Brick Bake Ovens

After I posted instructions for making sourdough bread starter from scratch—just as Caroline Abbott might have done—several readers asked about the type of oven Caroline would have used.  She and Grandmother used a brick bake oven.

Women used these bake ovens for centuries.  While visiting historic sites that interpret the period, I talked with several interpreters about foodways during Caroline’s era.

Old fort Niagara Kitchen

This interpreter was cooking in a kitchen at Old Fort Niagara.

For anyone using a brick bake oven, building a fire inside the oven was the day’s first chore. It took hours to heat the bricks.

Old Fort Niagara Kitchen

Can you see the small oven door in the back of the fireplace?

The arrangement at Old Fort Niagara (shown above) made the best use of the fire itself. When the oven was hot enough, coals were raked into the hearth and could be used for other cooking.

Old Fort Niagara bread

These round loaves were probably baked directly on the bricks.

The interpreter at Fort George National Historic Site, in Ontario, had a slightly different arrangement (below). Her oven is off to the side, which meant she didn’t have to lean over the fire to tend the oven.

Fort George

The oven door is the dark shape on the right side of the photo. This was much safer, and more comfortable, than having the door behind the main cooking fire.

Fort George

Using a bake oven was a big job, so smaller things—like these small cakes (cookies)—could be baked on a griddle hanging over the fire.

I learned to use brick bake ovens in my own interpreter days at Old World Wisconsin. In the photo below, the oven door is open. When the oven was hot enough, I’d use a hoe-type tool to rake  the coals and ashes into a chamber below.  (In the photo, that opening is covered with the board below the oven door.)  Later I’d open the little floor-level door  below the oven and shovel the cold ashes out.

Old World Wisconsin Schottler

Old World Wisconsin Schottler Kathleen Ernst

That’s me, explaining the process to visitors.

I used the long-handled paddle leaning against the wall to the left of the oven to place the bread dough into the oven, and remove the finished loaves. The length of the pole gives you an idea of how big the oven is!

Experienced bakers knew how to get the most out of a hot oven. When the bread came out, smaller items such as coffeecakes went in.  When they were done, there just might be enough heat left to bake a pan or two of cookies.

This kitchen is at a farm restored to 1875, which has a modern cookstove. So why would someone still use a bake oven? Perhaps she needed a dozen loaves to feed a hungry farm crew, as we did the day this picture was taken.

Michael Douglass Schottler summerkitchen

All from a single baking.

It took some practice to get the hang of using a brick bake oven. But one taste of hot, crusty bread spread with homemade butter made it all worthwhile.

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11 Responses to “Brick Bake Ovens”

  1. Pamela Says:

    Fascinating! Baking is so much easier now & that’s good for me!

    Hope all is well, Pam

    On Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 9:06 PM, WordPress.com

  2. Rosi Hollinbeck Says:

    Really fun to read about this and the photos were wonderful. Thanks.

  3. Forestwoodfolkart Says:

    I feel sure that it was an art form baking and learning to use this type of oven to get the most out of it. I am completely in awe of how they knew the temperature yet had no thermostat!! We are becoming so lacking in knowledge and intuitive work.Thanks for posting this. Is it your job/ are you a volunteer at the farm?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Some women could open the oven door and stick their hand in for a few seconds, and know if it was hot enough. I’ve also read that some tossed a bit of flour on a clean bit of the oven and would watch to see how fast it scorched, which would let them know how hot it was. Experience, experience!

      I used to work at a large living history site called Old World Wisconsin, where I gained a lot of first-hand experience with historical processes–although never, of course, to the degree that those 19th-century immigrant women did! Two of the farms I worked at had brick bake ovens. One was located directly above the cooking fire, which was difficult. The one in the pictures was larger, and also much easier to use because we had easy access to it. Now that I write about history, instead of demonstrating, all those experiences really help a lot!

      • Forestwoodfolkart Says:

        What an interesting job. I am also interested in history and immigrants experience. If you are in Wisconsin, were any of the immigrants Scandinavian? If so, they may have had a rosemaled trunk. ?? ( my passion is rosemaling and history). My grandmother was an adept one at the hand test on a wood burning oven. Such skill!!

      • Kathleen Ernst Says:

        Quite a few of the immigrants were Scandinavian! Two of the homes restored at Old World Wisconsin belonged to Norwegian immigrants, and the rosemaled artifacts in them inspired my first Chloe Ellefson mystery, Old World Murder. If you use the search function, you’ll find quite a few posts about rosemaling. I’m not a skilled painter, but I love the art!

      • Forestwoodfolkart Says:

        OK thx. I will explore and see what I can find on the site.

  4. qnpoohbear Says:

    My grandmother, who was a professional baker and born in a small Italian village, could stick her arm in the oven and tell when it was ready. She could tell when her baking was done without a timer. She used modern ovens with old techniques. She said it took 60 years to learn to do what she did and I shouldn’t expect to learn it in one day. I tried experimenting with WWI and WWII cooking and that took forever even with modern equipment. Women had more time since they didn’t have jobs outside the home or time wasters like TV and Internet to distract them.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Women like your grandmother were such accomplished and intuitive cooks! I think the best we living historians can do is emulate the women who had so much practice. Thanks for sharing!

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