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Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven

Telling the temperatures in your woodfired oven can be a challenge! For a start you’re often dealing with temperatures much hotter that your regular cooking and if there’s a fire in the oven, the temperatures will go up and down and vary in different parts of the oven. Only if the oven is fullly heated and fire is taken out, will the temperatures be nice and stable.

We use a couple of methods for telling the temperatures in your woodfired oven.

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven #1

We do use a laser thermometer. Beloved of all Star Wars and Star Trek fans, pointing the laser at anything with a temperature is just great fun. What you have to remember though is that it will only give the temperature of where the little red dot is pointing and not the overall temperature of the oven.

To be honest we’ve got 2 of these gadgets; one cost £60 when we started all those years ago and is still going strong. We have another that cost £15 last year and the difference in temperatures given is about 15-20 degrees so it’s best to spend some money on your zapper in the “you get what you pay for” school of thought.

If you point the thermometer in the oven in 4 different places, you’ll probably have 4 different readings. So it’s good as a guide and a learning tool however our favoured way of telling the temperature is to put your hand in the oven.

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven #2

We call this the Mississippi Method and we know some of you think we’re crazy shoving our hands in a woodfired oven. It’s not, however, a test of strength and will power but it will give you a really good and literal feeling for what the oven is doing and what you can cook in it. Trust us – we still have the required number of hands and fingers between us. Here’s how we tell the temperature –

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven – the Mississippi Method

So how do we test the heat? What we do is see how many seconds we need to hold our hand in the oven before our fingers start to tingle? This gives a rough idea of the air temperature which is really what we’re interested in because that’s the temperature your recipe is talking about. The tingling is basically a sign that your fingers are starting to cook. When you feel your fingers start to tingle, take your hand out of the oven – we are NOT (!!) encouraging you to stick your hands in the oven and leave them in there for as long as possible; it’s not a test of your pain threshold….

Telling the temperatures in your woodfired oven

Build up a good blaze to start – 0 Mississippi

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven – What to do

1 Put your hand in the oven about 5cm/2inches above the oven floor where you’ll be cooking but not touching the oven itself.
2 Start counting as if you’re in a parachute jump – “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi….”

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven – What the different Mississippis mean

Zero Mississippi

If you can’t get your hand in the oven at all, then the air temp is super hot and will be more than 400°C/750°F. At this temperature, you can cook pizzas, pitta breads, some other thinner flatbreads, prawns, squid etc. You need to keep an eye on whatever it is you’re cooking as it can go from perfect to err, well, black as soon as you’ve turned your back. You’ll only ever achieve this temperature with a good fire burning in the oven.

One Mississippi

Between 300°C/570°F and 400°C/750°F. If you can keep your hand in for the count of One Mississippi but no more, you’re good to cook pittas, prawns, scallops, minute steaks, lamb kebabs or koftas. Again, keep an eye on things as it all happens pretty quickly. A fire or good bed of hot embers will be needed for this.

Two Mississippi

Between 275°C/520°F and 300°C/570°F. Still pretty high here but we can get bigger things in the oven without risking them blackening before cooking through so think about cooking thin flatbreads, fish and dishes which can start hot as long as the oven falls in temperature fairly quickly. These might include spatchcocked chicken, butterflied leg of lamb, barbeque chicken wings and thighs, chipolata sausages, trays of veggies for roasting etc. We have a piece of good wide aluminium foil on hand in case things are colouring up too quickly.

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven

Keep an eye on how quickly things are cooking

Three Mississippi

Between 250°C/480°F and 275°C/520°F. At three Mississippi, things are calmer and you can do thicker flatbreads such as foccaccia, pissaladiere and khachapuri, some larger steaks (we do a 1.5kg piece of rump steak 3cm thick – perfect at this heat).

Four Mississippi

Between 220°C/430°F and 250°C/480°F. This is your bread setting so use it for baking bigger loaves such as sourdoughs, wholemeals, and flatbreads requiring a gentler heat. Also great for bigger chunks of roast meats like legs of lamb, whole chickens, ribs of beef.

Five Mississippi

Between 175°C/350°F and 220°C/430°F. Cooling down now so the oven is great for cakes, pastries, sweet doughs, crackers.

Six Mississippi

Less than 175°C/350°F. Cooling nicely but still with a lot of retained heat if your oven has a good thermal mass so perfect for packing in those slow braises such as shoulders of lamb or pork, stocks, fruit cakes, rice puddings; just shut the door and come back later.

Telling the Temperatures in your Woodfired Oven – What about the fire?

As for the fire itself, we probably only have a re burning at 0-2 Mississippi – this will give a good grilling effect and some smokiness. At 3 Mississippi, we’ll be cooking with a good bed of embers in the oven but no flames as such and are more reliant on the retained heat in the thermal mass. From 4 Mississippi onwards, it’s just about retained heat and you can shut the door for longer, even cooking.

We know this is a lot to take in especially after we’ve all been cooking on electric and gas ovens for so long. If you practise the “feel” for what’s going on in the oven every time you light it up, you will soon develop an understanding and know instinctively when to put things in. Remember people have been cooking with fire for thousands of years and it’s only in the past 150 years or so that we’ve become reliant on electric or gas ovens with temperature control. Try to get out of the habit of thinking of the
temperature and start thinking about how much energy is in the oven, as if it’s a battery, and it all becomes a much more intuitive process.

Do check out this week’s Woodfired Weekly Video and let us know how you get on

Telling the temperature in your woodfired oven

This Week’s Woodfired Weekly