Wood-burning ovens: how do they work and how do you use them?

The smell of burning wood, the sizzling of a slowly-browned roast and the scent of freshly baked pizza make cooking in wood-fired ovens irresistible and intriguing.

Traditionally, this type of oven was a prerogative of villas and houses in the countryside, but thanks to technological evolution today you can also make delicious delicacies on the patio of an apartment in the city.

Thanks to their small size and low weight, you can install modern wood-fired ovens both inside and outside your home or choose a mobile version that you can use in a different space every time.

In addition to being less bulky, the new wood-fired ovens are also extremely easy to use compared to the traditional models.

This is because the fire is managed much more easily thanks to both the compact structure and materials used, which offer high thermal performance.

But how do you use a wood-fired oven once it’s been installed? More specifically, how does it work? Let’s find out below!

In this article we’ll explore:

  • How a wood-fired oven works
  • How to use a wood-fired oven
    –  How to light a wood-fired oven for the first time
    –  How long before cooking should you light a fire in a wood-fired oven?
    –  How do you know when the oven is ready?
  • How do you cook pizza in a wood-fired oven?
  • How to manage a wood-fired oven: summary

Let’s begin!

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How a wood-fired oven works

In order to understand how a wood-fired oven works, and to make the most of all the potential it has to offer, it’s useful to know its basic parts.

Wood-fired ovens essentially consist of five elements:

  1. Dome: this enables the wood-fired oven to reach high temperatures and maintain them during the cooking process. The convection shape keeps heat rotating throughout the chamber rather than escaping through the flue.
  2. Cooking floor: usually made of refractory material, it can withstand high temperatures and retains heat to cook Neapolitan pizzas perfectly.
  3. Door: controls combustion and prevents heat from unnecessarily escaping to the outside. Used to control temperature.
  4. Flue: positioned above the dome, it allows the right amount of smoke to escape, channelling it in a direction that does not disturb diners.
  5. Pyrometer: a thermometer usually located on the side wall of the oven, used to measure the temperature of the air in the cooking chamber.

Knowing your oven and learning how to use it lets you bring new recipes to the table with unrivalled flavor.

Before we look at how to use a wood-fired oven, we need to understand how they work.

Wood-fired ovens work in three different ways:

  1. By conduction: when the food to be cooked comes into direct contact with the hot surface of the oven, such as pizza,
  2. By convection: thanks to the hot air that is created inside the oven once the fire has been started and has had time to warm the chamber.
  3. By radiation: when the heat generated by the cooking chamber is transmitted directly to the food to be cooked.

While it’s true that the materials with which ovens are made have improved over the centuries, the operation of wood-fired ovens and their shape have remained virtually unchanged.

The special shape of the dome allows for optimal air movement, which is perfect for distributing the heat within the oven’s cooking chamber.

Not to mention that advanced construction techniques in recent years have made it possible to craft better performing wood-fired ovens, which are lighter than traditional counterparts.

Simply consider the Forninox™ Technology developed by Alfa which, in addition to improving the performance of its steel and refractory wood-fired ovens in terms of cooking, greatly reduces their weight and consumption.

In fact, Alfa ovens need only a small amount of fuel to reach the desired temperature, as the time required to reach high temperatures is very minimal.

It is not uncommon for beginners to wonder how long it takes to light a fire in the oven. This time is much shorter today: Alfa ovens take only 15 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the model purchased.

But how are wood-fired ovens managed and how do you know the oven is ready once the fire is lit? Let’s find out below.

How to use a wood-fired oven

Wood-fired ovens are perfect for cooking pizza, but also bread, roasts, vegetables and focaccia. Because the ovens are designed to retain heat, dishes that are commonly cooked in an indoor electric oven can be cooked in your outdoor stainless steel oven and have the benefit of added flavor.

For example, oak wood is perfect for imparting a delicate aroma to fish, while maple, walnut and chestnut give meat a strong fragrance.

What kind of wood is best for pizza? Beech and oak wood are certainly a good choice: in addition to their excellent aromatic qualities, these woods have a good caloric yield, producing a beautiful flame and few embers.

One thing to bear in mind when using the oven is that the dimensions are not the same for all models, but can vary depending on the space available and its intended use.

This means that there is no standard amount of wood to be used to light and keep the oven warm. Obviously the larger the oven, the more wood is needed to raise the temperature inside the cooking chamber.

First of all, in order to use the wood-fired oven at its best, you must light the fire properly.

In fact, unlike gas ovens whose firing is intuitive, wood-fired ovens require a bit of manual skill to be started.

Let’s see how.

 

How to light a wood-fired oven for the first time

In addition to choosing the most suitable type of wood, it is important to use only small, dry pieces of wood and smaller twigs when lighting the oven.

Furthermore, chemical fuels should never be used to facilitate combustion, because the ashes and embers remain in direct contact with food, especially if you decide to bake pizza on the oven floor.

How to light a wood-fired oven for the first time. Place the wood holder in the center of the oven; then create a small wood frame using straw or dry twigs. This frame creates a base which small pieces of dry wood can be placed.

Now you can light the fire and leave the oven door ajar to ventilate the cooking chamber and facilitate combustion.

Once the wood has begun to burn and created a good flame, larger pieces of wood can be added to create a more intense fire.

 

How long before cooking should you light the fire in a wood-fired oven?

Usually 15 or 30 minutes is enough depending on the size of your oven: the important thing is never to put too much wood in at once.

Once lit, how do you manage a wood-fired oven? As soon as the wood is burning well and some of it has been consumed, turning into hot coals, the fire can be moved to the side.

If you wish, you can light the fire directly on the side, but remember to always place the fire on the opposite side of the pyrometer to make sure that the temperature reading is correct.

Once the combustion has begun, you can close the door and bring the oven to the desired temperature.

 

How do you know when the oven is ready?

You just need to reach the temperature necessary to cook whatever recipe you are making and you can do this in two ways:

  • Using the pyrometer on the side of the oven and measuring the heat of the air inside the baking chamber
  • With a laser thermometer that detects the temperature of the cooking floor, particularly useful if you want to bake pizzas.

Once the desired temperature has been reached and all the dark soot on the inside of the oven has burnt off, the food can be placed in the oven.

Obviously a quality wood-fired oven will make all the difference in terms of the time and amount of wood to be used and in maintaining the temperature.

Once the food has been cooked, simply close the door and wait for the combustion to finish and the ash to form.

The fire should be out and the oven completely cold after about an hour, at which point you can proceed with cleaning the wood-fired oven. Remove the small residual coals and accumulated ash, placing them in a heat-resistant metal container.

This will ensure the oven is ready to be used the next time.

How do you cook pizza in a wood-fired oven?

When thinking of a wood-fired oven, the first thing that comes to mind is pizza, perhaps with a thick, soft crust, simply topped with tomato and mozzarella or with the most varied ingredients, but always perfect for sharing with friends.

Making pizzas cooked to order in a wood-fired oven is not difficult if you follow some simple steps, and use the right accessories.

As we have just seen, once the fire has been lit it’s important to make sure that the cooking chamber is very hot: how many degrees must the wood-fired oven reach to cook pizza?

The cooking floor of the oven needs to reach around 750 °F in order to cook a quality restaurant-style pizza.

For this to happen, once the fire is lit, simply leave the door open a little. As the flame slowly dies down, you can put the embers to one side, put the pizzas in the oven and close the door to keep the temperature uniform.

If the temperature drops too low, simply add a piece of wood to bring the right heat back into the cooking chamber to cook the other pizzas.

Wood-fired pizza ovens must be kept constantly warm during use by means of the fire on the side, without ever adding too much fuel.

This allows you to make fragrant, well-cooked pizzas in 60 or 90 seconds depending on your taste, ready to be enjoyed.

We are often asked how much wood is needed to fuel a wood-fired oven during an evening, but it’s difficult to give an unequivocal answer to this question due to several factors: oven size, type of wood used and number of pizzas to be cooked.

How to manage a wood-fired oven: summary

In this article we explored how to use wood-fired ovens to make perfectly cooked pizzas, even in your own backyard.

Indeed, it’s important to practice with this type of oven so that you can use it correctly, which makes it easier to best manage your wood-fired oven, keeping the temperature constant throughout the baking process.

The choice of firewood should also not be left to chance, as each type of wood gives food a different fragrance and has a different cooking performance.

Without doubt, however, having a domestic wood-fired oven that can guarantee professional performance with low consumption makes it easier for even the most inexperienced cooks to make appetizing dishes from the very first use.

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