Wood-fired baking: Tara Jensen creates magic with flour, fire, and smoke

In the mountains of North Carolina lies a unique temple of wood-fired baking. Run by Tara Jensen, it’s a place where every expression of flour is brought to life in a wood-fired oven. This unique production and learning space is called Smoke Signals Bakery.

In our Spring issue of Sift, we sent native North Carolinian and award-winning writer Sheri Castle to Smoke Signals Baking to visit with Tara. Here is her story:

 

Early on the morning of a bake, Tara Jensen crafts a fire inside her enormous wood-fired oven, stacking and cross-hatching sticks of kindling as though she is building with Lincoln Logs. When they ignite she stokes her fire with lengths of tree skins, long shards of bark shaved from round trees to make square lumber. She gets stacks of skins from a local sawmill and furniture builder. She admires the heat they produce and appreciates that she’s using a natural fuel that is too often discarded.

Throughout the day, Tara intuitively feeds the flames and rakes the coals to calibrate the heat. The brick oven, built by the legendary mason and blacksmith Alan Scott in 1998, has multiple thermometers, but she uses those numbers to corroborate what she’s learned from standing at the hearth day after day, fire after fire.

wood-fired baking chimneyShe always steps into the yard to check the color of the smoke and ripple of heat rising from the chimney, reading her smoke signals. Yes, Tara Jensen is an expert baker, but she’s also a fire keeper and artist.

Wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourThe winding road in Marshall, NC, that leads to Tara’s wood-fired oven twists so tight that a GPS unit thinks the car is making left and right turns. Upon arrival, pilgrims pull up into the yard and make their way up a slight hill to the door of her bakery, which sits next to her house.

Inside, the two-room bakery is sparse, but not missing a thing, with each object having a specific purpose in her baking process. The room smells sweet and clean, with the ever-present aroma of freshly baked bread.

Wood-fired baking chalkboardThe back wall is covered with an enormous blackboard on which she used colored chalk to draw and diagram the flow and rationale of a baker’s day, which follows the life  cycle of a bread loaf, from milling the flour to feeding the starter to pulling the loaves from the oven. The information is both instructive and eye-catching, like a lab report with artful illustrations.

Wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourNext to the blackboard is the door to her side yard, where the oven reigns. Next to the oven are a rustic and sturdy workbench and sitting benches made from lengths of wood planks. There’s a rocker near the oven door, just right for sitting in the warmth, sipping tea, and chatting with fellow bakers who are contemplating bread.

wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourMuch of the rest of Tara’s bakery is adorned with her hand-tooled paper-cut stencils that are pinned to the wall and taped to the door of her walk-in. She uses the stencils to decorate the tops of pan loaves with flour as they go into the oven. No two stencils are alike, but there is a similarity among the designs that conveys her artistic proclivities.

Wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourShe favors bold slashes, geometric patterns, and repetition of images. She carves the same images into the ink stamps that she uses on her packaging, such as boxes, bags, and tags.

Wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourSimilar motifs appear in the tops of the boules that she slashes with her lame. Quick flicks of the blade score the skin of each loaf, creating crisp and deeply browned “ears” that seem to perk up in the oven.

Tara also applies her sensibility to the top crusts of her famous pies. She uses pastry shapes to decorate each pie as one might assemble a collage.

wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourEven her delicious, chewy, beautifully blistered hand-shaped pizza crusts are expressions of form and function. They hold up to scrutiny, and they hold up in the oven.

Each of Tara’s creations confirms that she was an artist before she was a baker, and that now she is simultaneously both. Moreover, she believes that each of us can be bakers and artists as well.

Throughout the day, during one of her wildly popular hands-on baking classes, Tara shares her insights into her expression of the artist’s way. One of her tenets is that creativity requires discipline and practice. Yes, one can have bursts of creativity or flashes of genius, but that’s like awaiting lightning bolts to illuminate our path. It’s little wonder that she labels the cover sheet of our lesson plan “Bread & The Creative Practice.”

wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflourIn addition to formulas, weights, and classic techniques for refreshing her perfect sourdough starter (which she shares with her students, just as another baker shared it with her many years ago) and making dough, the packet contains the rules that she follows in her daily practice of baking bread. She closes the packet with these words:

Honor the practice. I choose to work with naturally leavened bread and bake with fire because they are dynamic, living forces. I personally get a kick out of trying to orchestrate wild elements. It is always a dance and sometimes the weather, or the quality of the flour, or the temperamental walk-in, take the lead. When I value the entire process of how a loaf of bread, or pizza, or pie comes into being, I am never disappointed if the final stages don’t turn out how I imagined. When we decide to bake bread we are taking a creative risk, and there is a difference in taking a risk because we are invested in a specific outcome and taking a risk because we want to feel the thrill of the unknown. Focusing on the process puts you in a position of not controlling the elements, but recognizing you are one among them.

Wood-fired baking via@kingarthurflour

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Christine Nelson

    Amazing…I can just smell fragrance of the bread wafting through the mountain air. And, I thought I was a pretty good baker. I would not know where to even begin, but I would love to watch the process.

    Reply
  2. sandy

    Wonderful post! I love the use of the stencils on top of the bread. I have looked for some to buy but have not found any I really like. Tara’s are beautiful. I think I’ll be inspired by this post to try cutting my own. Thanks Susan.

    Reply
  3. Tom Dawley

    I attended two classes at KA each four days and each more than worth the time and money…then I went home and built a brick oven …lot of nostalgia when using this oven..and a big learning curve..but a lot of fun having the neighbors over roasting vegetables and making crusty Italian Bread…and don’t even get me going on Pita and Naan Bread…this oven will be around for the family to marvel forever …gotta love it…

    Tom

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We are so pleased to know you felt so inspired that you had to build your own oven. Wow! Good for you, Tom! What a wonderful experience from beginning to end. You will be enjoying your oven with neighbors and family for years to come. We hope to see you back here and when we do, please share some of your experiences. Elisabeth@KAF

    2. David Hernandez

      Hey Tom! How did you learn to make your own brick oven. Did KA guys teach you?
      Thanks for sharing your experience! I would like to know how to make one small oven at home.

    3. Susan Reid , post author

      David, there are a lot of books available that can walk you through the process. One is called Cooking With Fire, by Paula Marcoux. The other to look for is The Bread Builders, by Daniel Wing and the late, great Alan Scott, who built the oven you saw in the blog. Dan Wing has taught here at our Baking Education Center many times. Susan

  4. Karen sievertson

    That’s my dream. I so love to create beautiful loaves of bread. To have an oven like would be so wonderful.

    Reply
  5. Tom Dawley

    In regards to the brick oven…Elisabeth…I am going back..and soon…I cannot say enough about KA and its education center…I see David asked how I built it…there is a several companies but the one I purchased was from Belforno Pizza…then I hired a local man that builds these…you need to have someone that has experience…I love this oven…but…believe me..takes some learning to figure out exactly how to do this…its a novelty item and you can create the same breads using a baking stone or steel in your home oven..what is fun is I have friends over and we have cooked Venison…and vegetables in this oven…one evening when the oven had cooled down a little I put in a Dutch Oven of beans and made the best baked beans you have ever had….

    Tom

    Reply
    1. Emma

      You remind me of my parents farm (they are not farmers, as in France the number of farmers dropped by 90% in the last 60 years so many non farming people bought farms to live in) with a wood powered oven, and we made many bread, pizza parties and always used the remaining heat to cook all sorts of stews in a Le Creuset. I mean the aroma and taste of those stews can’t be matched.

      I also remember a baker friend in the 80’s, he revived old varieties of wheat, convinced some farmers to grow it and made sourdough woodier bread, the best I ever had.
      He gave ma tip about the temperature : the oven is OK when a parchment paper inserted in the oven is quickly browning, but not burning. In case someone finds it useful.

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear that this conversation has sparked some found memories for you, Emma. Thanks for sharing! Mollie@KAF

    1. Sheri Castle

      I came up with “tree skins” because that is what she used to start the fire that morning. She switched to other shapes and cuts of wood as the day progressed.

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