Basically we can distinguish two categories of masonry wood-burning ovens: those built completely on site in bricks, and those partially prefabricated with refractory blocks.
Brick ovens and prefabricated ovens
Brick ovens are quite widespread in the Anglo-Saxon world and in the rest of Europe, now much less so in Italy, and understandably: Italy is the world’s largest producer of prefabricated refractory ovens, and also the world’s largest exporter of wood-fired ovens in general. Also, check one of the best pizza oven.
While the installation of a prefabricated refractory oven is a task that can also be tackled amateurishly, the construction of a brick oven is a complex and difficult task that requires skills often out of the reach of even experienced bricklayers.
Exploded alpha oven
Exploded prefabricated oven Alfarefrattari
Considering that the cost of a refractory oven is completely affordable, and that the result is a generally more efficient product, it is understandable that the use of these ovens is spreading even outside of Italy, and that Italian products are becoming more and more successful.
In fact, refractory ovens produced in Italy are now considered the guiding standard for the drafting of European Standards on the construction of wood-fired ovens.
In favor of brick ovens it can be said that they are sometimes very beautiful and decorative in themselves, and also that maintenance can be easier: the bricks that make up the fire surface and the walls of the fire chamber can be replaced individually in case of deterioration, without the need to rebuild the entire oven, while a crack in the vault of a refractory oven almost always means having to replace the entire product. In addition, brick ovens have the advantage that they can be customised at will.
As wide as the choice of prefabricated ovens on the market can be (and in Italy there is really only an embarrassment of choice), nothing can compete with the infinite possibilities of customization allowed by a brick oven made on site.
There are, of course, other possibilities. Small amateur refractory clay ovens can be easily self-built, with very little expense and with only a little space and time.
These ovens may not be particularly durable, but they can help you to understand the complexity of the work required to create a more ‘professional’ oven, as well as to measure your willingness to the commitment that the care and use of a wood-fired oven require. In the section ‘Building the oven’ we will also describe these types of ovens. A small oven like the one photographed can be made with only one day’s work, and a lot of good will, of course.
Finally, for those who do not want to give up the possibility of having a refractory oven, without any or almost any of the inconveniences that the construction of a traditional oven involves, there are small mobile ovens on the market, such as the Fiesta model by Alfacaminetti. They can be moved on wheels and disassembled quite easily, they allow small cooking and are probably the best solution for city gardens or terraces, or for second homes without large spaces available, as well as for lazy users, of course.
The size of the oven
Especially talking about traditional prefabricated refractory ovens, in general you could say that it is not wrong to buy ‘as much oven as you can’. The cost of prefabricated ovens does not increase significantly with increasing size and, having space available, a larger oven will make cooking operations more comfortable, and will allow a more varied and complete cooking sequence.
However, there are still limits to consider.
Building a small brick kiln can be an affordable undertaking, but the construction of a large brick vault requires the intervention of a team of experienced carpenters, the cost of which can become prohibitive.
In addition, no oven is able to return more heat than it is supplied with. The larger the size of the oven, the more heat you will need to provide to achieve the same cooking temperature. A large brick oven can take hours and hours of fire before it reaches a reasonable temperature. Although refractory ovens are much quicker to heat (even the largest ones generally do not take more than 60/90 minutes to reach temperature), it should be kept in mind that larger ovens require more wood to be heated. It is therefore important to keep your needs in mind: if all you want is the possibility to bake some pizza for family use on weekends, a small oven will be much more convenient and economical to use.
If, on the other hand, the use of a wood-fired oven will become a permanent part of your lifestyle, and the intention is to produce bread, grilled vegetables, meat, etc. on a daily basis, then a larger oven will be a reasonable choice.
The shape and size of the oven may also depend on what you believe will be the main use. Those who want to bake pizzas will probably want a large and comfortable oven to use even with the wood burning inside, and with the widest possible mouth. Those who intend to bake bread above all will want a deep oven with the smallest possible mouth.
Generally speaking, an oven for baking pizzas should not be smaller than 70/80 cm in diameter, to make room for at least a couple of pizzas, in addition to the wood that burns.
Professional ovens for artisan pizzerias reach a maximum of a couple of meters in diameter. Larger sizes are really difficult to heat with wood, and are used industrially for gas or electrically heated ovens.
A domestic oven for baking bread can be even smaller, as bread does not bake in the presence of wood, but only in a ‘clean’ oven. The important thing is to assess how much bread you intend to bake in the oven. A bread oven should always be used with a full load, to ensure sufficient humidity during baking. A large wood-fired oven in which only one loaf of bread is placed would end up reducing it to a miserable crust.
An oven for domestic use will have to be a compromise between these requirements.
Speaking of “weekend” ovens, i.e. ovens with occasional use, there is another consideration to be made. Whether it is a brick oven or a prefabricated refractory oven, the clayey material of which it is made is still a material with an enormous capacity to absorb moisture. An oven abandoned to itself for several weeks, perhaps in the open air in a wet and rainy area, requires drying before being brought to firing temperature, otherwise too rapid a temperature change, in the presence of moisture absorbed by the structure, could cause irreparable breakage. A large oven may even require a few days of low temperature fires to be ‘seasoned’ again and ready for real cooking.
In general, an oven used occasionally for small cooking will have to be ‘light’, because it will be faster and easier (and therefore more economically) to heat, while an oven used daily for important cooking will have to be much more massive with a greater thickness of covering material, therefore with great heat retention capacity, which can be maintained from one day to the next, reducing the daily consumption of wood necessary to bring it back to cooking temperature.
Finally, one last consideration: masonry ovens are heavy. Even the smallest traditional prefabricated oven, considering its base and the thickness of the insulation required, can weigh several quintals. A total weight of 10/15 quintals can be considered normal for a medium-sized traditional oven. It is therefore necessary to take into account the architectural situation in which the oven is to be placed. An oven placed outdoors will require a foundation work made to perfection, an oven placed indoors will require a careful evaluation of the loads that can be borne by the existing floors, etc..
Some prefabricated ovens have accessories on request that may influence the choice of the appropriate model. For example, if you only intend to bake pizzas, you can do without an oven door, but if you intend to bake bread, the door becomes indispensable. A pyrometer (oven thermometer) can be useful if you do not have a lot of baking experience, as well as the possibility of having an internal light.
The chimney support is often a separate element, which you should remember to order if you think you need it: outside the chimney may not be indispensable, in domestic environments of course it is. Finally, there are equipped oven doors, which can be used for complementary cooking, such as grills or barbecues: if you want a versatile oven, you should take them into consideration.