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A Homemade Clay Oven and

Naturally Fermented Sourdough Bread

(Published in Countryside & Small Stock Journal

By  Kevin & Donna 

  A big part of self-sufficiency for us is directly related to food and proper nutrition. When we began to rethink our relationship to living lightly on the earth and providing for our needs directly, the issue of food became one of the most important subjects we had to confront. For many people it is so convenient to purchase pre-packaged foods from the supermarket rather than prepare meals from scratch.  But with the rising cost of transportation and our country’s heavy dependence upon fossil fuels, especially in modern agriculture, such luxury may prove to be more burdensome and harder to obtain as time goes on. That’s why we decided to start looking for more efficient ways to provide food for ourselves.

The more we learned, the more motivated we were to get out of the city. Eventually, we moved to the country on two and one-half acres, built a small cabin and began planting fruit and nut trees. We also started an organic garden, learned how to compost, catch rainwater and grow indoor baby greens such as sprouts, buckwheat greens, garlic and onion greens, wheatgrass, etc. The indoor greens provide excellent nutrition and supplement our diet at a fraction of the cost of supermarket foods and can be grown indoors all year regardless of the weather.

Simplifying our diet and lifestyle made it easier to become more self-sufficient with our food.  Over time we began to appreciate simple meals of vegetables, fresh fruit, fermented whole milk, homemade cheese, cultured butter, nuts and seeds, fresh herbs, sprouts, and most of all, naturally fermented whole grain sourdough bread which we bake in our outdoor clay oven. It has become our most important staple food, costing only thirty-two cents a loaf!

What can we say about sourdough bread, except that we absolutely love it! The first time we ever tasted this kind of bread was when we were visiting Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was a little restaurant up near the Sandia Mountains that imported the original San Francisco Sourdough and baked it fresh in their kitchen. The flavor was incredible and we were slapping butter over every slice and savoring each mouthful. It was a taste we would never forget.

We’ve both been hooked on the stuff ever since and have worked long and hard to learn how to make it ourselves.  We consider this a valuable skill toward our goal of self-reliant living. And as we discovered, there aren’t very many bakeries making authentic, naturally fermented bread.  Many companies claiming to make sourdough actually add enriched white flour, oil and commercial yeast, a genetically modified organism. That’s not real sourdough!

In researching the history of bread we learned that it was originally leavened by the Egyptians around 2300 BC. These early bakers discovered that a mixture of flour and water, when left uncovered for several days started to bubble and expand. They found that by mixing it into unleavened dough, and allowing it to stand before baking produced a light, sweet bread. This was the beginning of natural leavening. And it remained the basis of Western bread baking until the early 1900’s when commercially prepared yeast was introduced. As more and more bakeries switched over to the so-called “new and improved” bread, that was the end of true sourdough.

Unfortunately, commercial yeast breads have been shown to contribute to disease, and in some cases, cancer. There was an article, published in 1984 in East-West Journal that explained how conventional yeast fermentation caused the starch cells of bread to actually explode. Furthermore, the patterns that are formed are identical to the behavior of cancer cells. French, German and Swiss researchers concur with this finding. They believe the fast-acting yeast sends an electrical message to the body, instructing certain cells to mimic this exploding replication. This is a characteristic of cancer.

On the other hand, naturally fermented breads are leavened over a long period of time (8-10 hours) by the action of wild yeast spores (lactobacillus) drawn into a starter-leaven from the air. Mixing this starter with additional flour, water and a little salt forms bread dough. As the unique and complex family of these friendly bacteria begins to thrive on the nutrient-rich whole grain flour and mineral rich salt, they produce carbon dioxide gas. This creates fermentation and as it continues, the dough becomes ‘pre-digested’ and starts expanding (leavening). And it is this natural process of the bread dough that creates a fine-grained, moist texture.

It is the fermentation of wheat flour from the lactobacillus as well as other friendly bacteria that makes eating good quality bread an aid to proper digestion. The fermenting of other complex carbohydrate foods such as rye, rice, buckwheat, beans and starchy vegetables is also beneficial. This fermented food helps restore the functioning of the digestive tract, resulting in proper assimilation and elimination. These beneficial bacteria help control candida albicans, whereas baker’s yeast is a pro-candida organism.


The Wood Fired Clay Oven


            We have discovered that the best way to bake bread is the old way, using a wood fired clay oven. And besides, it doesn’t require the use of non-renewable energy sources, no electricity, no propane, just a few chunks of wood. The reason this form of baking is so good is because it allows the loaves to bake with three forms of heat: radiant heat from the clay, convection from the movement of steam and conduction from the brick hearth. The result is superior bread, with a moist crumb and thin crust.  (Of course, if you have a wood fired stove in your kitchen, you wouldn’t need a clay oven)

            When we first started making our sourdough bread, we really wanted a wood-fired outdoor brick oven, but after checking into it, we discovered that the cost to have one built would range from $3000 to $6000.  This was way more than we could ever afford, so we started looking into a cheaper, more primitive solution. Then we found the perfect book, entitled Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer.  In this book, Denzer describes how to build your own clay oven, how to locate and prepare the clay, as well as how to design an oven that is artistic and highly functional. This was definitely the right solution for us because it was affordable and something we could do for ourselves.  So we built one and it works beautifully! We constructed our oven out of cinder block, clay, sand and hay, and the hearth was made using firebrick and supported on a bed of sand and dirt. The whole cost was only about $100. The two of us were able to build it with no extra help, but, of course, it would be loads of fun to construct one as a group or family project. It is a wonderful learning experience as well as a valuable skill for homesteading, promoting simplicity and self-reliance. Mixing the clay with our bare feet was a blast!

We have been baking all of our sourdough bread in this oven, once or twice a week, for over a year now and couldn’t live without it. The oven will accommodate up to 8 loaves at a time and can actually handle two loads with only one firing. Furthermore, the heat lasts up to 10 hours after baking the bread, even in the winter, so it is efficient to use for cooking other things too, right after the bread is baked. We’re able to bake beans, soups, potatoes, pizza, cookies, focaccia and even dehydrate fruit and herbs in the oven after baking the bread.

Before we built the clay oven, we baked our sourdough bread in our conventional gas oven.  To make a brick baking hearth, we placed 6 firebricks (4 –1/2” x 9” x 2” thick) side by side on the middle rack in the oven.  As the oven temperature goes up, the bricks hold the heat more efficiently and give the bread that satisfying Old World texture and taste. An advantage of using the firebricks in this way is that you can bake the bread directly on the bricks without using baking pans.  No oil or fat is needed, as the loaves do not stick when baked this way. You can get traditional hearth baked bread right in your own indoor conventional oven.

A complete set of written instructions on making sourdough bread as well as how to make a starter culture is on our EarthStar Primal Habitat website. There you will find other articles and practical information on the lifestyle of Voluntary Simplicity, tips on natural diet and a free on-line book discussing various aspects of simple living, based on our own experiences, everything from growing indoor greens, organic gardening, composting to natural healing. We invite the readers of Countryside (our Number One, favorite magazine!) to participate in our on-line discussion forum on topics about simplicity and self-reliance and living in harmony with the earth. 

It took us a long time to figure out a sourdough bread recipe that was consistent. We found it difficult to learn how to make this wonderful artisan bread without an experienced bread baker to show us all the tips and techniques to ensure our success.  We learned by trial and error and by piecing together information from many different sources. Educating people and bringing back the knowledge of the Old World artisan bread has become one of our passionate missions in life.  So we finally decided to produce an instructional video that walks a person through the entire process and includes everything from making a starter culture, hand grinding the wheat, to kneading and baking in a conventional oven as well as a clay oven. 

As an added bonus to having this healthy bread for ourselves as an inexpensive, mouth-watering staple in our daily diet, we are now making extra bread and selling it to friends and family.  In this way, we are making the extra cash income we need and providing a much-appreciated, nutritious product.  When our customers see us coming to deliver their freshly baked hand-made bread, we really enjoy seeing their smiling, happy faces.  In our small town, they call us “the bread people”.


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