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Josh Ozersky

A Wood-Burning Oven In Every Backyard

There are many prizes granted to the super-rich, almost none of them wholesome. Designer hallucinogens, buxom stewardesses, concept cars: these are the playthings of the 1% and beyond even my most fevered imaginings. (Well, almost.) The one truly dope thing that the rich have which I aspire to an almost daily basis, though, is a wood-burning oven. As it is, I have to make do with a makeshift solution via my Weber grill, and I am happy to share the trick with my fellow proletarians.

That said, it’s no substitute for the real thing. Slowly, and without anybody noticing, wood ovens have become the centerpiece of contemporary cooking – although this is misleading, because it is precisely their timeless quality that makes them so appealing. You take a beautiful, wholesome, fresh piece of meat or fish, or a nice chicken, and you rub it with some olive oil and some salt, or maybe a little rosemary, and in it goes. The heat cooks it through, and the smoke scents the skin; the dry heat pulls away all the steam from the fat and skin, and renders it out onto a roasting rack or sizzle pan, possibly there to bathe crusty new potatoes, brussel sprouts, or sweet little onions.

Of course, it’s a dream if you don’t have a wood oven, an immense, unwieldy, and laughably impractical appliance for anyone that doesn’t own a Marin or Columbia County farmhouse. Which I don’t. So the best you can do is to find a way to burn wood directly inside your Weber, without the fire going out. Wood, you will note: not charcoal, either of the lump or briquette variety. It doesn’t really matter what kind: most of the hardwood chunks and chips available at big-box stores like Lowes or Target will do fine. (I myself prefer hickory, if I can get it.)

There are two basic options if you want to wood-roast in a Weber. One is to simply burn an open fire on one side, and to periodically rotate the food around. This isn’t a good method. Uncovered, the air doesn’t get dry, and moist air doesn’t have the evaporative effect that is the hallmark of wood-fire cookery. Worse still, without a lid, all the heat gets out. So this is only really an option for fish on sizzle platters. A second approach is to burn a small pile of chunks, keeping the fuel supply more or less steady, and the partially cover the grill. For years I did this by simply setting the lid askew; I got enough air to my fire for it to keep burning, but not enough to whisk away all my heat and moisture. It did have a tendency to fall off, though, and I didn’t have tight control of my air drafting, which is the key to all natural wood or coal cookery. So I now have three inch-thick pieces of stone tile, bought at Lowe’s for something like $1.28 total, which are stable, flat, and impervious to heat. They keep the lid lifted an inch, and if the fire gets out of control, I adjust the drafting wheel on the top.

This technique takes some getting used to, but it’s really much more effective than buying a giant farmhouse in the countryside. At least, it is if you aren’t rich. If you are, you are probably out with stewardesses anyway.

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