Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Playing with Fire -- Cooking on My Hearth (part 2)

The success of cooking shish kabobs in my home's hearth emboldened me to try out my Dutch oven again, this time by making bread.

After the fire was burning for a while and producing coals, I started the dough for a simple wheat with rosemary in the bread machine.

I wanted a loaf shape so I planned on using a metal loaf pan sitting on a trivet in the Dutch oven.

Nifty blacksmith-made trivet!
When the dough was ready, I put it into the Dutch oven which had been sitting near the fire.  This was a lovely place to let the dough do its last rise:  comfortably warm and completely draft free.  Be sure to put on the lid.

Ready to rise
There was a nice pile of coals waiting for me when the dough was ready to bake.

There weren't many flames in the rest of the fire place but the coals seemed like enough, so I set up the oven with coals underneath and more above.

The flash hides the glow.
But it turned out not to be enough coals or enough heat after all.  I think with the charcoal I use in my public demonstrations it would have been but it appears that burning firewood does not produce the same amount of heat for the same length of time and I completely misjudged my fire.

I didn't take a picture of the bread in the Dutch oven but here is a worded image:  The risen dough had risen a little more and was dry on top but had not baked at all.  I finished it by baking it in the regular oven and it came out fine although a little flat on the top where it fell.

So the next night I tried again, this time with a raisin bread recipe.

I started the dough as soon as I started the fire.  I loaded the fire up with extra wood because my goal was to have a good set of coals and extra flame with more coals being produced while the bread was baking.  Just in case!

Again I used the Dutch oven sitting outside the fire place as a warm spot for the dough to rise.

Before rising
It has risen!
I had a good supply of coals for the top and the bottom and also some off to the side in reserve.

The glow is intense enough to show up despite the flash.
Without the flash
This seemed just fine.  After about 30 minutes I could not smell bread baking and I worried that the coals on top had died down too much to be effective.  So I took a small piece of burning wood and put it on top of the oven.

Once the 45 minutes of baking time was up, I lifted the lid to see how the bread was doing.  *I didn't lift it previously because everything I have read about baking in a Dutch oven warns us that lifting the lid releases the heat inside and can ruin your baking.

What did I find?  That extra piece of wood was completely unnecessary:

This time being "upper crust" is not an advantage.
The loaf sounded hollow so I removed the pan from the Dutch oven and tipped the loaf out to cool.
Then I sliced it to see how the baking went.

Nearly done.
The loaf was pretty and mostly cooked correctly.  It was too moist overall and almost doughy at the bottom.  Of course there was that burnt top, too.

This tells me I should have had more coals beneath the oven and fewer on top.

Still, the bread was tasty once I cut off the burnt part, and I was saved from tasting the burnt raisins on the top, a flavor I despise.

And then I discovered the bread was even better once it was lightly toasted.

What I Learned

As in Part 1, I learned that fire management is very important.  I had to pay attention to how fast the wood was being consumed, how fast the coals gave up their heat, and to add more wood to keep up my heat supply.

The second baking attempt had enough heat to actually bake the bread but then I messed up the balance between the top and the bottom of the Dutch oven so that the top burned and the bottom was not baked enough. I didn't not experiment with using my hand held over the coals to test their heat but now I see how crucial that can be for the balance.

I suppose the air space formed by the trivet makes a difference in how much heat needs to be beneath the oven. I used the trivet to allow air to circulate around the loaf pan.  Perhaps it didn't need to be raised at all.

I have seen bread baked without a pan in a Dutch oven.  It was just set down on the greased bottom of the oven. I wanted a loaf shape but I also got the benefit of being able to pull the first, failed loaf out of the oven to finish baking it in the electric oven.  It was easier to remove the pan with the successful loaf without having to move the Dutch oven out of the fire place, helpful considering the weight of the oven and all the ash.  My tiles stayed cleaner.

There is a difference between cooking over a fire pit with coals and cooking beside a fire place.  It is harder to see into the fire place and lifting heavy pots from the side is a challenge.  I used my lid-lifter to look into the Dutch oven while the coals were still on it but I had to make sure I lifted straight up to keep the ashes out of the food.  So I also had to make sure I didn't scrape my hands on the hot chimney while lifting.

None of this makes the job impossible.  I hope I can have more fires so I can practice more cooking on my hearth!

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