Bread has a long and amazing history and I regard it as the most important invention for humanity. Michael Pollan, an Author and Chef who spoken quite a bit about bread wrote in his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation about how bread is special because you need a civilization to make it. From growing wheat, to grinding it to flour, to fermenting, and baking is a process that really requires people to make it happen. I think it is important having a process that requires ‘people’, not ‘person’. The question is how do you trick people into doing something that takes more than one person without it being a hassle not worth doing? It also cannot be a forced behavior because as we all know people will not do something that is forced. Think about the bar-b-que. Would the average person start the BBQ for just cooking one burger? Bring it out, find paper and matches, light the charcoal, wait for 15-20minutes for it to get ready, dump out the coals, let the grill heat up, constant watching, cooking, closing it up, waiting for the fire to die, putting it way. Lots of hassle to cook one burger. But for a group of people it’s perfect. You go outside, stand by a fire, have a legitimate excuse to stand around in front of the fire for 20 minutes doing nothing, standing and moving around, you have something check on when there is a lull in conversation, cooking with fire is transformative and direct. Cooking with fire is a wonderful thing.
I wanted to emulate some of those similar characteristics to get similar results. Making bread or pizza outside using fire is a long and beautiful tradition. The problem (or opportunity in design speak) was how to make that possible without having to invest the time, space, and expense in a full blown woodier pizza oven? Cowboy cooking or otherwise known as dutch oven cooking was the answer. I first experimented cooking using a dutch oven I had gotten from my grandfather. This was met with spectacularly poor results. My attempt to make cinnamon rolls was an utter failure but I learned the basic principals and patience that came from cooking this way. In hindsight I should have tried something easier, or asked a few more informed questions before jumping in and nearly ruining my pot, but from that I came to some conclusions: It needed to allow access from the side, easily cleaned, allow for even heat distributing, stackable would be nice, and most importantly should be able to handle some serious heat.
From a social standpoint I think it is important to cook outside because there is more opportunity for conversations. When one person goes outside to start the fire it’s customary for someone to follow and ‘help’. This provides some one-on-one time, and provides a natural way to break away from the group to start a new conversation. It also provides a specific amount of time for the action of lighting the fire to take place, and plenty of excuses for ‘an out’. By needing to gather things to start the fire you can do this together, or one person can leave, or duties can be split-up. Each of these allows for an ease of the social situation depending on how comfortable people are together. It is also customary and socially acceptable to have a drink or share appetizers while this takes place, which also eases the situation. All these opportunities are lost when you just heat-up the oven in your kitchen. Though it is much easier to make a pizza, it makes the social experience of spending time with people harder. As a whole I would argue that the net comfort level for cooking pizza with a group of people is higher with an outdoor pizza oven than with an indoor kitchen oven. It should also be noted that when people are outside they are less distracted by their phones and more adapt to spend time talking with others.
Something that also shouldn’t be overlooked is the performance of the oven. I did some research on heat distribution and there were two things that I found important: The thickness of the metal surface and the ability to rotate the oven. Those experienced with cooking with dutch ovens will rotate the oven 120 degrees to ensure even heating. Dutch ovens usually have 3 feet to ensure stability when sitting on the coals and that also allows the oven to be twisted 120 degrees and the clearing in the coals for the feet match the feet when rotated. The lid is also covered in coals for top heat and it too is rotated. So when It came time to design my bread oven I wanted to mimic these traits. I gave it 3 feet and also made the top so it could be rotated 120 degrees. I also used 3/8 steel plate for the top and bottom surfaces to help ensure even heat distribution and maintain a good thermal mass to obtain the blistered crust I wanted for making pizza.
From a performance aspect I couldn’t be happier. After about 25 minutes the oven reaches just over 600 degrees and with one set of coals will last for about 45 minutes. The oven cooks 10” thin crust pizza in about 4-5 minutes. I’ve used the oven a few times while having people over and watched how people react and respond. What is wonderful about cooking them one at a time, is people nearly always share their pizza with others as they come out of the oven. The oven has worked as I had hoped in pulling people outside and lengthened the time it takes to cook and eat. This lengthen while still ‘active’ has certainly helped promote conversation and eased social awkwardness.