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breadness blog

the best reality show not on the food network

(read these in order for maximum impact…)

MAY 21, 2021

Breadness Blog, episode 4 ~ “The Oven: So Close Yet So Far…”

An oven is the hearth and heart of any bakery, even more so for an artisan sourdough bakery like ours. And although I’d learned about the term “steam-injected deck oven” from reading Chad Robertson’s excellent book, “Tartine Bread,” I’d never actually seen one in person, let alone bought one or turned it on! And I had no idea what brand would be the best fit for Breadness. But I knew we needed a steam-injected deck oven so the search began!

Call it serendipity when I happened to catch a YouTube video of Jon from Proof Bakery in Mesa, Arizona, talking passionately about sourdough bread while actually working the mixer and the dough for over an hour! I was riveted… Not only was Jon great at what he was doing, his narrative was filled with advice, anecdotes and education on the art and craft of sourdough. Making this video (and dozens of others on his channel) even more interesting was that his bakery is in his garage! And he makes over 100 loaves of sourdough a day! And that’s not all he bakes. Anyway, I digress…

I first saw the oven in one of Jon’s videos. It’s made by a company in Iowa: American Baking Systems; ABS. These guys specialize in the exact kind of oven artisan breadmakers require: a Stone Deck Oven with Steam Injection. This technology is needed to have a very hot chamber so the bread will “spring” yet not burn the bread before it’s done. That’s where the steam comes in. Fascinating…

Jon’s oven is a BEAST. It’s four decks tall (72″) and 3-sheet pans wide (79″ total width; 33% wider than the picture at the beginning of this story, taken from ABS’ online brochure). It also weighs a mere 2800 pounds! The model I needed had to fit in a compact corner where a convection oven for baking cookies and pies once stood (photo below), so I opted for the ABS 2-Deck, 2-Pan wide edition.

The Breadness ABS “baby beast” is 72″ tall, 60″ wide, 54″ deep and weighs a meager 1250 pounds! I had drawn out scale plans of the space I was moving into to make sure the pieces would fit (once they got through the front door [see Breadness Blog episode 3…]). This oven would fit in the corner okay but getting it through the door was going to require Houdini himself!

ABS is run by the Farrington family and I was fortunate to connect with Scott Farrington, who is not only quite knowledgeable about his company’s products, he also knows a lot about making sourdough bread. Once the model was narrowed down, there was the choice between electric and gas. I’ve always baked with gas and gas is less expensive to use than electric. But I found out from Scott that a gas oven needs more air space around the oven (something we really don’t have) and that gas ovens can produce inconsistent results depending on the weather; whereas electric ovens produce consistent results regardless of outside temperature, humidity and barometric pressure. ABS makes ovens for both power sources so based on Scott’s information I decided to go with the electric model. And even though electricity costs more than gas for baking, their oven is very efficient and I calculated it wouldn’t be used for more than 3 hours a day to bake up to 72 loaves.

Before I found out about ABS, I’d been researching and the price for ovens like this started around $25,000! Wow… That was more than half my startup budget. So I was extremely pleased to find out that the ABS oven I had my eye on was $11,200. Adding tax, freight and installation, it still came in at under $15k! I placed the order and Scott told me they’d be building my oven the following week.

Now that I had committed to this oven, the proper electrical and plumbing hookups needed to be in place before it arrived. Since this retail space already had 240 volt 3-phase power available, it was a matter of placing a power box next to the oven (see right-side box in photo below). Easier said than done, but this was deftly accomplished by my good friend and awesome electrician, Rob Tardi of All Power Services. (Rob also handled the special outlet for “Estella,” our dough mixer.)

The water line was a tricky project because I needed the city water to be filtered before running through the pipes for all of the faucets (no fluoride or other toxins in the steam used for baking Breadness!). I purchased a whole-house filtration system for that purpose (just like the one we have at our home) and hired Bobby McGee, himself an artisan of many trades, to figure out how to make this all work (see left box above). What you don’t see is all the plumbing that was needed to end up with that dangling stainless steel hose waiting to be connected to the steam injector inlet on the oven. But I will show you the water filtration system which exudes a Steampunk vibe, especially after I polished all the copper piping with some serious steel-wool action…

There was the matter of shipping (called “freight” when dealing with pieces as massive as this) and I had the option of having the oven delivered right to our new bakery space, or having it sent to an installation company in Azusa. After it arrived, they would contact me and set up a time to schedule the installation. That sounded like a better plan to me as what was I going to do with a 1250-pound oven parked on the sidewalk and no way to get it through the 40″-wide door?

A couple weeks after Scott and I sealed the deal, the oven arrived in Azusa (about 25 miles east of our location). Commercial oven moving and installation is a highly specialized field so the installation service company would need to send two of their team in advance to come see our place and figure out how to get the oven from outside to inside, put in its proper place and do all the hookups. I figured, “The oven is in L.A., let’s get this puppy rolling!” But the first pre-install appointment available was 8 days later as this type of service is far and few between (this ain’t your mama’s O’Keefe & Merritt…)

After that following-Tuesday meeting, I figured we’d have our oven in place by that Friday. Sadly, that, too, was not to be. There were other jobs ahead of mine, some involving removal of old ovens, pouring concrete and installing new ovens. And one of the installation team who came out to our place the previous week had to go to the hospital a couple days later for a serious gall bladder problem!

To make a long story shorter, the soonest our oven could be installed was three weeks after the oven arrived in Azusa. Bummer… without the oven, I couldn’t begin to test our scaled-up recipes and learn the new equipment. So close, yet so far… 

At one point I actually thought we could be up and running in time for Mother’s Day. Now, I was just hoping to test all the equipment by then.

May 4th finally arrived. I was at the shop when the truck pulled up and the crew of three unloaded the pallet with our oven on it. (Despite the apparent evidence, the oven was not delivered by the mailman!)

The two oven decks come assembled and the legs get attached separately. Still, the two decks together without the legs weigh over 1000 pounds so they needed to be disassembled to be moved sideways through the door.

The sophisticated electrical system in this oven is a sight to behold.

The other side houses the steam injection systems, one for each deck.

One deck on its back and dollied across the threshold.

Putting the legs on the lower deck after flipping the deck into position using two rigging lifts.

Hoisting the top deck into position for the drop.

Those are some serious tools there…

Success! Now the oven gets turned 90 degrees to roll down the narrow aisle to its new home…

Replacing the top slab.

By this time it’s been about 4 hours from the arrival of the installation truck and crew. At this point there are 3 things that need to be done:

1. Connect the 240 volt wiring (see magenta box above left)
2. Hook up the steam injector water connection (see magenta box above right)
3. Test the oven for correct operation

The 240 volt wiring needed to come through this junction box that was put back in place after the last photo was taken. The only problem is the hole in the box (above) was about 3 inches and the conduit with the wires (below) was about 1 inch.

The solution: Knockout Reducing Washers. A trip to the hardware store was needed for that. Fortunately, there’s a great one just down the street on Magnolia, between Buena Vista and Hollywood Way. But before making the parts run, there was the matter of the water connection.

The spec sheet for the oven showed the water inlet located on the top left corner near the front when facing the oven. But as you can see, the inlet is on the back. There’s a pre-filter kit that came with the oven that goes between the oven connection and our water supply hose. And the connecting point from that filter needed an adapter to match the hose fitting on the supply side. One more item to get at the hardware store.

So off I went to procure these parts while the crew took a 30 minute break. It took about 40 minutes for me to locate these parts and return to the shop. When I arrived, the crew was gone. Maybe they had to get the rigging equipment back to the rental center, or something. One thing was certain, it would be up to me to put on my plumber and electrician hats and finish the job!

Addressing the water connection, I applied Teflon tape to the filter end and secured the fitting. Then I ran about 4 gallons of water water through it and into a bucket to flush the filter of loose carbon. That done, I applied Teflon tape to the oven water inlet and secured that connection. The whole filter assembly was secured by a clamp. You can see the finished plumbing job below. The magenta boxes show the connections.

Moving over to the electrical hookup, it took two sets of rings to solve this conduit mounting problem (see magenta box). Once that was done, I hooked up the wires as Rob had directed (not to worry… the power box was off).

I rechecked my work, put the junction box cover back on, moved the oven closer to the corner, then set the power box to ON.

Nothing blew up. Nothing unusual happened. This was a good thing!

Now, there was still #3: Testing. I called Scott on his cell phone, after hours, in Iowa, at his home. He graciously walked me through the turn-on/burn-in process which took about 5 hours to complete. He gave me instructions on how to gradually increase the temperature of the top and bottom heating elements for both decks so as to eliminate any moisture that was present in the deck stones. If I was to have set the elements to 500 degrees right off the bat, the stones could have cracked! Instead, I set them to 150 degrees and let them heat for an hour. Then 200 degrees. Then 250 degrees, and so on.

Scott had me call him back at the end of each warm-up cycle for the next setting. Eventually I got to 480/450 degrees (top/bottom elements for each deck) and could see the final water vapors coming out of the rear chimney slot on the oven.

For the next important oven setup action (which I had no idea until Scott advised me), I needed to come back the next day to remove the stones from the decks and apply a generous coat of non-GMO avocado oil to the top and edges of each stone. (Scott had suggested corn oil but that’s not on the Plant Paradox “Yes” list, so avocado oil worked best for me.) The reason for this is to seal the stones from absorbing any more moisture. The oven, by the way, was still warm from cooling down from the night before!

Once the stones were oiled and replaced in the oven, I went through the stepped heating process one more time. And when I was done, about 4 hours later, I had an oven that was ready to use!

(The following is a very condensed photo story covering 3 days in just a few snapshots. Because we can’t end this episode with “just” a working oven. We’ve got to see how it works; see how the mixer works; see if I can jump from making 4 loaves in my home kitchen, to 24 loaves in a completely new bakery environment. Don’t you want to see if it works, too?)

It was now Thursday, May 6th, so I planned to do the first test bake on Mother’s Day, which meant starting the sourdough cycle on Friday night with the preferment mixed and placed in a large cooler with an ice gel pack to keep the temp around 50 degrees..

By Saturday, the preferment has risen about 30%. Needed to leave it out at room temp to rise some more.

That’s more like it! Ready to make some dough.

The minimum batch of dough I could make was 24 loaves. Even that was not enough to really give Estella a workout, but I had to start somewhere.

Fast-forward to after the dough was split into two 12-loaf tubs, turned and warmed at 87 degrees in the proofing cabinet for 5 hours, then divided into 484-gram pieces, rounded on the bench, rested, folded and placed in proofing baskets, then into the Migali refrigerator covered with flour-sack cloth for the overnight rise (as seen below).

It’s Sunday, Mother’s Day, the day we used the oven for the first time. First step: set the top/bottom elements for each deck to 480/430 degrees.

Next, turn the proofing baskets onto the parchment paper covering each oven peel (large wood plank with handle) and score our signature triangle on the top of each loaf. (Scoring is what allows the bread to spring up through the path of least resistance, rather than sideways if the dough was not scored, resulting in a flat UFO shape!) Note: I’m trying something new… a carpet knife for my lame (French for “blade”) instead of my usual razor blade. Works pretty well.

In we go… gotta slide the parchment off the peel just right to deposit the loaves on the stone.

Once inside, the steam injectors are activated and 5 seconds of steam fills the the deck to prevent browning. Here are the loaves browning after the steam has been vented halfway through the bake. Nice…

Out of the oven and a temperature check: target is 212 degrees. Looks like we’re close enough!

Transferring the loaves from the peel to the cooling rack.

Looking and smelling mighty fine..

We have Breadness!

On Mother’s Day night, you received the flash Breadness Bulletin to come down to the shop and pick up a free loaf on very short notice. We had quite a few Breadness aficionados come over and collect their loaves, and the few loaves that remained were gone the next day!

At this point we have now begun the process of applying for the city (business) and county (health) permits. Hopefully I won’t have to write Breadness Blog episodes devoted to any challenges they may pose, but if I do, we’re all learning something that could help us in the future. I imagine opening the next Breadness store will be way easier, knowing what I know now.

We’re still quite a ways from opening and I’ve got a long list of projects that need to be completed before that special day (shooting for sometime in June).

In the meantime, thanks for tuning in all the way to the end of this extended-length bonus episode!

May there be Breadness for you and yours, soon…

Randall Michael Tobin


NEXT UP: Breadness Blog, episode 5 ~ “Cleared for Takeoff…”