Baking bread in Mildrith, the wood-fired oven, is an ongoing experiment. I know her better every time I bake, and she responds to my ministrations. Her needs are simple: put lots of heat in those sand/clay thermal walls, lots of fire and wood, and she bakes all the bread I need.
For years, I baked bread in a dutch oven: a cast-iron Lodge three-quart combo cooker. I pre-heated the combo for 45 minutes in a 500ºF kitchen oven. I placed a shaped sourdough into it and cooked it covered for 25 minutes. Then I removed the lid and the bread continued baking another 30 or so minutes until the crust was dark red/brown, with a bit of black around the fissures.
The combo cooker made wonderful bread. The crust was crisp and thick. It shattered when you cut into it. The crumb was pillowy soft and moist, tasting of the wheat and sour fermentation you spent hours developing.
The dutch oven works because it traps steam from the baking dough inside the covered vessel. The steam softens the outer crust and promotes a dramatic oven spring. When the lid is removed, the bread bakes another 30 minutes. The crust solidifies in the direct oven heat and caramelizes and glosses into beautiful patterns and colours.
The moment I started baking with Mildrith, I could see my sourdough loaves were different. They rose beautifully in the direct heat and the colours were deeper and more complex than the kitchen oven loaves. But I haven’t achieved the dramatic fissures and thick crusts that I get with the combo cooker.
Mildrith’s loaves sit directly on the firebrick hearth. They are surrounded with an unrelenting radiant heat, instead of heating elements above and below in the electric oven. Steam is released from the baking bread, but not trapped as in the combo cooker/dutch oven. Even if I close the damper and seal off the oven, steam leaks out into the chimney. When I stand back from the oven with bread baking inside, I can see steam billowing out of the chimney (see video above). The steam that softens the crust inside the combo cooker quickly dissipates inside Mildrith.
Does the lack of steam in Mildrith affect the dramatic oven oven spring and fissures I got in the combo cooker? I am trying to figure this out.
Wilderness dweller’s bread
A few years ago, my son gave me a book that was an early inspiration for me to build Mildrith. A Wilderness Dweller’s Cookbook was written by Chris Czajkowski (pronounced Chy-koff-ski). It is part of a series of books written by Czajkowski (now 72 years old) who has lived off the grid for more than 30 years on a Crown lease at the southern tip of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, near Bella Coola, British Columbia.
Czajkowski built a number of ovens out of dry-stacked stone. Many were not even sealed with mortar or cement. She heated the rocks with fire and was able to bake two rounds of bread (two loaves each) despite the rapid heat loss of the open oven. She used no steam, yet the pictures of her loaves look splendid.
Czajkowski offers bread recipes for yeasted and sourdough breads, as well as other dishes she served to the guests of her Nuk Tessli Lodge. She tells a remarkable story over her 12 books about arriving on this remote property and building her home and the multiple cabins of the lodge.
“In my experience, gas ovens produce the blandest bread; electric ovens, particularly if the have a convection fan, are somewhat better; a regular wood cookstove is pretty good; a stone or mud oven is absolutely the best. Flavour apart, the bread even behaves differently. An unfettered loaf in a regular oven spreads sideways. A free-form lump of dough thrown into a stone oven puffs up beautifully.”
No mention of steam here, but from where she sits, she might well be making the best bread in the world!