Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Ovens

I don't know why I'm so fascinated by old-fashioned ovens, but I am. Must be that past-life experience I had with a couple of kids named Hansel and Gretel. 

The earliest oven was probably the tannur, a sort of clay chimney. The earliest that have been unearthed date back to 5000 BCE. There were small ones inside homes and large public ones in village squares. A fire was built in the bottom and rounds of flatbread dough were pressed against the sides and removed as they dried and fell away. The flatbreads, not the sides of the ovens. Sounds kind of attention-intensive to me. In other words, I wouldn't have been asked to stand for oven duty.

Meat could also be skewered and inserted into these clay ovens. The Tandoori Chicken and nann bread I love so well are traditionally cooked this way. 

About 10,000 years ago, wheat-growers developed an oven often made of stone or brick. The fire was raked out onto a hearth and the leavened bread put into the hot oven. Sometimes these had broad flat tops (the ovens, not the bread) and doubled as beds. I believe even my icy feet would warm up if I slept on a hot oven. 

Where fuel was scarce, only the wealthy had ovens of their own. The poor took their dinner to the bakeshop and hoped for the best.

Early bake ovens in the American colonies were of the exterior clay-and-wattle beehive design. Because these didn't hold up to New England weather, some builders made them of stone. When brick-making became an industry, brick fireplaces, chimneys and bake ovens became the norm and moved indoors. Bake ovens were built into the fireplace, usually into the back wall, though some were separate. 

Dutch ovens were deep pots made of cast iron. They were placed over hot coals on short trivets, food put inside, a tight-fitting lid put on top, and hot coals heaped on the lid. 

Reflecting ovens can be used with small fires and campfires. They're more-or-less tin boxes, open on one side. The open side is turned toward the fire, naturally. They can be used to roast meat or vegetables, and even to bake bread. 

Maybe even gingerbread.

Marian Allen

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