Horno Notes

HORNO NOTES from Southwest Solaradobe School

Time to pass on some horno info to you, the reader, as I bite into a warm chunk of tasty bread prepared and baked by Dolores and Josephine Toya of Jemez Pueblo just 30 minutes ago. Driving south from Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, I reflected on what I had learned over the last several hours. The Park Service has an adobe horno at their visitor’s center at Petroglyph and occasionally, they host Pueblo bakers to demonstrate the ancient baking process.

A related highlight is the new rammed earth amphitheatre constructed at Petroglypf National Monument by Mike Sims (simsgbinc@gmail.com), an Albuquerque licensed contractor, who specializes in adobe and rammed earth construction. The Painted Desert effect of his rammed earth and the amphitheatre are worth the trip.

The horno:
The petroglypf horno is about five feet in diameter inside. It has a flattish top with rounded sides. Its adobe walls mean that it’s about seven feet across outside. The door in front is about 18” wide and two feet tall. There’s a 2-3” diameter smoke hole in the back top, which is also the downwind side of the horno. Josephine noted that a piece of flagstone was missing from the floor of the horno, which makes proper cleaning of the horno difficult. Everyone agreed that it’s nice to have an even, workable surface for the final floor of the horno. We all talked about what is best to put under the floor to retain the heat. The votes went for dense rocks, set in the mud bed under the horno floor.

Some horno tools:
A first glance at horno implements brings to mind a stack of ordinary household and lawn tools. There’s a damp mop, a hard rake, a springy leaf rake, a flat shovel, and the baker’s paddle. It’s cut out of a 1”x 8” so the flat part of the paddle is about 8” wide and 12” long. Add to that length another 3”, which is a gradual taper to a sharp edge- so that it can easily slide under the cooking pans or bowls to extract loaves of bread. The long part of the paddle handle is roughly a 1”x2”, but with some extra wood attached along the end of the handle to add roundness for a good grip.

Most hornos have bancos or adobe seats arranged around them. Hornos are always built up on a base, so it’s an easy matter to extend the base into a seat or place to set bowls or store a firewood supply.

Cooking notes:
At home, Dolores always adds wheat flour to the white flour at 5 lbs. wheat flour to a 25 lb. bag of the white. She might use more wheat, but says the bread won’t rise properly with too much wheat flour. Today, the horno produced 18 loaves in a one-hour bake from a 25 lb. bag of flour. 50 pounds of flour will bake about 32 loaves of bread and that would require a papa horno indeed. Some Pueblos do use such big hornos. Dolores prepares her dough using olive oil and adds a pinch of sugar to start the yeast with salt to taste.

The bread “pans” are more like stainless steel bowls, about 6” in diameter at the base and 7” diameter at the top and perhaps 5” high- apparently a standard item from restaurant suppliers. Dolores and Josephine had prepared the dough at home before bringing it to Petroglyph. Dolores lined the bowls with Crisco and handled the dough with Crisco also to deter sticking.  As the dough began to rise in the bowls, it puffed up more than an inch beyond the top of the pans (while baking, it would mushroom more). Once the bread had risen, the 18 containers were placed onto trays and bused out to the horno.

The horno fire:
Josephine started the horno fire by simply wadding up some newspaper, then tossing it onto the center of the cold horno floor. She then built up a criss-cross of kindling over the paper, topping it off with split juniper (cedar). The wood did not exceed 2” in diameter. This roughly conical pile occupied at most about 2/3rds of the inside volume of the horno. The juniper crackled merrily as the fire began to heat the horno interior. The horno door was left open as the fire grew in strength. Smoke exited from it as well as the smoke hole, but the dryness of the wood and its relatively small diameter did not produce much smoke. After awhile, the fire burned down to where only a few flames were visible. Then, Dolores raked the hot ashes and coals around the periphery of the inside of the horno, so as to equalize the heat. To assure this, she added a final scattering of split juniper pieces around the entire circle- these were perhaps 1- 1 ½” in diameter. For a time, the entire floor of the horno was ablaze, but then subsided to very hot coals and ashes. This completed the heating of the horno.

Taking the coals and ashes out of the horno:
The hottest, hardest part of bread making in the horno seems to be cleaning out the hot coals and ashes. The low-tech, traditional method is to pull the coals right out the door of the horno onto the ground in front. On a cold, winter day, this task may be somewhat comforting, but on a summer day, one notices the heat. Coals were raked out using the hard rake. A springy lawn rake with wide tines was also used to rake out the smaller coals and ashes. Once on the ground, the hot material was deftly scraped to the side using the flat shovel. Josephine now used the damp mop to clean out ash from the floor surface. These activities and the time they consumed apparently did not cool the horno – it remained hot inside and ready to bake.

Determining the right temperature and loading the horno:
It’s important to avoid too hot an horno, which will burn the bread. Dolores mentioned that the test at Jemez Pueblo is to toss a cornhusk onto the horno floor. If it bursts into flame- too hot. If it turns black on the edges and smokes- still a little too hot. If it turns brown, it’s just right. We didn’t have a cornhusk, and used crinkled up newspaper- it turned brown on the edges and in went the bread- all eighteen loaves. Josephine placed each bread pan using the baker’s paddle, arranging them in the rear 2/3rds of the horno floor in a semi-circle.

Closing the door, baking time and holding the temperature
After hearing all sorts of stories about how to build an horno door using insulations that will not burn or outgas, it was refreshing to see Dolores’ low-tech method. To seal the door, she dampened a large bath towel and draped it over the opening. She then leaned a piece of plywood onto the towel, which pinned the towel over the entire opening. The plywood had a piece of 2” x 4” nailed across it and Dolores used the baker’s paddle as a prop, wedging it under the crosspiece.

However, if you are baking something over a period of hours, and the horno has to be kept hot over a long time, you would need a special door. For example, in hornos where meat is cooked, the fire may be an open flame inside for a long time along with the meat, which is usually double or triple-wrapped in aluminum foil. So keep in mind that this simple closure can be o.k. for short baking periods- like bread.

The estimated time to bake was an hour, but after about ten minutes, Dolores returned to take down the prop and door and peek inside. She asked me to take a look. I could see that the loaves were turning a nice color on top. Dolores smiled and told me that this checking of the bread is important. She said that if the bread did not begin to turn color by this time, it would be important to stop heat from leaving the horno by dampening the mop and placing it over the smoke hole on the rear of the horno.

Harvesting the loaves
At the hour mark, a small group of tourists, attracted by the proceedings, were standing by for the results. One, who had missed breakfast, was eager for a slice to neutralize her coffee overdose. A Petroglypf neighbor and hobbyist beekeeper arrived with some honey to share. Dolores opened the horno door and savory whiffs of the fresh bread poured out. Everyone stepped forward. I noted that the damp towel and plywood method had succeeded- there was no burned towel or plywood, meaning that the baking temperature was below the ignition point of the towel and plywood, or less than 400˚ F.

Josephine now handled the baker’s paddle, sliding it under each bowl of bread and carefully extracting the prize. The metal pans or bowls were hot, but the bread didn’t stick to them. Of course, safety and gloves are a must. A good breadbasket with handles is handy, as one can load up a number of loaves and carry them easily. However, this group of aficionados del pan surged forward and bought up all of the loaves within a few minutes. Some bought 2 or 3 loaves.

As I drive south, munching my loaf, I realize that the horno is more than a picturesque adobe icon, slumbering away in the shade of the old cottonwood. It’s actually a proven survival tool that can help to save you when the propane runs out or the natural gas is frozen in the pipes (like it did in 1970 and 2011). But to be ready, you’ll need to have a good supply of dried, small diameter wood stored away close to your horno.

A source for horno info is Mel Medina at The Adobe Factory in Alcalde, NM. Mel has horno classes from time to time and also makes special horno adobes along with his standard sizes. Contact him at meladobefactory@windstream.net or 505-852-4131.

Joe Tibbets
Instructor, SWSA
Please read: These notes are not intended as a complete treatise on horno making and baking. Horno users should take all due care in working with the fire, hot coals and ashes characteristic of the horno. Nearby brush and grass should be kept well away from the horno and its cooking area. Care must be taken with hot containers and bread and gloves should be worn. Children shall be kept away from a hot or active horno and hot containers unless supervised by an adult familiar with horno use.

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