How to Light a Woodfired Oven

How to Light a Woodfired Oven

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One of the most important aspects of making Wood Fired Pizzas is, unsurprisingly, the fire. When we started out there were precious few resources online that gave clear instructions on how to light and manage a wood fired oven. So with a bit of experience under my belt I'd like to share my tips for anyone who finds themselves in the same position. I'm not saying that it's the only way, or even that it's the best way, but 99% of the time I get a fire that burns hot enough to cook pizzas with out a fuss.

The first thing you need for a good fire is good wood. If you want wood fired pizza then you absolutely have to get kiln dried hardwood. Seasoned wood isn't dry enough, and soft wood logs won't give you the heat or longevity you need (and they spit, which would leave ash and embers in your pizzas).They sell small bags in places like Homebase or B & Q, but I find while they call it kiln dried it's no where near as good as the real stuff, it will however do if nothing else is available. Have a look online, you might be lucky and find a reasonably local supplier who will deliver, or there are larger companies that deliver nationwide. If you're going to be firing up your oven regularly, get a decent wood store and buy in bulk; it will be cheaper and more convenient.

You'll need your logs to be split, the inner wood catches and burns quicker and for starting a fire this is essential. Quartered is best so there are two split sides, but halved is ok too. You'll also need kindling, as long as this is dry and reasonably small it should be fine. I buy ours from a local shop and I couldn't tell you whether it is soft, hard etc. If you try it and it catches quickly and burns ok then that's all you need. The last thing you need is newspaper, rolled up as you would for starting any fire.

So, the first step is to take three of your logs, preferably with two split sides. Place one horizontally towards the back of the fire, with the split side facing towards the opening. Place the other two either side with the split sides facing in, to form three sides of a box, with the missing side facing the opening of your fire. Try and put the logs in the middle of the fire, make sure they are not to far back to make building and managing the fire difficult.

Place your logs in a box formation like this. Split sides facing in.
Make sure your fire is in the centre of the oven, with space on all sides for air to flow.

Now fill the centre of this box with your rolled newspaper, just put enough in to make it level with the sides of your logs. I find about a dozen pieces is usually enough. Once this is done place the kindling on top. I place the first stick on one side and alternate them until the newspaper is covered. I usually place a couple of sticks upright at the front but this isn't actually necessary.

Fill the centre of your box with rolled up newspaper to start the fire.
Place your kindling on top of the logs and newspaper.

Place two more logs on top of the kindling, split sides down. These can be half logs, as you don't need two split sides. That's it! The fire is built. Now take a match or a lighter and light the newspaper at the front of the fire. Blow on the fire to get all the newspaper to catch. Once the kindling starts to catch, the split sides of the logs begin to blacken and the flames start to come out of the gaps in the structure of the fire then you can relax as the fire should burn fine from now.
*Edit: Since writing this guide I've started placing the two top logs horizontally so they balance on the logs at the sides, which makes the fire less likely to collapse on itself as it burns.

Place two more logs, split side down, on top of the fire
Light the newspaper at the front.
You may need to blow it to help the fire spread towards the back of the pile.

The smoke from the fire will blacken the roof of the oven, but once it heats up this soot will burn off. When a reasonable patch of the roof (at least a six inch circle) has turned white again then your fire is hot and you can push it over to the side of the oven. This can be tricky and often the flames will die down if the fires isn't quite hot enough or the logs are too big. It's best to keep the logs close together when you push them over to concentrate the heat, as spreading them out increases the risk of putting the fire out.

The fire is now burning well.
Keep an eye on the fire and make sure the flames don’t die down too much.
You can see the roof beginning to clear above the fire now.
Once the roof has cleared like this you can push the fire to the side. If the logs still have quite a bit left to burn you can wait a few more minutes.

If at any point the fire dies down and there are not many flames the problem is quite often the flow of air. Try lifting one or both of the side logs up a little to let the air around them. It can also be because the logs are too far apart, try pushing them together a little, leaving enough room for air to flow.

The main causes of problems in the initial stages of the fire are down to bad log choice. Unsplit logs will not catch or burn as quickly and will not get hot enough to clear the oven roof. If the logs are too big they may also struggle to burn through and get hot enough. Go for smaller, split logs if you are having trouble. A log around the size of your forearm is about the right size.

Once the fire has been pushed over you need to put another log on once the last one has almost burned to embers, but before the flames have died down. If the flames have died it can be more difficult to get the new log to catch. If you want to heat the oven up quickly, put two or three small logs on at once. Once the fire is very hot then you can put unsplit logs and bigger logs in (although avoid really huge logs as they will always struggle to burn properly) and they shouldn't cause any problems. You can tell the fire is very hot if the logs catch when just placed next to the fire, and not actually in it (this is also a good test of how dry your logs are, as damp logs won't do this).

And that's about it. Make sure to sweep all the ash and dust off the oven floor before you begin cooking and just place your pizzas directly on the oven floor using your peel. As the fire cools and the flames begin to die down place another log on to keep it hot. I find that you need a log every thirty to forty minutes, although some logs will burn for longer and others will burn quicker.

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