Interview with Michael Gerard
"Enjoy Life, eat in more often" - Michael Gerard
Michael Gerard, owner of Wildwood Wood Fired Ovens & BBQ's, not only sold me my wood burning pizza oven but is teaching me how to use it. He is a wealth of information on the art of cooking in a wood burning oven. I'm finding there is much more I can do besides making the tastiest pizza imaginable.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, then moving with his family to Eagle Rock, Michael became an avid gardener and helped his father raise chickens. He say's "everything was homemade from their garden and farm."
Self taught, Michael immersed himself in cookbooks to learn about the ingredients he was growing and how to cook them. He expanded to fresh seafood he caught while scuba diving and then his travels including Brazil where he discovered Brazilian BBQ or "Churrasqueira".
He built his first "outdoor" kitchen complete with sink, ceramic counters and a refrigerator besides his wood fired pizza oven and Brazilian BBQ. His friends encouraged him to "feed" the market for wood fired ovens and the rest is history.
Today Wildwood ovens are being sold throughout the US and Canada and the company is teaching cooking and demonstration classes to introduce people to the culinary techniques of cooking in a wood fired oven.
When did you start Wildwood Ovens & why become a wood burning oven manufacturer?
I started WildWood Ovens in 2003. Ten years earlier I had built an out door kitchen at my home and intentionally left a space next to my gas BBQ for a wood oven. I really did not know much about them only that I had to have one. Something about the low tech primal experience of cooking with fire that attracted me.
In 2001 I had begun doing research on these. There was no one on e the web selling them. A year later I found a couple of companies selling them. One I clearly remember had a name that was hard to pronounce. They were importing ovens from Italy. I gave them a call, only to be disappointed. The attitude on the phone was disingenuous; the cost was what I thought very pricey.
Coming from a design and engineering back ground I decided I was going to build my own oven brick by brick. I bought a book on the subject only to be disappointed again. I developed some computer models based on what I liked about the Italian and French ovens, and changing what I did not like.
We designed our ovens to have venting ports that worked with chimney pipe sold here in the US. We cut down on the number of pieces that comprise the oven, we make our hearths in such a way that the fire bricks are cast in to the refractory base, this eliminated a separate time consuming task of tiling the oven hearth. This is a common process in imported ovens.
In 2002 we rolled out our first oven for testing; in 2003 we launched our line of ovens in the US. The response has been great! Today we have our oven available in the US as well as Canada and Australia.
What is it about cooking in wood burning ovens that drew you in?
The organic nature and simplicity coupled with the dynamics of cooking with higher temperatures only achieved through cooking with wood.
How is food cooked in wood burning ovens different than those cooked in a conventional oven?
Our wood oven cooks with 3 types of heat:
- Conductive heat - this is the heat transmitted from contact with the hearth to the food.
- Radiant heat - this is the heat that is reflected from the dome onto the hearth.
- Convection heat - this is the result of hot air circulation with in the dome. As fresh air is drawn in to feed the fire. It swirls around in the oven chamber before being pulled up the chimney
What makes pizza so much better?
We cook our pizzas at 700º F. The higher temperatures afforded by our ovens, cause rapid rise spring to the dough, this produces a crust that has dimension and structure, crispy on the edges and bottom and tender and forgiving on the inside. Bubbles and air pockets run through our crust, many describe as light as air. The rapid caramelizing toppings is the other aspect of delicious taste.
What actually cooks the pizza, The heat from the wood or the heat from the oven?
All 3 of the heat profiles; mainly the conductive heat from the hearth and the radiant heat from the dome, the direct heat from the flames will always brown the leading edge of the dough faster.
How long does it take to cook a pizza?
Depending on how thick you make your dough, and how hot your oven is 1-3 minutes. At Wildwood we prefer thin pizzas light on the sauce and toppings cooked at 700F. My perfect pizza cooks in about 1 minuet 15 seconds.
Is the cooking method in a wood-burning oven more baking or roasting? Please explain the difference.
This can be either or depending on the temperature and how much active fire/ flame is going on. Example: when I bake bread I get the oven to 500º F and let most of the active flame go down before launching my loaves. Roasting I would leave more flames and typically cook meat and vegetables, the most important part of roasting is carmelization which is one of the few ways to change the flavors of food.
We have talked about slow cooking meat in my wood-burning oven. How is it different than traditional slow cooking?
It is pretty much the same, wherein the food is cooked slowly in our covered stone pot or Dutch oven. What is unique is you are cooking using the retained heat stored in the mass of the oven dome. I do slow cooking after a evening of making pizzas and other treats.
Is cooking in a wood-burning oven more difficult than a conventional gas or electric oven? How?
No. People are more apprehensive in the beginning as it is so alien. It lacks all the technology we have grown so comfortable using. There is a learning curve but this is what makes it fun, experimenting and interacting is something we don't really do with a conventional oven.
What are the top 5 advantages of cooking in a wood-burning oven?
- Fostering integration among family and friends
- Predictable reliability
Are there any disadvantages?
Carbon foot print.
Lets talk about heating up a wood-burning oven. Can you give me some examples of how hot the oven needs to be to cook a pizza?
600º F - 700º F for pizza is ideal. I do Focaacia at 500º F
Whole Chicken - Low and slow with some flames 300º F - 350º F
Roast Vegetables - Higher temp at 500º F - 600º F
Leg of Lamb - 400º F If things meats are cooking a bit fast you can tent with foil.
What is the best way to measure how hot your oven is?
I recommend a infrared temperature gun.
You told me there can be a 200-degree difference between the temperature at the top of the dome and the floor of the oven. When a recipe says bring the oven to 400º F, is that the floor temperature or the dome temperature?
If you have a fireplace nearby, can you take a log from the fireplace and use it in your wood-burning oven?
Yes you can, and vice versa. Typically it is easier to start a fire in a wood oven than a fireplace.
Your oven tips mention bringing your oven to temperature slowly. How long does this take?
This is generic, about an hour is normal.
How long will the oven stay hot after the logs burn out and you are left with coals?
This depends on ambient temperatures out side. After 12 hours your oven will be between 120º F -
What are the best types of wood to burn in a wood-burning oven?
The best woods are locally available hardwoods: Oak, maple, hickory. Fruitwood's are great, apple cherry, peach, apricot etc, nut woods burn hot, I like pecan walnut , almond.
What size should they be?
10-16 inches in length with a diameter of 2-4 inches the key is Very dry wood.
How much wood do you burn at one time?
In the first 15 minuets I will have 3 - 4 medium size pieces on top of my kindling pile, after that I put the door on slightly ajar, after 30 minuets I may add 2-3 more pieces to reach 650º F - 700º F
Can you use your outdoor wood-burning oven year round?
What if the temperatures outside are freezing?
I would not want to be standing out side cooking at his point. Use your inside oven. Our ovens are in the coldest regions of Toronto, and I am sure it has been done, just not by me.
What do you have to be aware and careful of not doing?
Be aware you should sweep your chimney once in a while
Lets talk about Cookware You have gorgeous Brazilian Soapstone Cookware on your web site. I cant wait to get my hands on one but I wondering if I can use my Lodge cast iron pans? Will they work as well as soapstone? Is there a flavor difference?
I Love cast iron and use it often in my oven often, the soapstone is very special. The properties are unique and retain heat for long periods of time. Which makes them great to set out for guest on a buffet table.
The soapstone cooks with a slow moist type of heat, the material is less likely affected by fluctuations in oven temperature. As far as flavor is concerned doubt you will taste a noticeable difference, but the soapstone is more forgiving in a hot oven than cast iron.
If you did something like slow braised oxtails or lamb shanks, I would always pick the soapstone pan as first choice. The walls insulate better. I have done recipes in both pans, the soapstone is more forgiving.
What about my Le Creuset enameled cast iron pots? Can I use them in the wood-burning oven?
Le Creuset recommends you not use the pots in an oven over 500º F the handle has issues. I use the Le Creuset ribbed grill pan in the oven all the time.
What other cookware and utensils do you recommend owning to make cooking in a wood-burning oven easier?
I like Mario Batalies all cast iron Panini pan, as well as using the cooking planks. Like cedar planks for baby back ribs, and alder wood for wild salmon fillets.
I use my Calpahlon skillet the most. It is hard anodized with a dark coating so it will not show any discoloration and has fluted edges so tossing and flipping food is easy.
What's your favorite recipe for a wood-burning oven? Can you share it with us?
Simple and quick; extreme roasted asparagus with a quick balsamic reduction, with a sprinkle of minced toasted garlic.
I also like to oven roast little sweet mini peppers, remove from the oven and stuff with herbed goat cheese and then roasted quickly just to soften the cheese a bit, killer appetizer. Stromboli is a fantastic!
Where can I find more recipes for my wood-burning oven?
My cook book do out next year as well as we will be doing cooking DVD's this year.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about wood burning ovens?
Enjoy Life, eat in more often
Thank you for this interview and I look forward to working with you closely as I learn the art of cooking in a wood-burning oven. Gary