Beyond the grill

The fragrant bread that comes from an outdoor adobe brick oven is “the way it should be,” says Allison Kerwin of Hancock. The crust is crisp and hearty from the steam created by the residual moisture in the bricks.

After making bread dough with a traditional recipe, it bakes in about 15 minutes in the 800-degree heat, says Kerwin. To prepare the oven, she counts back five hours from the time she wants to bake — it takes that long to build the heat in the firebrick. Split wood burning in the chamber heats the fire bricks from inside. Once the oven is hot, the wood is removed and the floor of the oven is swept free of ashes and then swabbed down with water to ready the oven for baking.

It was during a trip to Spain that Kerwin decided she wanted an adobe bread oven of her own. She says every community in the region has one — it’s where the local women gather one or two days a week and bake their bread together in a social setting.

Upon returning, Kerwin researched home-made ovens on the Web. Within a year, with the help of friends, she had an adobe oven up and running.

The inside of the Kerwin’s oven is firebrick, while the exterior is made of adobe brick from gray clay hauled from Charlestown. The clay was mixed with the help of kids from the Great Brook School in Antrim as a community project. Big washtubs were filled with straw, clay and water and formed into “little mud pies” until it was the shape of a “crouching beaver,” says Kerwin. Once assembled, the brick cured naturally with little fires inside, taking about a month to be ready for the heat of 800 degrees.

Now Kerwin fires up the oven six or so times a year, usually starting with Easter. It makes a great party event with everyone gathering around as fresh loaves of bread are pulled from the oven and slathered with butter and honey. She has also baked beans, dried tomatoes and baked fruit cobblers. Often, friends bring their own dough to bake, too.

Kerwin estimates the cost at about $800, which includes heavy metal doors and the firebrick. Her main resource for instruction was a dissertation, “Bread Ovens of Quebec,” by Lise Boily, Jean-Francois Blanchette and Lise Boily-Blanchette, published in 1979.

Building your own oven

Earth ovens are one of the simplest and longest-used cooking structures. From Africa to Asia and North America, versions of earth ovens have been built by cultures the world over.

At its basic level an earth oven is just a pit in the ground used to trap heat and cook food. A more permanent earth oven involves a little more work, but most of the materials can be found underfoot.

These summarized steps show how easy it is to create a basic earth oven, but for actual instructions search out a book such as “Build Your Own Earth Oven” by Kiko Denzer, now in its third edition. Earth and outdoor ovens vary widely, from a round clay form to highly detailed works of art. The book, “The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens,” by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, is an in-depth manual to more complex masonry ovens and outdoor baking.

To start, decide how much you’ll use the oven. If you’re likely to use it often, build your base at waist height. Otherwise, you can keep it ground level. For an oven to last long, you’ll also need to build a roof to keep out the rain (instructions for a waterproof roof can be found in Denzer’s book).

For a floor, you can make it as big or as small as you want. Make the floor on top of a level bed of smooth, tamped sand about four to six inches deep. Set standard red or fire bricks on the sand to create the floor.

Next you need to make a form. Shape pile of moist sand on the floor bricks — use whatever sand is easiest to come by. The sand form will eventually be covered with a mud mix and then removed from the interior. The form should be a few inches higher than half of the floor’s width. At this point you’ll also need to do simple calculations to help determine the size of your doors.

Good oven soil is usually found below the topsoil. It should contain clay and can be used straight from the ground or mixed with sand. The mix is usually one part clay subsoil and anywhere from one to three parts sand. Pure clay works, but tends to crack more.

The mud is packed over the form, with a layer of newspaper between to keep the mud from sticking to the sand. Once a hole is cut for the door and the mud is dry enough to resist denting when you poke it, dig out the sand. After the form is dug out, the oven is nearly ready to fire up. You’ll also need to build a door. To use the oven, build a fire in it and let the smoke come out the door. When the oven has been fired for about four hours, it’s ready to use. Rake out the coals and start baking, making sure the door is shut to trap heat.

This is a simple method, but for the adventurous or artistic, earth ovens are often sculpted into everything from animal shapes to human faces.

No matter what form an outdoor oven takes, you’re sure to impress with delicious wood-fired meals.

Susan Laughlin is creative director of New Hampshire Magazine, a sister publication to New Hampshire Business Review. Erica Thoits is the magazine’s assistant editor. This article was originally published in the magazine’s May 2008 issue.