Making bread at home is a supremely inconvenient pastime. It takes hours, makes the kind of mess I haven’t managed for years and produces – too often – a disappointing results. In my new bread bible, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David calls home-baked bread crusts ‘leathery’. We want thick, hard, crunchy crusts.
She’s got a point. To understand why, we need to return to first principles. Why does bread get a crust? The crust is the interface between the hot oven and the fairly cool bread/dough. It’s a thin layer of dough that gets cooked to high hell by – in a real bread oven – something like 500 Roman Catholic degrees of heat. Think of it like a potato. If you boil them, so that the outside is exposed to nothing higher than 100°C, the result is soft and pale. Shove them into a deep fryer and something closer to 190°C and you get a crust. It’ll colour, it’ll crunch and, hey presto, it’s a chip.
This simply doesn’t happen in domestic ovens because they’re too darn lukewarm. My oven won’t go higher than 250°C (according to its thermostat), which – by way if context – is a bit like trying to cook an egg in hot bathwater. It’ll eventually happen, just not quite like you’re used to.
I built a wood-fired and brick-built bread oven last summer, and have used it almost exclusively for burning things. It uncanny. Put a pizza in the electric oven at full whack and it’ll still be soggy after ten minutes. In the brick oven, it’s burned to a cinder after two.
The weird thing is that these thing actually cook, properly and all the way through, in this extreme heat. Part of the reason is that the heat is radiated – that’s to say it flies invisibly through the air like the sun’s rays or the heat from a grill/broiler – rather than simply being mashed about by a breeze of very warm air. This heat comes from all directions, not just the base, not just the fire, but the whole great domed roof.
Best of all, it makes steam. Steam, slightly counter-intuitively, is the vital factor in making a decent crust. Steam gives the baguette (invented in 1920) its delectably glazed, crackly crust. That steam is totally artificial though. In something called the Vienna process, a heap of superheated water is dashed into the very long industrial ovens they use. Wood fired ovens are so quick they don’t even need that. The moisture from the loaf itself provides a quick, localised steamy ball that looks after crust development.
Getting good crusts at home should demand two things: lots of heat and lots of steam. This is harder than it sounds. Firstly, turning the oven to the absolute most completely highest temperature setting its got is a must. That’s nowhere near high enough, but its the best we can do.
Next comes steam. The prevailing wisdom for a long time now has been to put a dish of hot water at the bottom of the oven. This works to a certain extent, and can certainly help crust development, but is often a hindrance. Firstly, the chosen dish needs to be pretty heavy and extremely hot. The water needs to be a recently boiled a possible. Putting cold things into a hot oven will not make it any hotter,
The other suggestion is to fill a plant sprayed with water and give your oven a good squirt before closing the loaf in to do its business. Bright sparks like Richard Bertinet prefer this way of doing things, but again I can’t help but think that – though that might be brilliant in a supremely hot bakers’ oven – something more ingenious is needed to overcome out temperature issues.
Whatever method you choose, letting the steam out is the oft forgotten but pretty damned important bit. Crust formation has a lot to do with evaporation of moisture from the outside of the dough. Putting steam in the oven prevents that from happening, so – to get proper crust – letting the steaming bread dry out for a bit is just about essential. The folks at the Weekend Bakery make a big point of letting out the steam five minutes before finishing.
Elizabeth David has a very different, very effective and very well informed method of her own. She recommends covering the loaf with a large, ceramic bowl. The exact type of unglazed terracotta she recommends (and she is very specific) seems a little like overkill to me, but the premise of making a fake oven within and oven is very valid an idea indeed. This is how the first ovens worked. People put upside-down pots over loaves on hot stones, then stacked hot embers around them. In Cornwall, ‘bakers’ and ‘kettles’ as they were known, were in common use as recently as the 1930s.
My interpretation of her method is to put the bread into a thoroughly pre-heated cast iron casserole – something that David doesn’t recommend. Unfortunately, this bears a distinct similarity to Jim Lahey’s ultra-hyped no-knead bread (I rather knead than spend a whole day proofing, but that’s just me). Nevertheless, it seems to work wonders – especially with very high hydration doughs that are apt to spread and tumble.
Drop the proofed loaf into the hot casserole, slash, cover and cook for about half an hour. Take off the lid for the last fifteen minutes and, whatever you do, don’t forget to have greased, floured and semolina’d your pot.