Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens


Creating the perfect loaf of bread—a challenge that has captivated bakers for centuries—is now the rage in the hippees places, from Waitsfield, Vermont, to Point Reyes Station, California. Like the new generation of beer drinkers who consciously seek out distinctive craft-brewed beers, many people find that their palates have been reawakened and re-educated by the taste of locally baked, whole-grain breads. Today's village bakers are finding an important new role—linking tradition with a sophisticated new ...

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The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens

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Creating the perfect loaf of bread—a challenge that has captivated bakers for centuries—is now the rage in the hippees places, from Waitsfield, Vermont, to Point Reyes Station, California. Like the new generation of beer drinkers who consciously seek out distinctive craft-brewed beers, many people find that their palates have been reawakened and re-educated by the taste of locally baked, whole-grain breads. Today's village bakers are finding an important new role—linking tradition with a sophisticated new understanding of natural levens, baking science and oven construction.

Daniel Wing, a lover of all things artisinal, had long enjoyed baking his own sourdough bread. His quest for the perfect loaf began with serious study of the history and chemistry of bread baking, and eventually led to an apprenticeship with Alan Scott, the most influential builder of masonry ovens in America.

Alan and Daniel have teamed up to write this thoughtful, entertaining, and authoritative book that shows you how to bake superb healthful bread and build your own masonry oven. The authors profile more than a dozen small-scale bakers around the U.S. whose practices embody the holistic principles of community-oriented baking based on whole grains and natural leavens.

The Bread Builders will appeal to a broad range of readers, including:

  • Connoisseurs of good bread and good food.
  • Home bakers interested in taking their bread and pizza to the next level of excellence.
  • Passionate bakers who fantasize about making a living by starting their own small bakery.
  • Do-it-yourselfers looking for the next small construction project.
  • Small-scale commercial bakers seeking inspiration, the most up-to-date knowledge about the entire bread-baking process, and a marketing edge.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Review from Ecology Action Newsletter-

The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, is a serious book, written for people who take their bread baking seriously. It is not a cookbook but one whose object is to help the baker understand all parts of the process that go into creating an excellent loaf. As such, it is a technical journal that thoroughly details natural fermentation, bread grains and flours, leavens and dough, and dough development. The second part is about masonry ovens and their construction, since both authors agree that such an oven is a necessary part of creating the excellent loaf. Each chapter of the book includes a visit to a commercial or private venture which is using some or all of the processes being described. The book is not a light read but should prove inspiring to those wanting more information about the baking process, how to construct a masonry oven or anyone who is glad to see that these traditional methods are being nurtured rather than forgotten.

"This book is ice cream for a baker! We visit legendary bakeries, meet wonderful people, learn all sorts of fascinating scientific information with practical usefulness in bowl and oven—and best of all, get the skinny on masonry ovens, that cherished fantasy of us all."—Laurel Robertson, author of Laurel's Kitchen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781890132057
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Series: Polyface Titles Ser.
  • Pages: 250
  • Sales rank: 277,114
  • Product dimensions: 7.68 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Scott was a craftsman and metaphysician who combined a lifetime's experience in metalwork, farming, and masonry oven-building with a constant awareness of the spiritual dimension of our activities on this earth. Originally from Australia, Alan lectured and led workshops throughout the U.S., under the aegis of his oven building and consultation firm, Ovencrafters, which is based in Petaluma, California. He returned to his native Australia several years ago after becoming ill. He died Jan. 26, 2009, in Tasmania. He was 72.

Dan Wing, a biologist and physician by training, has written for publications as various as Fine Homebuilding and The Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He travels out from his home in Vermont in a gypsy wagon of his own construction, and naturally he built his own bread oven on wheels.

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Read an Excerpt

The Right Kind of Flour

I wish I could just tell you what kind of flour to buy to bake bread, but I can't. Not because I'm in the hip pocket of a flour company, but because I don't know enough about you. I don't know:

  • where you live -- the local all-purpose flour in New England will make good bread but not good biscuits, while the local all-purpose flour in Alabama will make good biscuits but not good bread.

  • what kind of bread you like -- hearth bread, pan bread, white bread, dark bread

  • whether you only eat organic foods

  • whether you have a grain mill

  • whether you will hand-knead your dough

  • whether you use natural leavens (sourdoughs)

  • I would need to know the answers to these questions, and others, before I could recommend a flour. "Wheat" is many varieties of grain, each lot of grain is different even within one variety, and a miller can make many types of flour from one lot of wheat. This chapter will give you enough of a background about wheat to enable you to ask the questions you need to ask to get the flour you need for the baking you want to do. Let's start at the beginning -- the beginnings of agriculture.
    Oven Considerations
    You will be more familiar with masonry materials after you have read the chapter on materials (chapter 8). If you are going to build your own oven, you need to buy a basic book on masonry construction or get one from the library. It would be wasteful to duplicate all of that information here. After educating yourself you must still make several decisions:
    1. Do you want a slab and block walls as your foundation (as is presented in this book), or some other arrangement, such as a heavy-duty welded metal stand?
    2. Are you in a cold climate, where the foundation should be insulated or placed over a rubble footing to prevent frost heaving?
    3. Do you want an ash slot in the hearth? They are convenient for bread ovens but optional for pizza ovens, where the fire is pushed into the back or side, not raked out.
    4. What is your comfortable working height? For most people it is a little below elbow level. Remember that this is the height of the finished hearth, not the height of the ash-dump walls or the height of the top of the hearth slab. The traditional height of a European hearth is 90 centimeters -- about 351/2 inches; however, many bakers like a higher hearth. A lower one will not do, unless children will be actively involved with the oven, as at a school.
    5. Will you use firebrick or red brick for the walls and dome? If you use firebrick for the walls and dome you need 10 percent fewer bricks than the standard plans call for, because firebrick are larger than red brick.
    6. Will you use Portland cement or alumina-based concrete for the hearth slab and cladding of the oven, and how thick will the cladding be? Use alumina and a thicker cladding if you are going to be baking every day, or if you want to bake more than three loads per firing.
    7. Do you want thermocouples, and how many? I recommend at least one in the wall or dome, and one in the hearth, but having a series of three of them in line somewhere in the dome is even better.
    8. What will the facade of the oven look like?
    9. What type of arch do you want at the opening of the chimney recess, and what type of brick, stone, or tile is to be seen on the facade?
    10. Do you want a stone slab or bricks for your outer hearth?
    11. Will you insulate the bottom of the hearth slab to save heat? This will be worthwhile if you plan to use the oven more than once a week, and it adds little expense or labor.
    12. How will you insulate the dome and walls of the oven?
    13. If outdoors, what kind of roof and enclosure do you want? If indoors, what kind of outer oven finish do you want? Brick, stucco, stone?
    14. Will your flue run straight up, or does it need to snake around somewhere to get out of the building?
    As you can see, there are many questions that must be answered -- and this list is by no means complete. Building a masonry oven requires a certain amount of forethought, but remember, the more consideration you devote in the planning stages the more smoothly the construction processes will proceed and the more satisfied you will be with the final outcome.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments vi

Preface ix

Introduction Looking for Real Bread, Finding Masonry Ovens xiii

Chapter One Naturally Fermented Hearth Bread 1

Visit: Upland Bakers, Marshfield, Vermont 18

Chapter Two Bread Grains and Flours 23

Visit: Giusto's Specialty Foods, South San Francisco, California 41

Chapter Three Leavens and Doughs 43

Visit: Sands, Taylor, and Wood (King Arthur Flour), Norwich, Vermont 69

Chapter Four Dough Development 72

Visit: Acme Baking Company, Berkeley, California 89

Chapter Five Baking, Ovens, and Bread 93

Visit: Consulting and Marketing Services, South San Francisco, California 108

Chapter Six Masonry Ovens of Europe and America 113

Visits: American Flatbread, Warren, Vermont 123

The Cheese Board, Berkeley, California 127

Chapter Seven Preparing to Build a Masonry Oven 129

Visits: Mugnaini Imports, Watsonville, California 149

San Juan Bakery, San Juan Bautista, California, and Home Fires Bakery, Leavenworth, Washington 153

Chapter Eight Masonry Materials, Tools, and Methods 157

Visit: Cafe Beaujolais, Mendocino, California 169

Chapter Nine Oven Construction 173

Visit: Depot Town Sourdough Bakery, Ypsilanti, Michigan 193

Chapter Ten Oven Management 195

Visits: Della Fatoria, Petaluma, California 210

Rani and Keith, Garberville, California 213

Chapter Eleven A Day in the Life at the Bay Village Bakery 216

Bakers' Resource: Sourdough Microbiology 227

Recommended Sources 233

Glossary 236

Bibliography 243

Index 246

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I first met Dan Wing when he showed up on my doorstep and generously offered to help me with whatever would further the cause of "Ovencrafters." Dan had come to California to be with his wife, who relocated for a while to Berkeley to be nearer her grandchild. Temporarily un-harnessed from his profession as a doctor, and far from their Vermont home and his beloved workshop, Dan was hot to find a worthwhile local project to which he could apply his talents, and which would tap his abundant energy and enthusiasm. My often started but never completed book about masonry ovens and the Flemish "Desem" bread was one project that immediately appealed.

Dan quickly found his feet on familiar ground; as a bread baker, an oven builder, and an already published author, he was qualified for the task ahead. It was not long before every book, file, and photo in my office was unearthed, scrutinized, and absorbed by this dynamic new "super apprentice" from the East. For some considerable time after that the place retained the distinct feeling of the starting line of the Indianapolis 500 after the racers had sped off. More visits followed in succession, as Dan lapped the course, flying by in hot pursuit of his quest. Ovencrafters would never again be that quiet, rural, home-based, one-man, not-for-profit (by default, that is) business it once was. Never.

My path to California was different. After growing up in Australia and living for a time in Denmark, I came here from two very different "democracies," both small, both very socialized if a little restrictive personally. California is anything but restrictive for the individual, since private venture is king. And yet outside of one's home environment, and apart from the region's natural splendor, farms and park lands, California tends to be a rather stark wasteland dominated by the automobile. Small-town America had already been brushed aside in the rush to profitable "development"-or had it? Fortunately I discovered the small, rural townships of western Marin County, and moved into a comfortable renovated barn on half an acre at the edge of one of them. My determination to live and work in a small community, to be always on hand for family and friends, meant honing up on appropriate survival skills: renovations in exchange for rent, a grain mill, an outdoor oven, two milk goats, a large vegetable garden, a corn patch, and a few fruit trees. For cash and community service, I had a welding and fix-it shop at the front gate. Life was grand.All too soon, however, I was ejected from the garden into the real world of single parenting, of "soccer mums," of house hunting, of first and last month's rent, shared child care, and job searching. But better than a job I eventually salvaged the bread baking part of my former life and took this to the next level. Necessity again proven to be the mother of invention, so was born a successful baking business based on one bread alone. I built a commercial oven and bakery at home for less than a month's pay, gathered firewood free from the neighboring farms, and baked and delivered warm bread to friends and neighbors on two days each week. One pound of organic wheat at seventeen cents, with almost zero overhead, became a loaf of bread worth three dollars. As little as 250 loaves a week paid the basic bills.

However it was not just any bread. What I learnt from Laurel Robertson, a neighbor, was two lessons: how to make the venerable Flemish "Desem" bread, and what an astounding difference it makes to bake the loaves in a brick oven.

The Desem bread is also a story of rebirth. Desem is a bread researched and developed in Belgium after World War Two to meet the demand for a healthier diet, a "brown" bread, the European equivalent of the fashionable but imported "brown" rice. Besides utilizing the whole grain or "brown" flour, this bread was made out of a thoroughly fermented dough using the ambient microorganisms of the flour itself as the leavening agents. The starter dough was called "Desem." The return to the age-old practice of natural fermentation put this bread on the map. At last, here was the real thing, truly a staff of life dating back millennia. I knew that this "new age" bread was popular both in Europe and now on the east coast of the U.S., so it promised to be an easy sell here too, but not unless it was baked in the right oven."Health" breads tend to get overly ponderous, if not downright stodgy, but the Desem bread even with health credentials enough to sink a ship became dark, delectable, and simply irresistible when baked in a brick oven.

Natural fermentation has been key to the paradigm shift that has sparked the new bread revolution in North America today, no matter what flours are used. I do enjoy a lighter loaf of "artisan" bread occasionally, but it has to be a mature loaf thoroughly fermented by a natural starter, and of course baked in the inimitable heat of a brick oven. This book contains heaps of my enthusiasm for the success stories of those true baker-artisans who have gotten their many ducks in a row, and who are now successful family and community nurturers. Without nurture I do not think that there can be nutrition, since nutrients, numbers, and other heady stuff can lack heart whereas nurture, being from the heart, is the more powerful mover and shaker. And yet, although it was the freshly ground wheat-flour Flemish Desem bread that energized me in the early 1980s to create the appropriate ovens to bake in, and that became a cornerstone of my vegetarian diet, the Desem remains a bread with relatively narrow appeal. Now, nearly twenty years later, it has become obvious that the nurturing qualities of the artisan process, even when directed toward production of perhaps less nutritional breads, are what is energizing this new generation of successful bakers.

A warning, though: Any obvious success in the marketplace using commercial flours will not go unchallenged, for even as I write this, the so-called "artisan" breads that are energetically being produced by big industry could soon swamp the market in a flood of look-a-likes at throwaway prices. These breads will be skillfully compromised to fit the established supermarket system of food distribution-precisely that which promotes the civic poverty I bemoan.

There is such a growing need to encourage the family and community baker/nurturer, that rather than delay the process any further with lectures on whole grain to unwilling ears (good advice thrust down unwilling throats), I have endorsed the course that this book has taken, including some concessions toward commercial flours. I feel certain that whole grain breads have a secure place in the scheme of things now, and will have a more important role in the future than their industrialized cousins, but the train has already left the station. How could anyone not make better choices given a good command of the facts?Thanks to the meticulous research by my dauntless partner in this book, I for one have seen some of my wildest intuitions about my cherished Desem bread substantiated by solid science, much to everyone's relief. Armed with these facts, I feel much more secure now about the how and why of the bread I bake, and even about the who I bake it for. I hope that the information in this book will seem as digestible and attractive as the breads now appearing on our tables. I hope too that this valuable knowledge and the skills to implement it will add substantially to our capacity to serve our families, friends, and communities.
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Introduction: Looking for Real Bread, Finding Masonry Ovens
I have baked bread for thirty years. Not professionally, but regularly: I made a lot of bread in all those years. Most of the bread I baked was not as good as the best bread I have ever eaten, though. It was better than any bread I could buy, but only because few bakeries in this country were making bread that was better, none of them were nearby, and bread is perishable.

Don't get me wrong: I had fun baking, and everyone liked my bread. But when my bread was only okay I could still see and taste in my mind the bread I wanted to bake-a hearth loaf with an open crumb and a resilient crust, full of flavor. Bread that would stay fresh for days without added sugar, milk, or fat. For years I just couldn't seem to make bread like that. Now I do, almost every time I bake. My success surprises me a little, even though I know it is my own bread coming out of my own oven, and of course I know exactly what I did to make it. Each time I open the oven door and I see and smell the loaves, my heart jumps and swells a little.

Learning to bake that way didn't come without a lot of flailing around, because I was walking in the dark at first. The steps I eventually took to learn to make the kind of bread I like are ones that you can take more easily with the help of this book. Although a first-time baker will get plenty from this book, he or she may not realize the value of the information I have collected. People who have baked before-but never really understood what they were doing-are going to get the most out of it. That is especially true for people who want to make wonderful rustic loaves, and haven't been able to.

To do that, you must first learn to ferment your dough naturally (using what most Americans call a sourdough starter) and you have to understand fermentation well enough so you control it, not the other way around. That is how you make a full-flavored loaf that honors the remarkable grain it's made from, that delights the eye, and holds whatever degree of sourness you seek-a little or a lot. In this book you will learn how and why rye flour, or whole wheat flour, or machine kneading, or a hot day, or many other factors will change the dough you make and the bread you bake. Controlling natural fermentation is the first big step on the path to creating great bread.

The second big step is to bake your bread in hot masonry. The reasons for this will become clear as you read the book, but take it as a given for now. "Hot masonry" means you can bake many loaves at a time in a masonry oven or you can bake one loaf at a time in a ceramic cloche in a conventional oven. (Bread from a cloche is not actually the same as bread from a masonry oven, but is so close that you almost need the two loaves in front of you to tell the difference.) Only by baking in masonry can the home or small commercial baker get a loaf that looks, chews, and tastes right. That is true even if the dough is perfectly made before it is baked.

If the secrets of good bread baking are so simple (fermentation, hearth baking), why do so many people have trouble making good bread? There are four reasons for our failures: The first is that most of us have tried to learn the process from books, and there haven't been books in English that adequately explained fermentation or discussed masonry ovens. The second reason is simple confusion-the best described sourdough baking technique in this country (using a sour starter to react with baking soda to raise flapjacks and quick breads) is not similar to the process for making good "European" naturally leavened bread. Americans tend to maintain sourdough starters in a way that does not produce consistent results when baking bread, but would be fine for pancakes. The third reason is that for more than seventy-five years bakers have been taught to equate successful baking with fast baking-witness the profusion of instant yeast brands-while the opposite is true. The impetus for speeding up the process of making bread was first reflected in advertising that yeast companies directed to commercial bakeries (the familiar "time equals money" equation). Faster baking was then presented as a lifestyle improvement to home bakers who did not realize what speeding up baking would do to their bread. Although the amount of time spent mixing, kneading, slashing, and baking is only marginally longer for good bread than poor bread, the number of hours over which the steps occur is much longer for good bread, regardless of whether the dough is raised with small doses of commercial yeast or from a natural leaven. The fourth reason? The ovens-most people are trying to bake hearth breads in kitchen ovens.

You can gauge the extent of the confusion about natural fermentation by reading the questions posted to Internet Usenet newsgroups such as and Many of the people who post questions to these groups are experienced (often professional) bakers who encounter difficulty changing from speed-baking with store-bought yeast to baking with a natural leaven. These otherwise able people don't understand the principles of natural fermentation because those principles have not been laid out-the lessons of research in cereal chemistry, dough microbiology, and so forth have not been explored to any extent in popular books on baking, while specialized seminars and videos about sourdough are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. Baking books give elaborate and intimidating descriptions of how to start and maintain a leaven when it would be more enlightening to describe in detail what is happening in the sourdough process and to consider the properties of sourdough ingredients-water, flour, salt, wild yeast, and bacteria. Methods and rules are not as useful as understanding. A baker who understands the process is liberated-free to create new recipes and to manipulate the determinants of bread quality in pursuit of his or her perfect loaf. This book is short on recipes (on purpose, as there are many excellent sources of recipes) but long on the background information you need to make the kind of bread you want, either by adapting an existing recipe you like, or making up a new one.

"Fermentation." "Cereal chemistry." "Nutrition." All of this sounds intimidating to the non-scientist. To be truthful, it is even intimidating to a scientist-but you don't need to be a scientist to understand it. You just have to want to learn. Since I knew little of the "science" of fermentation or cereal grains when I set out, the information I found was new to me, and I hope that it seems fresh as I relay it to you. Although most of it has been published somewhere, no source I could find includes it all, or digests it for consumption by the committed layperson. I hope that the "bread" half of this book will teach you the characteristics of sourdough hearth bread and the factors (that you can control) that determine those characteristics.The other half of this book is about building and using masonry ovens. Simple retained-heat ovens (in which a fire is built in the same chamber where the bread will be baked after the fire is removed) are what I actually started out to write about. Masonry ovens have great historical appeal because they are the way bread was baked for millennia, but they are being built now out of more than a purely historical interest. They are built for the unique way they bake: masonry ovens "shock" dough with a massive transfer of heat when the bread is first put in, and they preserve the dough's moisture when the crust is first forming and the loaf is expanding.

I had never seen a masonry oven until 1992 or 1993, but that first experience (an oven inauguration at the house of Heather and Randy Leavitt in East Barnard, Vermont) produced such wonderful bread from the same natural leavened dough I had been making for years that my course was set. I visited Alan Scott-America's preeminent masonry oven builder, renowned sourdough baker, and my partner in this book-for advice and went home to build my oven. Over the next year Alan and I decided that since he cannot spend half a day with every baker in the country (and I have blocks of time in which I am not practicing medicine), I should help Alan produce a book devoted to the history and principles of masonry ovens, and to oven planning, oven building, and oven management. Because there is little useful literature on most of these topics, the "oven" sections in this book are based on basic principles and direct experience-Alan's, mine, and that of many bakers I visited while writing this book.

I want to state again that much of what I learned and discuss here about ovens I learned from Alan or from sources (manuscripts, publications, articles, and introductions) that he provided. The plans in this book are Alan's plans, the photographs are of Alan's ovens or of ovens built to his plans (except where noted), and the research on managing a wood-burning oven was done with equipment that he provided. In addition to his technical and organizational involvement in this book, he has been its major spiritual influence. Although I am not totally without spirit, mine is the kind that gets one kept after school. Alan, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, and he thinks about things from first principles. Alan follows a spiritual teacher, he practices meditation every day, and he has made a life that is congruent with his spiritual knowledge.

That spiritual life is part of what he contributes to this book, and is one thing that makes it more than a "how-to" manual. Alan became on oven builder in the early 1980s when he did the forge work for the iron fittings for the first oven built for Laurel Robertson and her community. As a participant in their pursuit of good bread (which resulted in the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book) he went on to become an oven builder, a baker, and a teacher in his own right-a man people travel hundreds of miles to meet and bake with, as I did. Alan and I both believe that baking in a masonry oven makes the best possible bread, though, as you can see from the Preface, we came to this book by different paths and the bread we make is different.

I began this book to help Alan get the word out about masonry ovens, and neither of us thought we would be doing original research on the thermal characteristics of ovens, or that the book would have more than a little in it about bread and baking-there are already so many books on the shelves about bread and baking. But the more I read, the more I learned, the deeper I dug into scientific journals and correspondence with other bakers, the more I realized that much of what one reads in popular baking books is misleading, especially about natural fermentation. As I added more and more to the "baking" side, the book became balanced, almost unintentionally: it now contains a lot about baking and a lot about ovens. It is vastly more researched and detailed than we anticipated, and will answer questions that occur to even very experienced bakers.

To introduce you to these subjects I will first describe the differences between good bread and insipid bread and delineate the factors responsible for those differences. As I make this exploration I will define terms and topics. Then I will tell you exactly what I do when I make dough and then bake it, and what Alan Scott does and talks about when he makes dough and bakes it. After that I will present chapters that progress through the book from grain to finished bread, using a fairly linear approach. Each chapter is followed by one or more "visits" that profile people and companies dedicated to hearth baking: restaurants, consultants, suppliers, bakers. I hope that the good versus insipid bread review and the breadmaking section will give you enough perspective to carry you through any potentially dry spots, and that the visits will give you some perspective about how natural fermentation of dough and brick oven baking work in the world of the professional artisan baker.
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