Monday, January 16, 2012

Are Wood-Fired Ovens the Wave of the Future?

A few weeks ago, I made the prediction in a City Paper piece that 2012 would be the big breakout year for cooking in wood-fired ovens.

For the better part of the year I've been perfecting wood-roasting chicken on my backyard grill (one of those BBQ barrel models), which is not quite the same barbecuing but has fantastic results.  (For a low-and-slow barbecuing session, you cook the meat at around 225 degrees for hours and hours on end; for wood-roasting, you cook it at 325 - 350 degrees for the same amount of time you would in your kitchen oven.)

Now, Ken Albala is taking it way further and experimenting with his own homemade backyard clay oven, with some tasty looking initial results with roasted quail.  Now, admittedly, Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA, is a little more adventurous than your typical Saveur-reading foodie.  The list of traditional foods and beverages he makes at home is quite intimidating--sausages, cheeses, mead, goose confit, and 1000 year old eggs, just for starters.

But, he is working on a book, tentatively entitled The Lost Art of Hearth and Home, which may well help inspire other home cooks to go way beyond pizza stones and Big Green Eggs and actually construct their own wood-fired backyard baking ovens.

Here's an interesting note from Albala's early experiments.  One of the great things about wood roasting at, say, 325 degrees is the rich smokiness it imparts on chicken, fish, and even root vegetables.  Apparently not so when you crank that heat up towards 1,000 degrees in a clay oven.  "Interestingly," Albala notes about a loaf of sourdough and a spatchcocked chicken, "neither tasted smoky at all.  The smoke really stops once she is super hot."


Ken Albala said...

Hey Robert, How is it we haven't met, even electronically. Your BBQ book is great BTW. I'm hoping your prediction about wood fired ovens is right! Ken

Robert said...

Thanks for the kind words about the BBQ book, Ken, and I do hope we get a chance to meet non-electronically in the near future!

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