Clay: where our hands and hearts are

by Sheila A. Menzies
Tile Heritage Foundation

Clay ovens are common in the pueblos of the Southwest, as well as in Europe, Asia and Africa. They are an inexpensive, creative and sustainable resource that leaves a lighter footprint on the earth.

Over the years, making and using adobe brick, I have helped build earthen ovens and delighted in their simplicity and bounty. Everything from bread to barbecue can be cooked in a clay oven—it all tastes wonderful!

Regarding clay ovens, Donna and Kevin Johnson write: “The most sustainable and self-reliant way to bake bread and other foods is the traditional way, using a wood-fired brick or clay oven.” Cooking this way uses renewable energy sources—just a few chunks of wood, which can be harvested from scrap (non-pressure treated and unpainted wood is best) or tree dead-falls from our own environments or a local recycle-reuse site.

Clay ovens use three forms of heat: radiant heat from the clay, convection from the movement of steam, and conduction from the brick hearth. For baking bread, the result is superior loaves, with a moist crumb and a thin, crisp crust. Using clay pots for soups and stews in an earthen oven also produces wonderful dishes with a unique flavor.

Earthen ovens are made with a tile floor—usually an overlay of thick terra cotta tiles, such as Mexican saltillos, or old kiln plates. Handmade tiles can also be used, and large tiles are best because they create an even baking surface. Tiles on the floor of the oven can easily be replaced if necessary.

Think about building a clay oven for yourself, your family, or your community. The project is fun and easy; and yes, you can decorate the oven on the outside with tile. It’s clay, after all, and that’s where our hands and hearts are.

Top image courtesy of Armand Havers.

Bottom image courtesy of Urban Gardens.

Handmade Tile Association
34 Thirteenth Avenue NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

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