Back to Basics

Bread has been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years. Traces of leavened bread have been found that date all the way back to 4000 BCE in Egypt and it can be found, in one form or another, in almost every culture in the world. It is amazing to consider how such a simple and humble food, composed of only three or four ingredients, has transcended the boundaries of class, religion and culture. It is a food that has been consumed with equal vigor by both the rich and the poor, and in many religions it fulfills special ceremonial roles; think of the Eucharist in Christianity or the Challah from Judaism.

Here in New Mexico the bread made by the Pueblo Indians has traditionally been baked in a clay oven called an horno. These ovens were brought to the pueblos by the Spanish conquistadors who introduced wheat to the Native Americans and taught them how to bake in ovens instead of on stones heated in a fire. In fourth grade my class built our own horno and used it to bake bread. Ever since then I have wanted to build my own wood-fired oven.

When I first started this blog I had grand plans to build myself a huge masonry oven, one that was big enough for twelve loaves of bread or a whole pig, but, as a little research soon showed, I had severely underestimated how much time and effort such an undertaking would require. Though I still have plans to construct my grand oven, for now I have contented myself with a smaller, more basic version that can be built in a few weekends.

  1. Build a stand
    1. This slab has a base that is 4 feet 8 inches by 5 feet.

    Picture 1

  2. Insulating slab
    1. Construct a wooden frame to hold the slab.
      Picture 2
    2. Mix together 6 parts vermiculite with 1 part Portland cement and then add enough water to make it the consistency of wet oatmeal.
      Picture 3
    3. Pour the concrete into the frame, making sure that the top is level. This must now sit for about a week to allow the cement to harden and dry.

    Picture 4

  3. Laying the Hearth
    1. On top of the concrete slab place a piece of cement board that has been cut to the size of the slab.
    2. Before placing the firebricks on the slab lay them out on a flat surface so you can get a feel for how your oven will look.
      Picture 5 i.   The firebricks, along with the fire clay and masonry sand can be bought at Kinney Brick Co. They have their own kiln where they make many of their bricks and they even recycle old bricks and use them to make new ones!
    1. Mix together equal parts fire clay and masonry sand and add enough water to make a paste.
    2. Spread the paste in a ¼ inch thick layer over the cement board. Mark a line down the center as a guide for laying your first bricks.
      Picture 6
    3. Begin laying the center bricks first, one on either side of the line, then continue with the rest of the bricks. Make sure to check that all bricks are level.
      Picture 7
  • 4. Building the walls
    • A. Lay the back wall first
      i.      Make a mortar out of 10 parts masonry sand, 3 parts Portland cement and 1 ½ parts fire clay with enough water to make it workable.
      Picture 8
      ii.     Construct the wall in a pyramid shape to conform to the domed shape of the oven roof.
      Picture 9
    1. Now lay the side walls

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      i.      Use the same mortar mix as for the back wall.
  1. Build the arches
    1. Trace an outline of your arch on a piece of plywood and use this to create a form for building your arches.
    2. Start with the back arch and build them one at a time, still using the same mortar.

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  2. The Doorway
    1. It is very important that the height of the door be 63% of the height of the oven to allow for proper circulation of heat.
    2. A chimney set into the doorway will help to draw the smoke out and circulate the heat even better.
  3. The oven is now complete but must sit for a week or two to allow the mortar to set.
    Picture 21

If you are interested in building your own oven or just want to learn how to bake some really great bread here are a few book worth looking at:

The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott

Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and Eric Wolfinger

Bread Earth and Fire by Stuart Silverstein

-Posted by Lydia

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1 Response to Back to Basics

  1. DB says:

    May I ask where you got your plans? From one of the above mentioned books or elsewhere? I’m looking to build a similar sized oven over the next couple of months and am trying to get my ducks in a row. Great looking oven and informative to see the pictures you posted as well. Thanks!

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