From the archives: Wood fired pizzas

This is a re-post from the start of 2014. We had a clay oven built using materials from the farm, following the method in The River Cottage Bread Handbook. The oven has since been demolished (mainly by a cow), but as the weather is starting to heat up here in Victoria, if you have an outdoor oven, or even just wanted to try this recipe in a regular oven, now’s the perfect time for a pizza-fest, a few beers, and a couple of glasses of limoncello (here’s a good recipe for limoncello from The Italian Dish)

NYE Wood fired pizzas – originally posted 02/01/2014

We tend to keep things quiet on New Year’s Eve. Last year we were asleep well before midnight because we had to get up in the morning for a trip, which was perhaps a bit too quiet, so this year we have decided to fire up the outdoor oven and throw in some pizzas.

The oven, complete with wonky arch, rebuilt after cows knocked it down
The oven, complete with wonky arch, rebuilt after cows knocked it down

The wood fire oven sits in the paddock behind the shed, where I built it a couple of years ago. I followed the River Cottage Bread Handbook method of building a clay oven, using clay and sand from the farm, some railway sleepers, and bricks from our fallen down fireplace. It has since been partially destroyed more than once by cows, sheep, and the weather, but is still in a workable state (if with a slightly wonky arch). If you have the space and the time – it took me a few weekends, but it was free – I would absolutely recommend building one. It takes a bit of firing, which is why I don’t use it very often, but for making pizzas it is definitely worth the effort.


The topping recipes, including the sauce, have all been perfected by my wife, leaving the pizza bases to me. The best pizza bases I ever made came from the recipe in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. That was also the most difficult dough I have ever worked with – it was so stretchy that a piece the size of a coin would unfurl to the size of a dinner plate as soon as you looked at it. I now use a much simpler, and almost as good recipe for the dough, which is a little firmer and a lot easier to handle.

Tomato Sauce for Pizzas makes enough for 8-10 (freeze half for next time)

  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • small handful of basil
  • 1 tin good quality plum tomatoes
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat and add the garlic. Fry until just beginning to turn golden.
  2. Add tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper, stir.
  3. Simmer on a medium heat for 20-30 minutes. Halfway through, crush the tomatoes with a spoon.
  4. Cool before using on pizzas. Each pizza will only need just over a tablespoon of sauce.

Simple Pizza Dough makes 4 pizza bases

  • 250g strong white bread flour
  • 3g instant yeast
  • 5g salt
  • 160g warm water
  • 15g olive oil
  1. Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl and tip out onto a lightly floured surface.
  2. Knead for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
  3. Rest in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with cling film, for about 90 minutes or until doubled.
  4. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and shape each into a round. Rest for 5 minutes. At this stage, you can also refrigerate until needed.
  5. One at a time, roll the dough out until about 5mm thick. Transfer to a bread peel or the back of a baking sheet well dusted with semolina flour.
  6. Add toppings, then slide into the wood fired oven, directly onto the stones. Bake for 3-6 minutes, turning if necessary. Remove to a low oven to keep warm.
  7. Repeat with the remaining pizzas.
Dough balls ready to shape
Dough balls ready to shape

It is also possible to cook these pizzas in a conventional oven. Preheat the oven to maximum with a pizza stone on an upper-middle shelf. Cook as directed, leaving the oven to preheat again for a couple of minutes between pizzas. It will not result in the same crisp base, and cooking time will be longer, but they will still be delicious!

Me pretending that I know what I am doing
Me pretending that I know what I am doing


We vary our toppings depending on what we feel like and how many people we are making pizzas for, but these are a few returning favourites.

  • Smoked salmon, garlic oil, cream cheese, and asparagus
  • Sweet potato, feta, and seasonal vegetables
  • A mix of deli meats with or without small homemade meatballs with mozzarella
  • Potato pizza – we first tried this in Venice and it is amazing!
  • Hawaiian – My father in law’s favourite – ham, pineapple, onion and tomato with mozzarella. Delicious pizza sacrilege that would have half of Italy in tears.
Zucchini and sweet potato with feta, with zucchini flowers added after
Zucchini and sweet potato with feta, with zucchini flowers added after
Chorizo, capsicum and red onion
Chorizo, capsicum and red onion
Salmon and asparagus with garlic oil
Salmon and asparagus with garlic oil
The deadly Hawaiian
The deadly Hawaiian
All washed down with some homemade limoncello
All washed down with some homemade limoncello



Dark Ale Sourdough

Two dark ale sourdough loaves
Two dark ale sourdough loaves

Some people rate a perfect sourdough based not only on the flavour but on the irregularity of the crumb – a holey, open-crumbed texture with a well risen and crispy scored edge is the holy grail, achieved by using a high hydration dough, a fierce heat and often judicious use of steam. I can take or leave the big holey dough thing; sometimes a dense and flavourful crumb – like a rye bread or a wholemeal loaf – is just as good. But, every now and again, I like to experiment and try to find that “perfect” sourdough.

The crumb is springy and full of large, uneven holes.

This recipe was born of a simple idea: I like beer, I like bread, and I’ve never (despite seeing many recipes) combined the two. So I took a pretty standard formula for two loaves – 800g of bread flour with 70% liquid, and swapped out 330ml of the water with a bottle of dark ale. The results were even better than I expected.

This sourdough loaf has the open holes and irregular crumb, the dark and crisp crust, and a fantastic flavour (so good that one loaf barely lasted out the day). The dark ale gave it lift, colour, and flavour, without being overpowering. The best part – slicing some of it up and turning it into the best Welsh rarebit ever… more on that later this week.

Well risen and with a crisp and delicious crust

Dark Ale Sourdough – makes two boules

Firm starter

  • 115g white sourdough starter @ 130% hydration
  • 130g white bread flour
  • 55g water


  • 240g firm starter
  • 800g strong white flour
  • 230ml warm water
  • 330ml dark ale
  • 16g salt
  1. Two days before baking, make the firm starter. Combine the ingredients, knead for a few minutes, and allow to rise at room temperature for four hours. Refrigerate overnight.
  2. The next morning, remove the firm starter one hour prior to making the dough, and break into a dozen pieces.
  3. Combine the remaining ingredients and knead briefly. Autolyse for 20 minutes. Bulk ferment for 4 hours, with a stretch/fold every half an hour for the first 2.
  4. Divide and shape the loaves into two boules. Rest on the counter for 20 minutes, then quickly and gently reshape and place into well floured bannetons. Proof for 2 hours, then place into plastic bags and retard in the refrigerator overnight.
  5. The day of baking, preheat the oven to max with a lidded cast iron pot (Dutch oven) on the middle shelf. Bake one loaf at a time for 30 minutes with the lid on, then 15 minutes with the lid off and temperature reduced to 230˚C.
  6. Remove to a wire rack and rest for at least an hour before slicing.
Dark ale sourdough loaves shaped into boules

Barley and Bran Miche

This recipe was the first I created by myself, based on what I had learned from books such as Peter Rhiehart’s The bread baker’s apprentice, and the first book on sourdough I bought, Wild Sourdough by Yoke Mardewi.

It came about from a desire to explore different blends of flour and baking techniques, and to move away from some of the rigid recipe instructions I had been following and towards finding a method that would work for me.

A barley and wheat bran sourdough, made with a rye flour starter

It remains my go-to bread, and there are usually a couple of slices lurking in the freezer. It is also a good use of my rye starter: I had been finding that my starter did not always give the best results, especially with some of the Rhinehart recipes which call for large amounts of ‘barm’ or wet starter. Once I started playing around with this recipe, however, I found that I was able to control the flavour and rise of the loaf with much less wasted starter.

There are a number of reasons that many sourdough recipes call for large amounts of starter, most of which is discarded. A large volume of starter loses heat more gradually, and is therefore more reliable and predictable. A starter with a high hydration (more water) will produce a loaf that is less ‘sour’, because of the lower amount of acetic acid produced, and some prefer this. In my experience, however, these high hydration starter recipes call for a lot of feeding and throwing away of excess starter, which seems wasteful. They are also often geared around commercial bakeries, and I don’t think that the home baker needs to be too concerned about the fine details all of the time.

So, for this bread at least I’ll stick to my stiff, recently fed starter. If I begin with a tablespoon of starter, feed it 2 nights before baking with 100g each of flour and water, and repeat 1 night before, then I find I end up with enough for this recipe plus enough to stir back into the jar in the fridge.

Barley and wheat bran miche makes one large miche or boule

  • 230g rye flour starter, fed at least 8 hours before with 100g flour and 100g water
  • 75g barley flour
  • 25g wheat bran
  • 400g strong white bread flour
  • 330g water
  • 10g salt
  1. Mix ingredients in a large bowl and rest (autolyse) for 20 minutes.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, knead for 10-15 minutes until the dough is elastic, smooth and no longer sticky.
  3. Bulk ferment (first rise) the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with cling film, for 4-5 hours or until doubled.
  4. Tip out and shape into a boule. Proof in a well floured banneton or lightly oiled bowl for 2 hours, or until the dough is risen.
  5. Preheat oven to maximum with a pizza stone on the middle shelf (or an upturned baking tray). Tip the dough out onto a floured bread peel or upside down baking tray and slide into the oven onto the stone. Bake for 10 minutes at max then turn the oven down to 210°C and bake for 35 minutes, until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  6. Cool on a wire rack for at least an hour.

It is also possible to retard the dough overnight in the fridge. After shaping, place into a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. The following morning preheat the oven and bake straight from the fridge.