Baking something — be it a pork chop, potato or pecan pie — requires applying heat all around the top, bottom and sides. One of humankind’s watershed inventions — the oven — does exactly that.
The oven in your kitchen reflects more than 30,000 years of trial, error, innovation and evolution. The earliest ovens, found in Central Europe, were pits dug for roasting and boiling mammoths. As an early refinement, foods were wrapped in leaves, laid in pits on top of hot coals and ashes, and covered with earth. Humans’ adoption of grain agriculture and relatively permanent homes fostered development of masonry ovens. Ancient Egyptian bakers laid dough on hot rocks covered with hot clay domes, applying heat all around.
That dome design and masonry construction has since become ubiquitous, with variations appearing around the world. Masonry ovens are simple and make sense. Build some kind of vessel from the most basic of materials. Heat that vessel, put the food in and bake it with the heat contained in the surrounding masonry.
Family-sized “Cob” Ovens
Early masonry ovens were typically made of available clay, frequently mixed with gravel, sand or straw to reduce cracking. The British called this adobe-like mix “cob”, and frequently made smaller, family-sized ovens with cob layered over forms shaped from sand. Building the oven into the kitchen hearth enabled using the home’s existing chimney, but many masonry ovens were in smaller outbuildings or other configurations.
The beehive-shaped oven at Maryland’s National Colonial Farm in Piscataway joins the chimney leading up from the cabin’s hearth. In Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, north of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Bushong Farm at the on Virginia’s New Market battlefield, weather-tight sheds cover the ovens; the Landis Valley oven shares its shed with a smokehouse. The larger horno ovens in Chimayo, New Mexico, on the high road from Santa Fe to Taos, sit outdoors and look like the Coneheads from an old Saturday Night Live sketch.
Because the ovens required so much time and fuel to fire, people generally did not bake just one loaf of bread. Rather, a line-up of several items could take advantage of all the preparations. Beginning with breads that required most heat, home bakers might follow with biscuits as the oven cooled, then pies, perhaps a stew or a pudding and a pot of beans to slow-cook overnight using the last heat in the oven’s masonry walls.
Discovering wood-fired adventure
Despite their obsolescence in most domestic American kitchens, wood-fired masonry ovens are experiencing renewed popularity. They are the oven of choice for some of New Mexico's Pueblo Communities and other Indigenous tribes. Brick oven pizza has become almost a standard in preparation. Restaurants such as Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen use a centrally positioned masonry oven to add an exciting visual element to the meal. Several “how-to” projects have even recently appeared on the Web.
A talented volunteer built the dome-shaped cob oven at Baltimore County’s Benjamin Banneker Historic House and Museum in Oella, Maryland. Under a simple, but neatly crafted open shelter, the oven represents the type of “appliance” found at small farms in 1790’s America. A hollow cob dome with an arched door sits on an elevated brick base. A “quick” fire of finger-thick hardwood inside the dome loads heat into the solid masonry wall. When judged ready, the baker rakes out the remaining coals, slides the food in, and fits a door into the oven’s open arch.
Using the oven is an adventure, particularly for avid bakers. “Mud” domes do not come with dials, lights, thermometers and adjustable racks; everything is done by judgment. Everything affects the quality of the baked goods: the ambient temperature and humidity; any wind or rain; the type, dryness and thickness of the firewood, and where it is positioned inside the oven; the cob’s dryness and integrity; and the amount of heat buildup in the dome’s masonry.
The following recipe, ideal for wood-fired masonry ovens or conventional ovens, comes from Cooking in the Cabin, the cookbook produced at Banneker Park. For information about the park’s historical cooking demonstrations and hands-on classes, contact the park at (410) 887-1081.
Beef Stew in the oven
- Well-marbled beef
Cut beef into bite-sized cubes; place into an ovenproof covered pot or crock. Add cubed vegetables and any seasonings. Place in a quick oven. Check periodically to ensure that beef and vegetables produce enough liquid. Add beef stock if necessary. Bake until beef is cooked through.