Wood Fired Oven (WFO)
This is my self-built wood fired oven! I occasionally refer to it as a pizza oven, but that does it a massive injustice as it’s so much more. It’s a behemoth, and frequently gets called a miniature house. Its internal cooking chamber is 115cm x 88cm and combines such large thermal mass and insulation that it will stay usefully warm for over 3 days after being fired up.
It can cook many different ways:
- Super high heat (650C +)
The oven is hottest after a few hours’ heating with a large fire still raging at the back. I use an infrared thermometer gun and it’s registered above 750C on the dome before. With these sorts of temperatures it can cook a pizza from fresh in less than 90 seconds, but in reality, to have a better control of the cook, it’s better to cook at around 450C which gives a bigger margin for error and the ability to cook two or three pizzas at once without fear of burning. The oven has enough room to cook over nine pizzas at once, but with the quick cooking times it’s impossible to do anywhere near that number without turning 75% of them into charcoal.
- High heat (350-450C)
High heat can generally deliver everything super high heat can, just taking a tad longer. Having a small fire still burning at the back will deliver that nice crisp pizza base. Whilst it does extend the cooking time somewhat, the difference between a 90 second pizza and 3 minute pizza is pretty negligible. This also allows for more control over the cook which generally means better outcomes.
- Roasting Temps (180-250C)
This temperature range will be more familiar to everyone, being the range you can get in a domestic electric/gas oven. To achieve this range, the oven needs to be fired up for a few hours, the fire allowed to burn out, then the temperature equalised. This involves placing a door in-front of the oven entrance to prevent most of the heat escaping, whilst the heat equalises out throughout all the masonry – it will take between 30 and 60 mins for this to happen. Once achieved, the oven will have a consistent temperature that can be used to roast things in a traditional manner. Although it’s capable of cooking meats at these temperatures, I prefer to cook mine in the “low and slow” range for better results.
- Low and Slow (95-130C)
This temperature range is typically what’s achieved in a smoker, but to achieve it in the WFO needs a good day after the fire has burnt out for the heat to drop. I used to do my first American style cuts of meat (brisket, etc.) in my WFO before I purchased a smoker, but it’s pretty uneconomical to fire up the whole oven for one brisket (although on occasion I could time it well with things like a pizza party the night before). On top of that, doing low and slow meats like this wouldn’t achieve any “smoke ring” (even though it’s not a smoke ring), but does give the same great tenderness. These days, unless I have anything planned to go in at these temperatures, I’ll fill the whole oven with logs (probably 2 wheelbarrows full) to essentially kiln dry for the next two times. It’s not the best use for it, but it’s still utilising the heat in one way or another.
- Drying (50-80C)
~2 days after the fire has died down the oven will hover between 50 and 80C for at least a day, ideal temperatures for drying food like tomatoes & peppers.
Charcoal BBQ (Grill)
I need to get this out of the way first, I’m a massive charcoal advocate. Although I won’t scorn your using a gas grill (some of my family do), I do hope the content here will help convince you the switch is worth it.
My grill is a large half-barrel style, Jamie Oliver branded (not that it made a difference to me, I just picked it up when it was ridiculously cheap – £50!) in Homebase a few summers ago. It doesn’t have a lid, so it’s not ideal, but for that price I couldn’t argue. It has 3 separate zones, each with a height adjustable grill and air vents in the sides of the drum (which are unfortunately made pointless by the lack of a lid).
I am looking to upgrade, hopefully to a ceramic BBQ that has multiple functions (grilling & smoking) alongside the efficiency and control that a ceramic delivers.
Charcoal BBQ (Smoker) – ProQ Excel 20 Elite (x2)
These are used to achieve the typical temperature range for BBQing (in the best sense of the word), but in the UK, we’re more likely to relate this to the term “smoking” or American style BBQ – this range is most often given in Fahrenheit because of its US origins. For some unfortunate reason the vast majority of the UK population think BBQing is the same as grilling which is also one reason we associate BBQs with burnt sausages and under cooked chicken. If you cook food low and slow and then it’s easier to achieve great (and more importantly), consistent results.
The lower temperatures do mean things take longer to cook, but they need far less attention then when grilling. On the upside, it means the window where food is cooked but not overdone is much longer and easier to hit.
This piece of kit really comes into its own when doing large pieces of meat such as Brisket, Pork Belly, Boston Butt (actually the pork shoulder), Ribs etc.
The ProQ – Excel 20 (the largest in the ProQ range) is incredibly versatile, with its “stackers” they allow for multiple configurations anything from grilling to cold & hot smoking. The capacity is huge, and I’ve had 8 racks of baby back ribs (without a rib rack) on.
Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron cookware is ideal for cooking on any heat source, it can be used on top of charcoal, in the pizza oven or even directly in a fire as shown below. It will last a life time, it’s really easy to clean and I’m a huge fan. The only possible negatives are the weight and the cost, but consider these a real investment and they are worth every penny. I’ve got 2 large Lodge skillets, a 42cm reversible griddle, a small 3 section tray and a large Le Creuset casserole pot.
I’m a huge advocate of cooking to temperature. It’s great cooking with charcoal and wood to get that extra smokey flavour into your food, but if it’s cooked too long and dries out, no-one will care. Know your food-safe temperatures and use these tools to ensure you stick to them where required (i.e. chicken) and use them to monitor the progress of the larger pieces such as Brisket.
I have a thermapen (which has to be the single best thermometer I can recommend to anyone), a dual probe digital thermometer (Salter / Heston branded), 2 high temperature thermometers that can sit in the oven / smoker to give me a reading at any point, and a BBQ Guru – DigiQ. The DigiQ is actually a forced draft system, meaning it controls the temperature of the “pit” i.e. my ProQ by controlling the air flow (the pit viper in the picture is a fan). It has two temp probes, one with a bulldog clip for connecting to a grill grate, and the other a needle for placing inside the meat. It’s an extremely handy piece of kit and allows me to get a bit of sleep on some of the longer cooks, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.