Wood-fired Bread

by Sarah Owens


In the last month, BK17 has had a few growing pains in the effort to expand production.  After finding a new space and hiring an electrician and architect, I decided it wasn't the proper move...for many very good reasons. Investment capital was lost but what I gained in experience was well worth the risk.

BK17 is now using the wood oven of Toby's Public House!

BK17 is now using the wood oven of Toby's Public House!

The day the bakery project folded, I marched myself up to a delicious pub in my neighborhood called Toby's Public House that makes wood-fired pizza.  Members of my CSB had encouraged me to contact them, as they have also helped other bread bakers over the years.  I am not very adept at dealing with uncertainty and the thought of subscriptions starting in a month with wholesale accounts to satisfy as well, made me quite nervous.

What a blessing in disguise!  The manager of Toby's couldn't be more accommodating and their master pizza chef loves to talk ovens.  We chatted about the rhythms of heat, coals, steam, and dough.  My inner bread nerd was thrilled to find others interested in the nuances of baking! After a few visits and some phone calls, the keys were in my hands.  I couldn't believe how trusting and open they were to taking me into the fold.  

This is not my first foray into using wood as a fuel source.  I grew up heating my grandmother's house with wood and coal.  As a ceramic artist, I helped to build and manage several wood-fired noborigama-type kilns in KY and IN that required a team of dedicated potters and days of stoking in rural forest.  I lived in a cottage in the hills of East Tennessee for a year that I heated exclusively with wood and an electric heater.  But it has been over a decade since some of these events have taken place.  It seems ironic that as my life is unfolding in ways I could never have imagined just a year ago, that this element enters once again.  

Fire.  The great catalyst of change.  The transformer that brings both death and spawns life.  My asbestos hands are ready for this new and unanticipated challenge in baking.  But really, it has been so very long since I have wielded it other than around a campfire.  I began questioning whether the comforts of urban living would have dulled my sense of how to manage this beast of an oven.  

So I rose early on a Sunday morning around 5am, when I thought the oven might have cooled from its normal 800-900 Farenheit range down to around 500 degrees, my ideal temperature for loading dough.  I brought some loaves of a few different formulas: a higher hydration Spelt (90%), some medium hydration Sprouted Kamut & Oat (80%), and a Seeded Multigrain (70%).  I pushed the coals to the side of the chamber and loaded the first two Spelt Levain and waited patiently.  Eventually, they sprang to life but were a little slow on the uptake.  So I tossed one measly kiln-dried piece of kindling on the coals and waited for it to catch before loading more.  It worked beautifully.  The next round came to life in a few minutes.  With a few spins around the chamber, they colored to a golden brown after a 45 minute bake.  My concern that the bottom heat would be too intense was quelled as I tasted my first loaf of wood-fired BK17 sourdough.  I wondered why I had waited so long...

A loaf of Tartine 3-inspired Sprouted Kamut and Oat, the first from the wood-fired oven.

A loaf of Tartine 3-inspired Sprouted Kamut and Oat, the first from the wood-fired oven.

Overall I am pleased and so very thankful to not only have a larger oven, but the ability to explore this new experience.  There are a few trade-offs but ones that I think are well worth the end result.  The lack of ability to introduce steam means the crust isn't nearly so glossy...but the smoky crust of the bread pairs perfectly with the texture and flavor of whole grains.  I'll be working on ways to try and encourage a little more steam but in the end, I think this is more of a superficial pursuit than technically necessary in a wood oven.

The CSB begins again July 5, just a few days after the manuscript for the cookbook is due.  It's going to be a whirlwind few weeks pushing to the finish of this writing endeavor as well as beginning a new phase of baking.  My eyes are reflecting a golden flame with the thought of what is to come next.

Wood-fired Spelt 

Wood-fired Spelt