2000s Archive

If You Build It . . .

Originally Published May 2006
In their quest for the crispest crust and tenderest meat, three grillers follow their dream and construct an outdoor oven.

Want to bake a truly outstanding loaf of pumpernickel bread from scratch? Here are some tips you may not have come across: After you’ve mixed 11 parts castable refractory cement with 1 part water (in a revolving 30-gallon drum), and you’ve poured the gray sludge into a mold that contains an armature assembled from 3/8-inch steel bars cut with a chop saw (sparks will fly; wear protective goggles) and welded together (wear helmet; pay out weld in concentric circles), try pressing a hammer drill against the outside wall to create a powerful vibration so that the cement will spread evenly.

That’s if you first need to build your own wood-fired bread oven, which last year began to feel like an overdue home necessity to San Francisco gourmands Nikolas Weinstein, Christian Dauer, and Jon Shenk. Tired of doughy, lifeless pizza crust and bread with no taste or lift, this trio of food enthusiasts challenged themselves to design and build (from the ground up) a personal backyard food -furnace—complete with adjustable grill, slow-cooking rotisserie, and cozy brick oven on top. Oak would provide plenty of smoke, which would be guided by a movable damper, and heat, which would be carefully gauged by two embedded thermometers. This extraordinary home-cooking apparatus, if they could actually pull it off, would leave Alice Waters herself pea-shoot green with envy.

“Whoa—that’s a little too much power. You hear it starting to pop?” That’s Weinstein, an internationally known glass artist with his own vast crafts studio in the Mission district, teaching documentary filmmaker Shenk (my brother) how to weld industrial-weight wheels onto the bottom of a heavy steel frame, the just-built skeleton of their massive work-in-progress. Shaping the perfect new firebox, it turns out, requires a fountain of creativity, plenty of field-testing (burning stuff in a parking lot), and much precision engineering; for many months, the idealists have been building models, measuring heat and ventilation, and manipulating versions of the design with PowerCADD software. Kiln-builders in Seattle and clockmakers in Italy have been consulted, literally tons of bricks and steel ordered. Now comes the first full-size prototype, which will take weeks to build.

Off in the far corner, Dauer—an architect with his own small firm—is wrapped in goggles and a large shop apron. He is using a water-lubricated block saw to angle more than 200 sand-colored refractory bricks to form the oven’s top dome. Conventional home ovens, as true pizza buffs know all too well, reach a mere 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which, even with a preheated stone, cannot give nearly enough crispness to the crust. This small brick oven, just large enough for a 16-inch pizza, will easily reach (and retain) the 800 degrees prized by many pizza professionals.

Bread, of course, is a different matter. A well-baked loaf requires not extreme temperature but extreme consistency—a thick, resilient oven with such a deep thermal reservoir that open doors and lukewarm dough won’t force any significant temperature drop. The refractory bricks being used here will absorb heat reasonably quickly and evenly, then radiate it with ferocity. Temperature accuracy is also important, of course, which is why the crew is building one thermometer into the oven floor and suspending another in the oven’s air space. Both will be threaded to pyrometers, or gauges, on the oven’s outer wall. “You load your bread dough,” explains Weinstein, “when the temperatures in the air and on the floor have stabilized.” As I stare right now at a bare steel frame and a haphazard pile of bricks on a forklift, it requires a fair amount of imagination to visualize all this.

“We’re going to mortar these metal seams—right?”

“I wasn’t planning on it. I thought we were going to keep them as tight as possible.”

In the studio, assorted technical matters are addressed between bursts from the welding gun and the brick saw. The plaintive, postapocalyptic band Grandaddy wafts down from the rafters, interlacing with the sounds of dripping water and the whine from the pneumatic die-grinder. The smell of burnt metal hovers in the air, along with that of espresso, oil from the lathe, and sweet garlic from a lunch of chicken and baba ghanouj. Weinstein has spent hours on his lathe, machining the rod ends that will effortlessly raise and lower the grill, depending on how much heat is desired. “I’m going to be deeply embarrassed if this doesn’t work,” he announces to no one in particular.

He knows it won’t, of course—not right away, and that’s part of what this project is all about. Mistakes are not only inevitable; they are an integral part of the process. So much of life in 21st-century America is defined by shortcuts and conveniences. Even those of us who bother to cook are, for the most part, strictly end users, instruction followers, relying on finely calibrated machines to perform difficult, time-consuming chores for us. We turn a comfortable knob to start a carefully controlled fire, push a button to conjure a cup of coffee, press a small lever to attain precise slices. There is nothing wrong, of course, with using masterful tools. But without a knowledge of these tools’ construction or function, today’s chef or consumer slips further and further away from a real emotional connection with the food he or she is cooking.

After a string of long weekends and some medium-level family neglect, the prototype finally takes shape. The bricks are laid, the gear system perfected, the vertical fire cage for the rotisserie in place. It’s time to give it the only test that matters. Onto the fire goes the herb-crusted pork loin; into the oven goes the pizza alla napoletana, the San Francisco sourdough, and the pear galette with cornmeal crust. Weinstein, Dauer, and Shenk are typical Bay Area residents in that they demand freshness and high quality in everything from burritos to saltimbocca. Now that they’ve created a first-class cooking tool, they’ll have no excuse if the food ain’t great.

Fortunately, the food tastes as good as the fire feels and smells. Enjoying a smoky, oaky feast of deliciousness, the trio are overwhelmed with bubbling crusts, crackling skin, and tender, flavorful meat. But in between bites, the tinkering continues—after all, this is just the prototype.

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