Some readers may recall that a few years ago I wrote a post here on the virtues of the little-known barrel wood-fired oven. In particular, how it compares to the more common dome ovens, especially when used infrequently rather than being fired daily. At the time, I bemoaned the inefficiency of my otherwise well-loved cob oven, and pointed to barrel ovens as a viable alternative for those in search of a low-cost, DIY, home bread or pizza oven. And I directed readers to Eva and Max Edleson of Firespeaking, the Oregon-based oven builders who have done more than anyone else to bring barrel ovens to the United States. (The design originates from Argentina and Chile.)
The basic idea is this: domed masonry ovens—whether humble beehives like my little cob oven, or the massive ceramic ovens used in professional pizzerias and bread bakeries—are great when you use them continuously, or at least on a daily basis, because they don't require too much fuel to maintain temperatures. But since they mainly use stored heat to operate, they need loads of fuel to get up to temperature, which makes them stupidly inefficient when they are allowed to cool down completely between uses, as they often are in home settings.
Barrel ovens, on the other hand, are continuously-fired, meaning that for the most part you fire the oven only while you are cooking in it. Aside from a short warm-up period (15 to 30 minutes), you only burn as much fuel as is needed to cook the food itself. This makes barrel ovens more or less identical in operation to your average electric or gas kitchen oven: turn it on (i.e., build a fire), let it warm up, cook, and then turn it off until next time. In other words, perfect for occasional, on-demand use.
Since I wrote that post, Max and Eva have published a book on how to build and use barrel ovens, called Build Your Own Barrel Oven. Having read it, I'm all the more enthusiastic about these ovens, and can recommend the book to anyone considering building one, or even anyone interested in wood-fired oven design and cooking in general.
This book is clearly modeled on Build Your Own Earth Oven, by Kiko Denzer (unsurprisingly, since Denzer has published Build Your Own Barrel Oven under his own imprint). With copious color photographs and hand-drawn illustrations, Build Your Own Barrel Oven provides a clear, step-by-step understanding of how to go about building a barrel oven, as well as what the project could require in terms of space, materials, and time commitment. The authors present several different sets of options for materials, from sourcing the barrel and other parts entirely out of recycled or free components (including constructing the barrel and firebox doors yourself), to purchasing a kit from them and the remaining parts commercially, or some combination of the two.
Beyond the step-by-step instructions, the book includes a section on how to fire and to cook with your oven once it is finished, along with a handful of the authors' own barrel oven-tested recipes. There are also sections covering frequently asked questions and troubleshooting, followed by a series of personal accounts from people who have built and used barrel ovens themselves. The latter I found very helpful, since it provided useful perspective on what it entails to build a barrel oven, as well as a sense of the many possible ways that people put them to use.
In all, Build Your Own Barrel Oven is just the incentive you need if you were at all on the fence about building a barrel oven yourself. And I speak from experience, in this case: a barrel oven kit is being built for me right now, and should be delivered in time for me to build it as soon as the weather allows this spring!
PS. After I wrote that first post, a number of commenters understandably expressed reservations about how well a barrel oven would perform when used to bake pizzas, given that it had metal shelves rather than a ceramic or brick cooking surface, and that it cooked with indirect fire, rather than a 'live' one, as is the case in most other wood-burning pizza ovens. The answer is simple: once you add a ceramic baking stone or quarry tiles to the shelves, a barrel oven should give results at least as good as can be achieved in any home oven, and, since the barrel oven can be fired to much higher temperatures than the 500 or 550 degree limit of a typical range oven, likely far better.
Of course, the first experiment I'm going to do once mine is up and running is test how well the Baking Steel performs in it.
About the author: Andrew Janjigian day-jobs it as an Associate Editor at Cook's Illustrated Magazine. When he's not dismantling recipes for hire, he's likely baking bread or throwing pies into his WFO. He twits regularly as @wordloaf, and blogs much less regularly at blog.dikaryon.org.