Build An Outdoor Bread Oven
Here’s how to build a wood-fired clay oven and take outdoor cooking to a new level.
By Hank Will
If you aren’t afraid to play in the mud, you can easily build the outdoor oven of your dreams. You can accomplish all of the work by hand, although if you have access to a loader and/or backhoe, you will not only mine and move material more easily, but you will also more than likely dream up other useful clay construction projects.
Since outdoor ovens are individual works of art, we offer dimensions here as an example. Feel free to experiment, measure your loaf pan size or just improvise when designing your own oven.
Locate the oven site away from buildings, in an area that is protected from the wind and rain if possible. If you live in a rainy area, you will want to cover the oven when not in use.
Build the base. For our project, the base is 4 feet square by 3 feet tall, and we created it with dry-stacked stones and rubble. Some folks use bricks and mortar, while others simply build the oven on a fireproof stand or the ground.
Cap the base with a 4-inch layer of a mixture composed of 1 part clay to 3 parts sand with ¼ part chopped straw added for strength. Using a bucket, measure the
material into the center of a tarp, add some water and mix—you can work the mixture with your feet and pick up the corners of the tarp periodically to bring the material back to the center. Add water and mix until a handful of the mud remains intact and does not completely flatten when dropped from your chest to a hard surface. Before the mud layer is dry, add a layer of firebricks to complete the cap—tap them gently into the mud, with one of the two wider sides facing up, and level them.
Mark a 40-inch-diameter circle centered on the cap and a second 26-inch-diameter circle inside that will indicate the oven’s dimensions. The space between the circles is where you will build the oven’s dome.
Create a pleasing dome-shaped mound using wet sand inside the inner circle on the cap; this will be the form for the clay dome. Most ovens are a little taller than they are wide, but the actual shape is up to you. Lay wet newspaper over the dome.
Take 3- to 4-inch-wide chunks of your mud mixture, laying them in layers around the sand form; press them together between the two circles you marked in step 4. Once the sand dome is covered with a 3- to 4-inch layer of mud, use a piece of wood or a trowel to gently smooth the curves and to relieve any sharp points. This is a good stopping point if you wish to quit for the day.
Repeat step 6 by applying a fresh 3- to 4-inch layer of mud over the first. If the first layer is very dry, go ahead and moisten it lightly.
Mix your mud slightly wetter for the final plaster, with about 1 part clay to 1 part sand and ¼ part finely chopped straw (a weed trimmer in a trash can works well to chop the straw). Spread the mixture evenly over the entire surface of the oven.
The oven door should be slightly less than two-thirds the height of the dome and about one-half the oven’s inner diameter in width at the base (about 13 inches in our example). While the clay is still leathery soft (which is generally within a few hours of being applied, depending on wind, temperature and humidity), carefully scribe the door and remove the clay in the intended opening. Remove the sand form through the door opening, and using your hand, a piece of antler or other suitable tool, smooth and finish the door opening to suit your taste. If the newspaper comes out now, great; otherwise, it will burn off.
Use a piece of scrap wood to create a shape that will fill the door opening without falling into the oven; leave the oven open and let it dry. You can speed the process by building small fires periodically in the oven, and don’t be surprised to see some minor cracking.
When ready to bake, light a medium-sized fire inside and keep it burning for up to three hours to fully heat. Remove all coals and ashes from the oven, swab the floor with a damp towel, add the dough or uncooked pizza, and close the door using a towel as a seal. Cook as you would in a conventional oven, but be aware that the internal temperature may be as high as 600°F or more. Don’t let that heat go to waste; if you have other dishes to bake, slide them in as space allows.