Wood Fire Cooking, Part I

One of my personal goals is to restore the historical art of wood fire cooking.  When most people think of wood fire cooking, they think of a campfire–roasting marshmallows or hotdogs over a few burning logs.  However, historically, on farms (we’re not talking about New England towns or tightly packed European villages), all cooking was done over the fire and all aspects of cooking–boiling, roasting, frying, brewing, baking–were so done.

Go online or to books today and you’ll find bread ovens whose design costs $5,000+ to build.  Why?  First, they’re what I call PWM Projects (People Wasting Money projects).  They are of interest to people living in suburbs who want to build something that will (a) pass city building codes and (b) will look cool outside for hang-outs.   The ovens are designed to reach 700 degrees so a home-owner can make his own pizza when he has the urge to do so.  Thus, the construction specs and materials are simply unnecessary for any real cooking equipment on a farm.  We’re not trying to build a 700 degree oven.  Bread bakes at 400 degrees and that is easily reached with simpler designs.  We’re not trying to build an indoor oven…we can afford to lose heat, have smoke, etc.. Everything is simpler and we can’t brainlessly follow what other people (who don’t share our goals) are doing.

Flame View Wood Stove costs about $3000

Moreover, indoor wood stoves are largely intended for cold areas where the heat was desired indoors.  The only time we would want to cook indoors would be the coldest winter months.  Therefore, the $3000 wood cookstoves do not appeal at all to us.

This is a historical research and development project for me and my goal is to restore the practice–not necessarily reproduce the exact same equipment used in the past.  I want to reproduce the art and practice of wood fire  cooking because (a) we are surrounded by acres of wood and (b) we want to do most of our food preparation and cooking outside.  It’s warm here in southern NC and we don’t want heat in the house.  Since the investment wouldn’t be a good one for us, we will probably look at open fire cooking indoors as well within a kitchen hearth. 

Unfortunately, most people think of medieval/renaissance festivals when they try to imagine old fashioned cooking.  These, however, are camps not permanent residences and the equipment doesn’t apply to what I am seeking to do.  To restore the real, everyday cooking methods, we need to search out the practices on farms, where the permanent equipment was kept and used on a larger scale.  The basic tasks were (a) bread-baking, (b) beer-brewing, (c) stew-making and  (d) animal roasting.  Almost all of the family food can be produced in these four tasks and on the farm these would be so convenient out of doors.  A stew pot could be filled right out of the garden and be ready for dinner.  Bread could be made daily with freshly ground wheat or corn from the fields.  Chicken and lamb could be roasted over the fire and no blood or guts ever enter the house.  It is such a cleaner and more efficient way of handling food on the farm.  What we will be designing is a complete cooking area that can handle every necessary task.  It needs to be built for us…not for a magazine to serve everyone…and not to be replicated in a suburban backyard.  You can only do this stuff on a farm.

Basic outdoor fire pit. Note the bar for hanging stew pots/dutch ovens, the modern grill racks for grilling. inside the floor is made of blocks raised about 1/2 way up the inside of the pit wall to bring the cooking surface comfortably within reach and the fire close to the surface. Using this pit one can do everything needed to cook outdoors...but it's just the beginning.

My first step was the reproduction of the basic fire pit, around which everything else centers.  As this is a long-term experiment and I’m not yet ready to commit to a final design, I built a prototype with cinder blocks and no cement.  The pit is held together with pins and can be dismantled whenever I wish.

Inside, the floor is built from cinder blocks so that the floor is only 16″ from the cooking surface.  We also have 2″x 24″ concrete slabs that can be laid across the pit to turn it into an oven.  The grills can be removed and the slabs set in their place to contain the heat.  The fire/coals are moved to the rear of the oven and bread baked right on the floor (in a pan). 

The pot rack has 4 rings on it that allow for up to 4 pots to be hung at the same time and all can be moved side to side, but also up and down by the chain to control temperature.  The rack is made of simple threaded black pipe available at any building supply store.

While this totally works, we will be building a separate oven for bread-baking (which is the core of the farm diet).  We will also be adding a boiling pit for the constant supply of hot water around the farm–for brewing, cleaning, etc.. We will also be adding a dedicated, stand-alone 10 gallon (or more) stew pot to free up the fire pit for smaller pots.  We’ll then establish our final designs and build the whole thing to last–and to be beautiful.   You should know that the fire pit pictured (which could serve us temporarily, cost about $100 and took 3 hours to build.

More to come…we’re going to work with this for  a while and make slight adjustments before adding anything else or altering the design.  So far…very good.

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7 Responses to Wood Fire Cooking, Part I

  1. LeeAnn Balbirona says:

    I am very curious to see how you will do open fire cooking indoors! Do you mean fireplace/hearth cooking? (I can’t imagine you with an open pit fire in your house ala the Vikings or Native Americans!) I have read about this a teeny bit…I think there are places where you can still get the irons for stew pots and such to hang over the fire. The problem nowadays is that most new homes don’t have real fireplaces and that the are too small for cooking in.

    It would be great to see some of the meals you are cooking in your temporary outdoor kitchen.

  2. jessica hannon says:

    All the small grocery stores down here carry a line of iron over the fire cookware. When Philip (my 7 yr) saw your outdoor fire pit he was amazed and asked if we could make one. It looks great. keep us posted on how it works out, b/c as soon as you get yours “tweaked” we would like to make one modeled off of yours.

  3. Paul Christenberry says:

    I would love to see more pics of your basic outdoor fire pit. And if you have time a materials list would be great.

  4. Alicia says:

    can you email a list of materials that were used.

    • wmclaa says:

      There’s no necessary list…that’s the point. It’s cinder blocks, black pipe and some chain, available at any building supply store. If you can build with Legos, you can do whatever you want with cinder blocks for simple fire cooking.

  5. damon says:

    Love it love it love it. Is it poss. To get more detailed photos.

  6. Ann Dhaemers says:

    I love this idea. I plan on making one come spring.I love dutch oven cooking. Let me know how yours is working for you. Thank You Your DOC friend

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