Ever tasted a pizza cooked in a blazing hot wood-fired oven? It’s a sensual delight that will make you swear off cooking pizza any other way.
Interested? You can certainly taste the difference at any of the restaurants that boast of wood-fired pizza ovens — and there are many. From these ovens comes a richly flavored pizza with a somewhat smoky taste, crunchy toppings and fluffier crust.
But why limit yourself to restaurant-cooked pizzas when you can serve up similar slices in your own backyard?
A cob oven will provide you with your own personal wood-fired pizzeria.
These traditional ovens — made of clay, sand and straw – are easy to make and will give you the ability to not only cook pizza, but to bake bread, prepare roasts, create desserts and make just about anything else cooked in a regular oven.
Simply toss some wood into your cob oven, fire it up and let the oven warm. Then scrape the ashes to the side and begin cooking.
Pizzas take only a couple of minutes to bake. Bread takes a fraction of the time required in a kitchen oven. And the oven will stay hot all day – especially with planned warm-ups using more wood – so you can cook a series of dishes.
If you’re convinced a cob oven is in your future here are the instructions for building one in your own backyard. There are also plenty of tips and videos on the internet that will help.
The first step in building a cob oven is deciding where to place it. Once it’s built, it will be much too heavy to move so make sure you site it properly – preferably away from any buildings and trees.
Test the direction of the prevailing wind. You won’t want to site it upwind of your house’s doors and windows.
You’ll then want to decide on a base for your oven. Most ovens are constructed on solid rock bases you create before your oven-construction day.
They can certainly be built nearly on the ground although you might want to consider the amount of bending that will take to fire up the oven and cook things within it. A base built up to about waist level will cut down on that bending.
Remember your thick-sided oven will be very heavy so you’ll want to ensure the base is sturdy enough to handle it. The oven will also get very hot, so fill the interior of your base with sand or dirt to insulate it a bit.
You may decide you want a brick-lined opening for your oven. If you do, create that several days before you begin the actual construction of the oven.
The height of the opening – whether it’s brick or simply cob – should be about two-thirds as high as the inside height of the oven. Make sure it’s wide enough for a pizza paddle to fit through.
Now create the oven floor by first lining it with bottles then covering them with sand. A single layer of fire bricks should sit comfortably on top.
Create the inside form for the oven by patting sand firmly into a rounded shape. Because the sand will be removed once the cob has dried, cover it with a layer of wetted newspaper to delineate where the mold ends.
Now create the cob itself.
Cob is a mixture of about one part clay to three parts sand that can be placed on a tarpaulin on the ground. Wet it slightly with water then begin mixing it with your feet, occasionally pulling up the sides of the tarp to reposition the mixture to be stamped more.
Each piece of sand must be covered with the clay so the foot-mixing can take quite a bit of time, adding more water occasionally if it’s too dry.
To test whether the mixture is “done” or not, take a baseball-sized lump, form it into a ball and drop it from shoulder height. If the ball flattens to less than 2/3 of its original height, it’s too wet. If it has multiple cracks, it may not have either enough water or enough clay.
Keep stamping and mixing.
When the mixture is just right, form bricks of about three inches in thickness and begin building them upwards from the base of the sand form. Fit the bricks together as tightly as possible.
Once the form has been covered in this first layer, it’s time for the second layer.
Cut up straw with a weed-wacker to make the strands shorter and mix into another batch of finished cob. The straw strengthens the structure and helps insulate it.
Once you’ve mixed in the straw, the cob should still stick together, start making more three-inch bricks and begin building this up from the base over the first layer.
If you didn’t create a brick-lined opening for the oven, you can now sculpt an opening out of this straw mixture.
Finally, mix another batch of cob – actually each layer might take several batches to complete – for the third layer. Do not mix straw into this layer.
Once it’s correctly mixed shape bricks about one-inch in width and again begin building from the bottom of the oven up. This is the protective layer for the structure.
Smooth this top layer with a concrete tool for a nice finish. For decoration you can even embed small mosaic tiles, pieces of beach glass or other items into this top layer.
Once the oven is completed, let it dry for about three days then begin digging out the sand form over two days, half each day. You’ll know whether you reach the sides of the oven when you reach the thin newspaper layer. No need to peel it off as it will be burned off in your first fire.
To ensure the longevity of the oven, you can either cover it with some sort of roof or use a protective layer of slaked lime plaster to protect it from the weather.
The oven must be air cured for a few days after removing the sand mold. You should then start graduating heating it over a number of days, beginning with a small fire and graduating to larger fires. Don’t rush it.
Now you’re ready to cook that first pizza. Get your mouth ready for one of the best taste-treats you’ll ever experience.