March 31, 2011


Putting a lid on bread baking (Bob Hoover, 31/11, Post-Gazette)

Commercial bakeries essentially bake their breads in a giant pot, a tightly sealed container with injectors that fill it with steam that makes a nice crunchy crust. A covered vessel preheated in a 500-degree oven at home functions the same way.

The lid holds in the moisture given off by the dough, creating the crunchy crust as well as a dark brown color, something called the "Maillard reaction" as the heat caramelizes the sugar in the grain.

The lid does away with those usually ineffective attempts to fill the oven with steam, and I've tried most of them, except Julia Child's more extreme effort -- heating the head of an axe red-hot over the gas range, then plunging it into a pan of water in the bottom of her oven.

(I now have the best system: I cover a four-sided oven tray with wet towels and insert it just before the loaves go in. And, you have a very nice set of hot towels for facials when the bread's done.)

The pot also largely eliminates the need to shape the dough, although it still needs some work to fashion it into a cohesive lump that can be dumped into the container.

The Lahey/Robertson doughs call for wet hands, lots of flour and a dough scraper to pile up the mass into a manageable shape, while standard well-kneaded breads should be formed into a rough ball.

Then, it really comes down to following a set of steps to put the pot oven into service.

Step 1 is choosing the pot. Needed is a round or oval form that's ovenproof to 500 degrees -- forget tagine cookers -- with a tight lid. Capacity should be between 4 and 6 quarts for a loaf made from 3 to 5 cups of flour.

I've used a cast-iron bean pot, a Le Creuset casserole pan (plastic handle removed) and a Romertopf clay vessel, but the best device is a rather costly "cloche bread baker" ($59.95), a ceramic gizmo from a Virginia pottery. It's available from the King Arthur Flour company (

Using a baking stone helps even out the heat, but isn't required.

Step 2 is having a pair of industrial-strength oven mitts. You will need to pull your scorchingly hot pot from the blazing oven and set it someplace where it won't set the kitchen on fire and cause yourself third-degree burns.

Step 3 is having the dough close at hand and the determination to work fast because you need to take off the mitts, slip the dough into the pan, put on the mitts, get the pan into the oven, slam on the lid and shut the door. Whew. Oh, then turn the temperature down.

Step 4 is to hang around for 25 minutes, at which point you should remove the lid and give the bread another 20 to 25 minutes to finish baking. Then get those mitts back on and pull out your crackling crust creation.

Posted by at March 31, 2011 6:01 AM

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