Westchester Community Oven
The Westchester Community Oven is a wood-fired public oven located in the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Oven is large — community-scale — to bake multiple loaves at a time!
It is a free-standing structure that was hand-built from adobe and cob mixes. It is open to the public for monthly Bake events where people can bake their own flatbreads or breads (and sometimes pizzas).
The Bake events are free (donation to our “firewood fund” is appreciated), but RSVP’s are required.
Enjoy the fun of preparing and then baking your bread in a hand-made earthen wood-fired oven. Share ideas, techniques, and tasty results. Everyone in the family can take part. If you need help with shaping or baking, experienced makers will be on hand. And we’ll show you how to load your masterpiece onto the hearth. You can watch it brown in the light from the live fire, and use the peel to retrieve it — ready to slice and enjoy.
Note that a mud oven operates quite differently than the oven inside your kitchen:
If the weather forecast calls for rain on the Bake day or the overnight following a Bake, the event will be CANCELLED, because a mud oven can’t be left exposed to rain.
If the AQMD declares a “no burn day”, in other words air quality in the L.A. basin is so poor that the government prohibits fires — the event will be CANCELLED. (We usually know AQMD forecasts 24-36 hours ahead).
These sudden cancellations are one reason you MUST RSVP to attend a Bake event.
How a Bake event works
(note: at the present time, we are NOT hosting pizza events)
Early in the morning of a Bake day, our volunteer Firemaster uncovers the Oven and lights a live fire inside it. The fire burns wood for several hours, heating the hearth and dome of the Oven. Temperatures at this point can exceed 1000F.
The Oven runs at its own schedule, so all clock times are approximate. Instead, we operate these events based on “fire time” — when the fire is ready for a certain phase of baking.
Around 11am, it’s Flatbread Time! The Firemaster pushes the live fire toward the back of the Oven, so that we can begin to bake in the front. The Oven temperature usually stabilizes at high temperature, around 700-800F. People who wish to bake pitas, naan, socca, or other flatbreads go to work. Bakers do last-minute prep, then pop their flatbreads into the open Oven. Most flatbreads take only a few minutes to bake, so this phase of a Bake day is a frenzy of doughs in-and-out of the Oven.
Although we are currently NOT doing pizzas, they would need to be baked during the high-temperature Flatbread phase. They cannot be baked later in the event.
After the flatbreads are done, it’s heat-stabilization time. The Firemaster evaluates the Oven temperature. He may add wood to run the fire hotter. When the Oven is at his desired temperature, he pulls the live fire out of the Oven. The empty Oven is sealed for a while, which serves to stabilize the temperature, and cause the walls of the Oven to hold heat.
During this heat-stabilization period, we enjoy ourselves. Bakers often bring homebaked cookies, or homegrown fruit to share. This is a time of chatting and comparing notes — we often swap recipes and tips.
Around 1:30pm Bread bakers begin showing up. We decide who will participate in which batch through the Oven. This is another reason you MUST RSVP to a Bake event: the Firemaster needs to have a count to plan batching.
When the Firemaster declares the Oven temperature right (often around 400-500F), the first-batch bakers do their last-minute prep, readying their breads on the peels, and slashing their dough. The Firemaster opens the Oven door, and the bakers load their loaves inside. Our community-scale oven can hold 6-10 loaves at a time! A timer is set, and all the loaves bake, often for as little as 20 minutes. Then the first batch loaves are pulled out, and quickly the second batch goes in. Our oven can handle as many as 3 batches, although the third requires some delicate temperature-management by the Firemaster.
After the Bakes, everyone helps with cleanup and putting away tables. The Oven is left overnight to cool down. The next day, the Firemaster returns to the site to put on the rain tarp to protect the Oven.
What to bring to a Bake event
While we share some tools at the Oven (peels, cooling racks, hot pads), bakers should bring their own individual supplies.
For bread events, bring: Your dough, whether pan breads or pre-shaped loaves ready-to-bake (people often transport loaves in their bannetons). Cornmeal or semolina to keep bread from sticking to the peel. Lame-knife if needed. A large cutting board, which will be your work surface. Some people bring a paper bag, basket or dishtowel to wrap their bread for the trip home.
For flatbreads, bring: Your batter or dough. Cornmeal or semolina if this is applicable to your type of bake. A large cutting board, which will be your work surface. Cast-iron skillet, pancake turner, and oil, if this is applicable to your type of bake. Reusable container to take your flatbreads home.
For pizza events [when offered] bring: Your pizza dough (homemade or store-bought. Trader Joe’s refrigerated dough works fine!). Pizza toppings, plus some to share. A large cutting board, which will be your work surface. Knife for cutting ingredients, pizza cutter, any utensils you might need.
The Oven is outdoors, in direct sun, so you may want a sunhat. It is quite hot in front of the fire. Wind can pick up in late afternoon. In cool months, you may want a sweater or jacket. Most people bring their own beverage in a reusable container. The events are social, so people often bring something to share (homebaked cookies, homegrown fruit, wine)
- What’s the Oven’s story? How did you build the Oven? … The Oven was built in 2015 as a community project of the Environmental Change-Makers. Read the full story of building the Oven.
- Where is the Oven located? … 6700 W. 83rd, Los Angeles 90045. It’s in the inner courtyard behind Holy Nativity Episcopal church. Enter through the big black metal gate on the Dunbarton side of the site. Ample street parking is available.
- Is this a church project? … No, it is a project of the Environmental Change-Makers and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, and the Oven was built on the church site at the invitation of past rector Peter Rood. Sometimes a few people from the church participate, but mostly it’s community members from outside the church.
- Can I visit the Oven to watch but not bake? … Yes, we’d love to meet you. Note that the Oven is locked/not accessible unless there is a Bake event going on.
- I’m gluten-free, can I still participate? … A big YES! see our post on Gluten-free options
- Does it have to be just boule-shaped bread? Can I bring bread in a pan, baguettes, squash/yams/veggies to bake? … Yes, we’ve tried all these things at various times. Be sure to show up at the proper “oven time” (see “How a Bake event works” above)
- Does it cost anything to bake? … The Bake events are free, although we appreciate you putting a little something (perhaps $5) in the jar toward our “firewood fund” for wood and replacement peels, etc.
- Can I bring the kids? … yes. But no dogs please, we’re handling food.
- Can I bake commercially? … No, health codes do not allow it. And we’re at a church site, so fudging the rules is uncool.
- Can I hold a private event at the Oven? … Pre-COVID we used to do this. Since COVID restrictions have eased up, we (a tiny team of volunteers) are still figuring things out. Probably we’ll say no, but you can ask.
- Can I volunteer to help make a pizza event possible? Can I train as a Firemaster? … a big YES! We’d love to have you! Come to a few Bake events, get to know the process, and we’ll take it from there.
- How do I contact the Westchester Community Oven volunteers? … Please use our contact form for the Westchester Community Oven.
- Do you have a mailing list to tell me about the next Bake event? … Please join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers Meetup