Brick ovens are the soul of
Napa Valley cuisine
Though people call them pizza ovens, they're used to produce far more than pizzas. Roaring, wood-burning brick ovens are at the heart of much of the typical food of Napa Valley, used to roast meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, to bake bread -- and to make the ubiquitous pizza.
It's clear why. A brick oven produces superb food.
It's also the most sensual possible way to cook.
“Using a wood-burning oven satisfies some primordial urge,” says a Napa Valley homeowner who has owned a wood-burning oven for six years. “It’s just you, the fire and the pizza. You have to work it all out between you.”
A gift from Italy
Though wood-burning ovens were brought here from Naples to bake authentic pizzas, they also create unique flavors and textures for roasts, poultry, vegetables, bread and even desserts.
The ovens have become de rigueur at wine country restaurants, and they’re hot for homes, too. “All the high-end estates are installing them,” says Jack Chandler, a Napa Valley landscape architect who finally got his own oven after designing them for many customers.
A wood-burning oven not only makes wonderful food, it creates wonderful memories. Whether you’re preparing an elaborate benefit dinner for charity or pizzas for the family, a brick oven makes any occasion special. It’s also good for family fun. “Kids love to get their hands on the pizza dough,” says a long time user.
With all their attractions, however, a brick oven is a lot like a vintage Jaguar: It’s big, expensive and heavy, and requires a lot of care and feeding. You have to build a fire hours before you can cook, and often have to wait until the oven interior settles to the proper temperature.
You have to add wood regularly and fiddle with the door to maintain the right temperature: The heat ideal for pizza can incinerate a roast in minutes, yet the ovens are notoriously slow to cool. “It’s still 300 degrees 16 hours later,” notes the general manager at Mugnaini Imports, the oven supplier most involved in the home market.
In spite of these quirks, wood ovens are becoming fixtures at wine country estates, and it may not be too long before anyone can buy one for the back yard for a few hundred dollars, as in Italy.
For now, homeowners (and restaurants) buy prefabricated oven inserts that are enclosed in masonry shells. Inserts typically consist of a heavy compressed firebrick base fired at 3,000 degrees and a porous cast half-dome cover.
Most inserts come from Italy, and their $3,000 to $5,000 price is just a start. They can cost $25,000 to $35,000 by the time you’ve paid the architect, the county and the mason. “I call it my $100-per-slice pizza,” jokes one owner.
Some people make their own ovens or commission custom versions, but chef Jan Birnbaum, who is about to open Epic Roadhouse in San Francisco, recommends buying a prefab insert. He installed a manufactured insert at his Sazerac Restaurant in Seattle after experience with a custom oven at his former Catahoula Restaurant in Napa Valley. “The inserts are easy, proven and they work,” he notes. He says that the 600- to 700-degree prefab at Sazerac is more efficient and burns less fuel than the 900- to 1,000-degree oven at Catahoula. The insert also cools faster.
Using the oven
Traditional ovens have a single opening for fuel and food as well as air and smoke. The door is used to regulate temperature by restricting oxygen.
The hot oven floor heats from below while the dome radiates energy from above, and if the oven is properly designed, swirling air currents provide natural convection heating that speeds initial heating and reduces cooking times.
Though you build a fire in the oven to heat it for any cooking, they basically operate in two modes: baking pizza, and cooking everything else.
To cook a pizza properly in just a few minutes requires a very hot oven and an open flame sustained by an open door. Under these conditions, Thess says, the dome surface can reach 900 degrees, the deck 650 to 750 degrees.
For baking and roasting everything else, the door is closed once the oven is hot, then the oven cools to perhaps 550 degrees in an hour or two. The food bakes or roasts with the door closed and no flame. Still, warns Michel Cornu, the chef at Far Niente Winery in Napa Valley, “You’ve got to keep your eye on it. You can’t trust a hot oven.”
As the oven cools, it’s less finicky. Jack Chandler recently cooked a whole 57-pound pig in his oven. It was a tight fit, but he started it cooking at 11 at night and it was perfect by 8 the next morning. It remained in the slowly cooling oven until lunch. “It was fork tender and delicious,” he says.
Most ovens are constructed outside, but they can also be installed in a kitchen if fire and building regulations are observed. A few people, like wine importer Jack Daniels, have both, so he can enjoy oven-cooked meals in both summer and winter.
Some localities restrict wood-burning devices to combat pollution; commercial pizza ovens often burn gas, and this may become necessary for homes one day. Even then, however, cooking with a brick oven won’t be like using a microwave. Jack Chandler admits that his oven is a lot of trouble to use. “It’s a pain in the butt,” he says, “but it’s a fun pain.”
Hints for using brick ovens
“Cook regularly, but heat the oven slowly. Thermal cycles stress the oven,” warns chef Jan Birnbaum.
Start the fire with kindling and Weber odorless Fire Starter cubes, recommends Andrea Mugnaini. Birnbaum used a combination of walnut and almond wood in Napa Valley, cherry and apple in Seattle. “Almond burns fast, walnut poorly, but provides a good bed of coals,” he says.
Michel Cornu of Far Niente Winery likes the flavor of red oak, and it burns well, leaving good coals. Local Napa oak is cheaper but burns fast. Manzanita is too hot. Don’t use resinous pine or eucalyptus, which impart strange odors.
Mugnaini’s Thess uses 16-inch logs double split, but adds hardwood scraps from cabinet makers during cooking.
Baking pizzas and foccaccia
Add a small piece of wood to increase flames when cooking pizzas.
Don’t use cooked tomato sauce for pizzas. “The tomatoes get overcooked,” says Andrea Mugnaini. “Use fresh or canned San Marzano tomatoes put through food mill.”
The pizza should have a dry bottom, the cheese should be melted and there should be black blisters on the crust, says Thess. It should be a flexible, bread-like crust, not like a cracker. If it takes 4 minutes, the oven isn’t hot enough.
Other baking and roasting
You can bake bread with the heat left over from making pizzas the day before. Wood doesn’t dry food as much as gas does, but inject water when baking bread—a clean garden sprayer is ideal.
To convert recipes, cook at 75 to 100 degrees higher than specified; if the recipe calls for 400, use the oven at 500 degrees—it will cook in half the time, says Thess.
Tent poultry and other meat requiring long roasting with aluminum foil until three-quarters done, then remove foil for browning. It will cook faster than in a gas or electric home oven, says Thess.
Birnbaum cooks stews and gumbos in the oven, and hot-smokes meat in the oven by adding wood chips soaked in water to provide flavorful smoke.
Andrea Mugnaini doesn’t bother to brown meat on a stove first. She puts it in the oven to brown, then takes it out to season and returns for roasting.
Most suppliers focus on commercial applications; Mugnaini is oriented toward home use as well as restaurants, and conducts cooking classes at its location in Watsonville, Calif., near Santa Cruz and Monterey.
Bravo Systems International, 800.333.2728; www.bravo-systems.com.
Earthstone Wood-Fire Ovens, 818.553.1134 or 800.840.4915; www.earthstoneovens.com.
Mugnaini Imports, 888.887.7206 or 831.761.1767; www.mugnaini.com.
Renato Specialty Products Inc., 800.876.9731 or 972.864.8800; www.renatos.com.
Wood Stone Corp., 800.988.8074 or 360.650.1111; www.woodstone-corp.com.
The recipe for pizza with tomato and basil was provided by Andrea Mugnaini of Mugnaini Imports. The second recipe, for white clam pizza, is from the Red Grape restaurant in Sonoma, California.
These pizzas can also be cooked in a conventional oven with a pizza stone. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t have a baker’s peel (the large spatula used to move pizzas in and out of the oven), sprinkle cornmeal on a portable cutting board or rimless cookie sheet and use to slide the pizza onto the stone. The pizzas will take about 6 minutes this way. Extra balls of dough can be frozen.
Pizza al pomodoro e basilico (pizza with tomatoes and basil)
For the dough: