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The bakery café built its reputation on fine artisan breads baked in a woodfired oven, but has since expanded to include handcrafted desserts, savory dinner entrées and catering–all rooted in quality ingredients.
Web Extra: Mastering the woodfired oven
Standing in front of the towering, 25-ton woodfired brick oven that overlooks the production area of Wheatfields Bakery & Café, it’s easy to understand why it takes new employees up to two months to become comfortable operating it.
“I always thought that learning the bread is 50 percent of the job and learning how to handle the oven is about 50 percent of the job,” says bakery manager Josh Hilliard. “Because we can’t turn it off to let it cool or turn on the gas to heat it up, you have to strike a balance between how hot your fire is burning, how active it’s burning and how much bread you’re putting in the oven.”
The oven measures 12 ft. front to back and has a circular hearth that rotates using a large metal wheel operated by a series of internal gears. Hot air flows from the fire box into a circular chamber that circulates around the oven, providing even indirect heat. The hot gas and smoke travel up through the chimney to the upper heating chamber, where the air circulates again and goes out through a final chimney, never entering the baking chamber.
The oven burns only local hedge wood, which is a hard wood that burns very hot and leaves behind little ash. Hilliard notes that there are certain tricks to manipulating the oven’s temperature, such as loading it full of dough if it gets too hot.
“Since the overnights and sourdoughs can take the higher heat, we use them to cool the oven down,” he says.
When the day’s bake is finished, the oven is at 460° to 470°F. The baking chamber reheats overnight, reaching 500F by the following morning. “Energy stored in the walls, ceiling and floor of the heating chamber evens out and reheats the baking chamber,” Hilliard says. “I’ve described it to new bakers as similar to how a piece of meat will continue to cook after removing it from a heat source. The hotter exterior slowly heats the interior.”
Each bread baker finds his or her own tempo for the flow of product in and out of the oven. “It’s a balance between getting dough in as quickly as you can but not taking up too much space,” Hilliard says.