How to Cook With Fire

Neapolitan pizza in a wood stove

To really become an exponent of cooking with fire, you need the right oven. This article is for people who own serious wood-fired ovens capable of burning logs, not pizza sticks or pellets. If you have an oven that’s more of a gadget, the following advice isn’t for you. However, read on if you have one of our pizza oven kits.

Our tips are for owners of domed wood ovens, like those manufactured by the Italian oven artisans, Valoriani, that operate in a traditional Italian way.  This particularly matters when it comes to the advice on where to situate the fire within the oven. 

Quite simply, many me-too ovens,  which are not authentic Italian wood-fired, tell you to keep the fire at the back.  That is not the Italian way and a poor way of cooking, but it seems to be the way these ovens can manage to get up to temperature and try to retain heat.

If you must follow this non-traditional fire approach, remember it’s an adaptation of what should be done. We believe it is always better to know what you should be doing rather than learning a skill the wrong way so that we will give you the ‘right way’ tips. 

Learning things this way could pay off.  Many ovens now on the market are not built to last, so you could find yours only has a 12-18 month lifespan, as opposed to a Valoriani oven’s life expectancy, which is at least ten times as much.

If your oven quickly disintegrates, you might wish to trade it for a Valoriani oven. Then, having learned fire management optimally will really pay off.

How to fire up your wood-fired oven for cooking

  1. First use

It would be best if you cured’ a proper wood-fired oven by allowing it to have a session of heating up nicely and getting used to the conditions it now finds itself in.  Think of this as the ‘running in’ we once did with our cars.  For its first outing, don’t overheat it; get some warm warmth all around it.  After this practice session, you can probably start to cook your first ‘meal’ successfully unless the ambient temperature is particularly low and the air is very damp. 

  1. Choice of wood

Ensure you only use hardwood – oak, beech or ash preferably – that is certified ‘Ready to Burn’.  Never use green wood – freshly cut wood full of water content.  It could land you in environmental hot water, but it’s also inefficient in burning and could damage your oven.  Select ‘Ready to Burn’ logs that are not too large for your oven – or buy compressed logs that you can break down into smaller pieces.  If your wood pops, fizzes and smokes, it’s not the suitable wood to use.

Get yourself decent hardwood kindling, too. Kindling is the wood that will get the fire going and help you ignite the main logs. The better your kindling and wood supply, the easier your life will be as a wood-fired cook.

At the same time, buy yourself some firelighters, but go for an eco, food-friendly type.  You do not want a kerosene/petrol firelighter tainting your food.

  1. Understand the process

In your oven, you will get the fire started by building up a stack of kindling with a few logs.  You will light the firelighter to ignite the kindling, which will quickly catch fire.  This will encourage the initial logs you put in the oven to ignite, too.  This hardwood will then burn down into a state of hot coals.  Eventually, those coals will turn to ash.

  1. Give your fire the air it needs

You must also appreciate that a good fire relies on having a sufficient supply of air and oxygen. Closing the wood-fired oven door will cut this supply off. Not leaving enough space around logs could also starve the fire of oxygen. Your fire needs to breathe, so make sure it always has room to do that. 

This may mean manoeuvring logs or resting some on a log rack so air circulates under and around them.  A log rest can be a good friend if you struggle to move logs around or have trouble resting them angled upright on one end.

  1. Get the right tools

Whilst a log rest is not essential, a round metal peel is vital if you can manage without one.  This tool will allow you to move the fire around the oven and load it onto the fire.  You do not want to throw wood in, which can damage the wood-fired oven’s walls and structure.  It would be best if you deftly used your peel to reposition logs and put them in place. 

You will also need a pizza oven brush, which will help you sweep ash away from the oven floor.

A temperature gun can be a big help, and you must also ensure you have some thick oven gloves suitable for wood-fired cooking.  Make sure to buy yourself some long matches or long tapers to light the firelighters.

  1. First steps

Your first step is to build up a Jenga-style, criss-crossed kindling structure in the central part of your wood-fired oven. Within the framework of this structure, you should place two or three firelighters (depending on the size of your wood oven).  On top of this, you need to have one or two logs resting on the structure without flattening it (remember the all-important oxygen flow).

You will then light the firelighters and should see the kindling quickly set alight, encouraging the logs to burn. You should keep this fire in the centre of the wood-fired oven for about 20 minutes until red coals start to form. You can then push the fire back a little bit. At this stage, you should aim to see at least an 8-inch circle of black soot forming on the dome of the wood-fired oven.

  1. Left or right – your decision

It would be best to decide which side of the pizza oven to cook on.  This is entirely your choice, but it might depend on whether you are right-handed or left-handed.  Most right-handed people prefer to cook on the right-hand side of the oven, as they find it easier to move food in and out of the wood-fired oven.  The converse is true for left-handed people.

Once you have decided which side to cook on, could you move the fire to that side?  You will ensure that your cooking area is thoroughly heated before you cook.  You should take your metal peel and push the fire to your preferred cooking side.  You must keep adding logs as you go, ensuring there is always enough wood for the fire to use.  The aim is to get the fire to a state where it is heating around two-thirds of the oven’s circumference. 

Do not overload it with wood, however, or you will see flames shooting out of the oven mouth and up the flue.  That signifies that the oven has been over-fired.

Also, remember that when you push the fire to the side, you do not want to cut off air from all around the fire. Leave a gap between the oven wall and the wood pile.

  1. Removing the soot

While your fire is in this state, you aim to maintain it like this until all the black soot has disappeared from the oven dome.  Keep checking this, and when you see that the dome is no longer dingy, you can move the log pile to the opposite side of the oven, leaving your preferred cooking side clear.  Again, use your metal peel to do this, and make sure there is a gap between the wall and the log pile.  Don’t forget to keep feeding wood onto the pile without overloading the fire.

Also, the peel is used to spread some of the coals from the fire across the oven floor.  This will help to put more heat into the floor.

Once these have turned to ash, use your brush and sweep the ash into the fire.

  1. Ready to cook

Once you reach this stage, you should be ready to cook most things.  You can use a temperature gun to double-check that you have the 450-500º needed for pizza.  For many other foods, you will not need the temperature to be so high.  Fairly early on, you could be popping some jacket potatoes, wrapped in foil, into the oven towards the back.

Do some cramming to assess what temperature you will need for what you intend to cook, and ensure you know roughly how long the cooking time will be.  Keep checking food regularly and slow down some cooking by using foil if you want a gentler heat to cook your food.

You should probably add a log every 20 minutes to keep the fire burning.

  1. Closing down

When you have cooked your dishes, you must stop adding wood and let the fire reside.  Remember that an excellent way to shut the fire down is to starve it of oxygen, so you can use the oven door to help with this process.

If you have a first-class oven, in terms of a Valoriani, you will have a lot of retained heat within the oven, even after the fire is out.  You can utilise this to slow-cook dishes, such as stews, overnight, but do not underestimate how hot the oven will still be.  Don’t put the dish in too early until the temperature has dropped significantly (if you are at the maximum temperature and cooking pizza), and make sure there is enough liquid with the dish to prevent it from drying out.

  1. Cooking the day after

If you simply wish to cook something the next morning, use the oven door to keep heat within the oven after your cooking session. A Valoriani oven should be perfectly capable of cooking you a full English breakfast the following morning without adding any extra wood and restarting the fire.

If you fire up the oven again the next day, the heating up time will likely be far quicker, requiring half the time it took before, or even less, depending on the time of day.

Summing up

Follow this advice, and you should be able to master the skill of wood-fired fire management in your oven. Remember that practice makes perfect, and it is practising that will allow you to make the most of your wood-fired oven purchase.

The team at Orchard Ovens is always on hand to help with specific questions or issues if you are an Orchard Ovens customer or even if you are not but are doubting that you have made the right choice of oven and need an expert’s view. Don’t be shy to pick up the phone and ask us those wood-fired questions! Call 07743 847647 to get in touch.