After curing your oven you will be ready to start cooking in it. Your aim when cooking in the oven is to create, and maintain, a controlled and even heat which is generated from the cooking surface, the dome and the hot air circulating inside the oven.
Building the fire
Build your fire in the middle of the oven, using dry kindling, fire starters and 2-3 pieces of medium sized wood. The flame should reach the centre and front of the dome without reaching too far out of the oven opening. Once the fire is established, add more medium-sized (wrist-width) wood and wait for about 20 minutes.
At this point you will notice a small white spot at the centre of the oven dome above the fire. This ‘whitening’ will begin to expand across the top of the dome and is a sign that the oven is reaching the desired cooking temperature. Once this whitening begins, start building the fire towards the walls by adding wood to either side of it. Within a few minutes, you will see the whitening spread down the walls of the dome and after about 45 minutes the entire dome should be white. At this point the cooking surface should have reached 370 – 400°C – the desired temperature for cooking pizza.
The basic rule for maintaining high temperatures in the oven is that while the dome remains white it is at an ideal temperature. Once the dome begins to darken again, the fire needs to be increased.
Getting ready to cook
Use your oven rake to push the fire to the side of the oven. Pushing the fire to the side allows for cold air being drawn into the oven to be heated quickly in a circular motion over your food, which helps to maintain even cooking temperatures. It also allows you to easily see the food you are cooking and therefore see when it needs to be turned away from the fire.
Before placing food in the oven, clean the cooking surface by sweeping any ash into the fire. Alternatively, you may like to use your pizza peel to ‘slap’ the cooking surface to remove any ash residue.
Testing the temperature
There are three basic methods for testing the temperature of the cooking surface before placing food into your oven.
1. Use a temperature gauge which can accurately test high temperatures.
2. Throw a pinch of flour into the oven and count how long it takes to burn and smoke. A very hot oven floor (the perfect temperature for cooking pizzas) will scorch flour in a few seconds.
3. Put your hand inside the oven and count how many seconds (one cat-dog, two cat-dog or any other counting variation you like!) it takes for your hand to become uncomfortably hot. One and two seconds indicates a very hot oven and is perfect for cooking pizzas, grilling or roasting. Four seconds is perfect for baking bread.
After a while you will get to ‘know’ when your oven is ready. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your oven at different temperatures to see where it performs best in a variety of cooking situations.
Maintaining heat while cooking
Once you have placed your food in the oven, you must keep a live flame going at all times. To do this, add wood to the fire as the previous piece burns down – about every 15 – 30 minutes.
Check the food you are cooking regularly. At optimum temperatures, a pizza should cook in about 3 minutes and will need to be turned during that time. The perfect pizza should have a browned, crispy base and a bubbly, melted top. If your pizza is taking much longer than the 3 minutes to reach this state, you need to increase the fire. Alternately, if your pizza top is burning before the base is browned, your fire is too hot and you need to let it burn down.
Cooking with retained heat
Once you have finished your high-heat cooking (for example pizzas, roasts, grills) you may like to use your oven for retained-heat cooking which is perfect for baking breads and slow roasting.
Scrape out the hot coals (and dispose of them properly) and close the oven door. The temperature in the oven should fall to a temperature desirable for bread baking within an hour or so. Remember to use the ‘hand inside the oven’ technique for testing the temperature of the cooking surface (4 seconds before your hand becomes uncomfortably hot is the ideal temperature for bread baking).