Blue Ribbon

The information in this document was originally written in a pair of private e-mail messages from Marian Walke to Carolyn Priest-Dorman in 1994. All the text is excerpted verbatim. During the webbing, Carolyn added the section headings; they were not original to the e-mail. Marian was offering advice from her practical experience in building and using a brick oven at the Sated Tyger Inn at the Pennsic War (a Society for Creative Anachronism event). This information is reprinted here by express permission of the author.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

On the Building of an Oven

© 1994 Marian Walke


Well, this is a little hard to do without drawing a picture, but I'll try to describe it. Feel free to write back and say "Huh?" to anything unclear. First of all, the oven is composed of (a) a level non-flammable surface (b) a metal frame that looks like the metal hoops of a barrel sliced lengthwise, with other bits holding the half-hoops in place (c) chicken-wire to cover this frame (d) bricks and (e) mud plaster, made from straw, water, sand (if you can find any handy) and the wondrous clay from the shores of Coopers Lake, and (f) a non-flammable door for your oven (metal is nice, or wood backed with metal; having your oven door burn out is not good).

Put a layer of bricks (or two layers, or some of that mud and then one layer, depending on how sure you are you surface is non-flammable) on the level surface. This will be the floor of your oven. Try to set the bricks close so that no embers will fall between them. Over this place your metal frame, in a horizonal position, so that it looks like the skeleton of a quonset hut. Chicken wire covers the frame on the rounded side/top/side and one end. It is fastened tightly to the metal frame so that the bricks will rest against it and not fall into the oven. If you had a metal frame with enough bracing, you could probably do without the chicken wire. Then you stack bricks against the chicken wire, making as complete a cover as you can. Two layers is good.

Now comes the fun part. Get a wheelbarrow full of Cooper Lake clay, and dump half of it in some cavity in the field or low place in the road (this provides the sand). Scatter straw to make a light layer over it, and some water to moisten the whole. Dump in the rest of the clay. Take off you shoes and socks, roll up your breeches or hike up your shift, and tread the mess until it has become one homogenous whole. (Be prepared to get dirty.) When it is ready, it will be approximately the consistency of a mudpie, with the straw well worked through, making a fibrous network that holds the whole thing together. You will doubtless need to add more straw, more water, more clay, and more sand before it feels right to your toes and you can pick up whole hungs of it in your hands, the straw fibers making it feel like a wet, heavy, dirty carpet fragment, a couple of inches thick. This is applied to the outside of the oven, pushed into place, smoothed over the bricks in a layer at LEAST a couple of inches thick in its thinnest parts. It will smell like decomposed lake bottom. This is normal. Put whatever material you didn't use in a small pile and cover with a tarp. Clean up, spend the rest of the day having fun. At the end of the day, check the oven, see where cracks have developed in the plaster. Use your leftover daub (still damp if the tarp did its job) to seal the cracks. Wash up again, go to bed. Next morning, make a fire inside the oven, using small kindling to start with, and gradually building up to medium sized stuff. The fire will heat the bricks, and the bricks will heat and cook the clay, and you will have a sealed oven (unless cracks open up, and I'm sure you know what the cure for cracks is: more clay. Sometimes you will see steam rising through small holes or fissures. Same remedy applies. Once the clay is cooked hard and has lost its lake-bottom odor, you are ready to cook. Actually, we never cooked the same day we baked the oven. It seems to me we started cooking the next morning, when the odor had completely disappeared.

Oh yes, the door. Well, you need an opening in one end to get stuff in and out. A nice slab of metal with a NON-METAL handle would work, or a slab of metal with a hook or something. We used a slab of wood, backed with some kind of insulation that was covered with metal on the inside, and had a metal handle on the outside. Handle used to get pretty hot; potholders are a must. All our doors got pretty scortched after a while. The smaller the door opening, the harder it is to get stuff in and out, but the easier it is to maintain heat inside. Whatever size door you use, obviously the rest of that end of the quonset hut will be covered with chicken-wire, bricks, and daub just like the rest of the oven, except for the hole that matches your door.


Cooking: you make a fire inside the oven. When the bricks are very hot, you rake out the ashes and embers with a hoe and swab the floor briefly with a damp mop. Get stuff inside on a baker's peel (like pizza makers use) and then shut the door. When you think your bread might be done, open the oven a careful crack and take a quick peek. The cooking is caused by the reflected heat of the bricks, which maintain their heat for a couple of hours, plus the steam you made when you swabbed with a mop. Small loaves or rolls work better than big loaves, because they cook pretty quickly, and when they come out your oven is still hot enough to make pies or cakes, and then still hot enough to put a pot of veggies in. That is, it will be about 500-600 deg when you start, about 400-450 after swabbing (good for scones or biscuits), about 350-400 when they come out, 10-15 min later (now is the time for rolls) and about 300-350 half an hour later when the rolls come out and the pie goes in. The temperature drops pretty sharply at first, but then maintains a medium heat for quite a while. When the pie comes out an hour later, it will have dropped to about 200 or 250, but that's still warm enough to warm veggies, or melt butter or cheese or whatever. I wouldn't cook meat in it at this point.

.... Oh yes: we had the ovens raised on a counter-height table, so we could rake the ashes out into that useful wheelbarrow instead of onto our toes. If the oven is at ground level, you might want to make a ditch right in front of it for raking ashes into, or rig some way to get them out of the way. Also, an oven thermometer is handy till you figure out how many rhinosceroses you need to determine the heat. And of course don't wear any polyester clothes that will melt onto you when working with ovens -- although I don't worry about that problem with YOU, it's important to make sure anyone who plays with the oven is also safe.

Gauging Temperature

One traditional (?) way of testing whether an oven is hot enough is to stick your hand into it (NOT while there is a roaring fire in the oven chamber, but afterwards) - and count out loud "1 rhinoceros - 2 rhinoceros - 3 rhinoceros...etc." until you can't stand the heat and jerk your hand out. Pretty soon you can estimate oven heat in this manner: ie, n rhinoceros for biscuits (whatever your personal tolerance is), n+2 for bread, n+5 for setting custards, etc. Probably n+10 means its time to add more wood and reheat.

This page was created on 19 April 1999 and last updated on 19 April 1999.

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