"Back in my early teen years, Teddy Burdett and I used to make spy movies on his parents’ VHS camcorder and play music in our friend Charlie’s basement. Later he introduced me to Mexican grocery stores, chorizo sausage, and, I’m also fairly sure, he made me my first quesadilla.
Fast forward a couple decades, and he’s Ted, not Teddy, and he emails me about what he’s up to these days—making cool products with his wife, Sharon. They’re in the home stretch of kickstarting an oven thing for home baking that I found myself coveting in the dark hours of the night. Since I can manage to make a story about something but not actually make anything myself, I figured I’d ask him what went into coming with his cool new cast-iron oven."
What was the process of developing the Fourneau?
Like a lot of things made by designers, the Fourneau came from a desire to make a better solution to a problem we were having. We really loved the result of baking in a super-heated container, but we didn’t like using any of the tools that were available. We’d ruined our enameled cast-iron casserole, broke several ceramic bread bakers, and realized that using a spray bottle in a 500-degree oven was kind of silly and totally ineffective.
We documented all of the things that were a pain about the method: It sucks to have to lift a giant iron pan that is heated to 500 degrees in and out of the oven. It sucks to work really hard on making a great dough, and then have very little control over its shape. We wanted to develop a tool that simulated the method used by professional bakers, who use a peel to load the dough and unload the bread from the front of the oven. We also wanted to make the “seal” or “lid” that captures the steam from the baking bread as manageable as possible, and reduce the likelihood of burning yourself.
We made hundreds of sketches, dozens of cardboard models, and two high-fidelity iron prototypes cast in 3D-printed sand molds. We baked all kinds of breads, and asked our friends (bakers and non-bakers alike) to test it out. Our ultimate test was taking the Fourneau to Floriole bakery in Chicago and working with baker Alex Roman.
We really didn’t know how many people would be into a device like this, so we decided to kickstart the project. So that’s where we are now. And if we’re able to find enough people who want to support the project, then, boom, it will be real!
What sort of things did you have to educate yourselves about? How did you go about doing that?
A lot of our searching was just in response to the question, What else could we use to do this? Once we started thinking, Hey, there’s a gap here, an opportunity for a new tool, we wanted to know more about what our tool would need to do to be effective. That brought us around to reading more about bread chemistry. There is no shortage of awesome volumes that touch on the topic (Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking is of course, indispensable). We also wanted to know more about how the pros make their bread, so we learned about steam-ovens and commercial baking stones and the like.
After deciding that we would make our baker in cast iron, we had to learn all about that process. Luckily, we’ve worked on a variety of projects involving casting and molding, and that gave us a good start. Iron has its own material characteristics and its own specific production requirements, so we contacted foundries and started a conversation. Most of the drawings that we initially sent out turned out to be totally impossible to make, so we used the critique to make revisions until we had a design with legs. We also had to figure out how to make the prototype molds for the design. We knew about some techniques that would get you a finished casting pretty quickly, but we wanted to use a technique that would deliver a result as close to the production castings as possible. That was what led us to use 3D-printed sand molds. We learned a ton about how to design these from the tooling makers who print them and from the foundry engineers who pour the iron.
Once we had something that was pretty close to what the Fourneau is now, we realized that we needed to make sure it would fit in most people’s ovens. So we sought out and measured 24-inch, 30-inch, and 36-inch ovens, and then tested the fit using the prototype.
What were some of the surprises you encountered along the way? What were some of the challenges?
We knew that cast iron was heavy, but still it is a little surprising just how heavy the stuff is. It’s really fucking heavy. It is also quite expensive to prototype. I think that most of the iron cast in the U.S. goes into really specialized, expensive, industrial stuff, and so the industry isn’t as geared to affordable development as some others. We were also surprised by how old-fashioned the foundry industry seems. While we were able to find partners who use the latest digital technology, it was surprising how few companies seem to have adopted these new tools. We feel lucky to have found the partners that we did.
Another huge surprise: Did you know that 30 percent of Americans are actively trying to avoid gluten? Holy shit, neither did we! We know people personally who suffer from celiac, which is certainly no joke, and we’re well aware of the general gluten scare. But seeing that number really blew us away! Despite that, our impression is that good bread never had it this good in the U.S. People here really recognize just how awesome bread can be, and in Chicago we are surrounded by amazing bread from amazing places, like Floriole, Baker Miller, Cellar Door Provisions, and Publican.
It was quite challenging to decide on a size for the Fourneau. A lot of it came down to balancing the size with the weight. It needed to be deep enough to fit demi-baguettes. It needed to be wide enough to make a boule but not too wide that the lid would become unwieldy. How big of a pizza should if accommodate? It was hard to find a one-size solution. But we had to start with something, and if the idea is popular, we can make more sizes to fit everyone’s needs. As it is, the Fourneau will make demi-baguettes, a full no-knead recipe oblong loaf, a half-recipe boule, rolls of all sizes, and a personal-sized pizza.
Probably the biggest challenge was second-guessing the idea. The results you can get from existing tools are great, but they are just a challenge to use. So we wondered, Is this really a meaningful problem to solve? But once we used the prototype and got to experience how much easier it is, we felt really good about the whole thing.
Where is it manufactured? How did you decide on that?
Our plan is to cast the iron parts of Fourneau in Indiana, where there are quite a few iron foundries. The area in Indiana in which we’re working, Fort Wayne and Plymouth, is really beautiful. The countryside is softly rolling, agricultural and wooded. The city centers are full of historic American architecture. The foundry itself is a sprawling facility full of molds, sand, and flaming-hot iron.
We’ve been lucky enough to find a family business in Wisconsin that has been making peels (mostly for pizza) for the last couple of decades.
Sourcing is one of our favorite things to do. You meet so many people along the way who are doing incredible things, making stuff you never even knew existed and doing it all in the most inspiring ways.