive. Three small wood logs would take the oven to about 450 in 30-odd minutes. A few more logs and 15 minutes jacked the temperature to nearly 700.

After my third successful go, I invited 16 people for an early-afternoon oven party. I was going to bring Puglia home.

My plan was to have the oven raging at 800 degrees when people arrived. I'd begin with eight pizzas in quick succession – straight-up cheese and pepperoni for the children, and then porcini and romano pizzas, and fior di latte topped Margheritas, and ones with fresh-cured anchovy with parsley sauce for the adults.

I'd do two whole chickens as the oven cooled, which I'd serve with my friend Nancy's eggplant parmigiana, and sage-scented borlotti beans.

And then we'd do two wild striped bass flavoured with nothing but herbs and salt and olive oil, baked upright on their bellies as though they were swimming into the embers. There'd be roasted peaches for dessert.

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The craziest part? Those pizzas were extraordinary, some of the best I'd ever eaten. The chickens' skin was golden-crisp from the fire's dry heat, the meat deliriously fragrant. Those fish: sizzling, moist, ember-smoked and simple. The eggplant was the sort of dish I hope to eat on my last night on Earth.

As each course landed, the guests swooned a little more deeply. Yet toward the evening's end, I realized I'd made the food the event instead of the cooking. I'd been running around all night instead of relaxing.

The next weekend, we had dinner at some friends who have had their oven for a year. It felt like fall. The air was cool and an orange glow washed out from their oven over the yard. We stood around it, laughing and drinking, watching the embers.

These friends didn't bother with pizza. (Eight pizzas plus mains and vegetables had been a rookie mistake.) They roasted a rack of pork, which made us crazy with its voluptuous fragrance. Then they baked mushrooms with cheese and prosciutto, and a pan of chestnuts. The dinner was one of the best I've had in years, the pork quite likely the greatest of my life.

But the rest of the night is what I'll always remember: the pace of it, the glow of the embers, the simple joy of being around that oven.

Once you try one, it's hard to imagine cooking any other way.

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