How Did Pre-Modern Bakers Control Oven Temperature?

My (admittedly limited) knowledge of baking leads me to believe that precise temperature control is important. So when your heat sources are hot coals and burning logs, do you just learn to set the temperature? Is that one of the things that would set a good baker apart from a bad one?

Little things like how long it takes for a drop of water to boil off the oven deck. Heat your oven till a drop of water boils dry at a count of three.

Many ovens back when wood or coal were common they were rarely fully enclosed making it hard to get them “too hot”

Bread ovens get very hot. The carbon buildup on the top of the oven will turn transparent at a high temperature, so they can use that, and experience to tell if the oven is hot enough. The oven will have a very large thermal mass and stay hot enough to bake for a long time, but will still gradually cool, lengthening the cooking time. So they’ll be examining the bread and the rate of browning to tell when things are really done. Once heated the chimney and door (sometimes there’s no chimney) will be closed off to retain heat. If the oven seems too hot, one or the other can be opened to cool things down.

According to my father, his mother would test the temperature of the oven by sticking her arm in there to feel how hot it is.

My mother owns an ancient cookbook that gives you the direction of sticking your arm in until you can only hold it for x seconds to know it’s hot enough to cook whatever food.

Can you say a little more about this? I’ve never heard of this phenomenon.

If your only job, or lifes work, is to tend the oven, you’ll learn the smells, sights, and sounds of oven, the bread, the smoke, the glow, and the feel.

Not much, I’ve only heard of it. I’ll look for a reference. In a couple of months I should be able to tell you from personal observation.

Ok, from the Forno Bravosite:

I saw this concept somewhere else, but it didn’t mention the carbon was burning off. I was curious about the concept of it becoming transparent. I still want to find out what it actually looks like.

Totally awesome, thanks so much.

After you cook for a while you get a feel for what the correct temperature should be. I don’t know how hot my skillet should be, but I know how it should look and sound when I’m sauteing vegetables. I don’t know how hot my griddle is, but I know how the pancakes should react when it’s at the correct temperature. For someone who cooks all the time, they just know how things should be.

My friend tells the story of how her grandmother used to make biscuits, bread, cakes etc. She’d put the wet ingredients right into the flour barrel and mix it until the dough ball looked right. No need to measure out the flour since her years of experience allowed her to just know what it should look like when it’s correct. No doubt she could just look at or feel the wood oven to know if it was the right temperature to bake whatever she just mixed up.

Also, for your basic breads, which is much of what pre-modern bakers made, temperature really isn’t all that important.

You can test this easily. Bread’s a 5:3 ratio of flour:water by weight: toss in a spoonful of yeast and salt (the amounts don’t matter much at all beyond the salt adding taste), mix it up, and let it sit for a long overnight in a loosely covered bowl. That makes your basic dough. Punch it down (push the air out of it with your knuckles), cut it in half, and form each half into a loaf that you let sit for another hour or so. (You can knead to remove the overnight wait, but that’s like…work.) Total actual work time for this is about 4 minutes.

Put one in a 300 degree oven, the other in a 450 degree oven (you can do them sequentially). The 300 degree one will take about half again as long as the 450, and the bread and crust will be softer, but you’ll get perfectly servicable bread out of each of them. (A premodern baker could tell by looking when it was done, but I suggest you cheat and use a thermometer - you’re looking for a little over 200 degrees inside. How long that takes depends on how much flour and water you started with).

That’s a big difference, temperature wise – it’s near the upper and lower limits of your modern oven. Smaller differences would be almost imperceptable in the final product. (Recipe hint: Add some dried, crushed rosemary when you make the dough for a very nice “herb” bread.)

I witnessed the various stages of contruction of a pizza oven at a bar outside of Naples, Italy. Very interesting.
When completed, I asked the pizzaeolo how he knew the temperature was correct. He pointed out that the mortar between the bricks in the dome turned a very brilliant white in the gold-red light of the fire.

Another trick artisan bakers use to gauge the temperature is to watch what happens when they throw a small scrap of paper into the oven.