It’s hard to say enough good things about a wood-fired oven. It makes entertaining easy. It provides the cheerfulness of a well-made fire. It creates an after-glow as the oven cools down to coals and ash. Best of all, cooking in a wood-fired oven improves the flavor of food.
You’ll turn out great food as you take advantage of the oven’s heating levels—when it’s burning brightly and when it’s cooling down. Wood-fired ovens are associated with high temperatures and 90 second pizzas. But, don’t overlook the intermediate temperatures and the cool down where I cook some of my favorites (low and slow braises, and anything you might cook in a crockpot). Coals and ash make a perfect environment for baking foil-wrapped potatoes, slow roasting beets and toasting nuts and seeds.
However, the same coals and ash that serve you well contained in the oven must be handled properly when removed. If not properly managed, hot coals, cinder and ash can hurt you, your guests, and the environment. Improperly disposed of, coals and ash have the potential to ignite. Being careful with coals and ash is common sense. However, the number of accidental fires in outdoor cooking demonstrates that people underestimate the danger of fire and the need for safe procedures.
If you are finished cooking, put the oven door on and leave any coals and ash in the oven until everything is completely cool. Many wood-fired enthusiasts leave coals in the oven until the next time they are ready to fire it. If you want to bake bread or use the oven’s stored heat for traditional fire-free baking follow the safety tips included here.
Several times a year we respond to fires that are caused by improper disposal of hot coals or ashes from fireplaces, grills, or mobile fireplaces designed for use on decks or patios. The scenario is often similar . . . “I thought the coals were cool”, or even worse, “I didn’t even think about it . . .”
The fact is that coals and ashes from fires can remain hot enough to start a fire for many hours or perhaps days after you think the fire is out. The exact amount of time for complete extinguishment and cooling depends on many factors such as how hot the fire was, what was burning, how much unburned fuel remains, etc. To be safe, simply treat all ashes and coals as hot, even when you think they had time enough to cool. (“Hot Ashes / Coals-Proper Disposal,” www.worthington.org)
We pass on these tips for safely handling coals and ash from your wood-fired oven. Establish good habits early on, and you’ll avoid burning yourself and others. Remember that even old coals can be revived to rekindle a fire. (See our blog on how to bank your fire.)
- Safely contain the hot coals you remove from your oven. If your outdoor cooking area doesn’t have an enclosed stone or concrete receptacle for ashes, buy a metal trash can with tight-fitting lid. Rubbermaid cans are not designed to hold coals and ash—even coals from a “cold” oven. Don’t dump coals and ash onto the ground or into anything not designed for them. Coals smolder and re-ignite unless thoroughly doused.
- Douse the coals in the can with a spray of water from the hose before emptying the residue onto a garden or dump site.
- Set the metal can on a non-combustible surface such as dirt, concrete or brick—not on a wooden deck. A can of hot coals and ash will scorch a wooden deck. Keep the can out of the main traffic area so there’s no danger of children, guests and pets brushing against it.
- Buy a long-handled shovel that fits into the metal trash can. A shovel that is too wide spills ash and coals. A long-handled shovel allows you to remove coals without reaching into the hot oven. Set the hot shovel away from the traffic area.
- Wear shoes, even if you’re experienced in working with a wood-fired oven.
- Don’t use your metal can as a cooking device. Although it might be tempting to drop foil wrapped packets into a can of hot coals and ash, the can is not a safe environment. Heat releases noxious fumes from the zinc and or chromate used in galvanized paint.
Your experience cooking in a wood-fired oven can be free or accidental burns and unintended fires if you follow a few common-sense procedures in shoveling out the oven: Don’t underestimate the power of coals and ash to ignite. Keep coals and ash in a metal can (stone or concrete receptacle). Douse coals before dumping them.