Getting a great crust on bread

Sometimes the crust was disappointing so I’ve been doing some reading to try to improve my method.

Firstly I found slashing the surface just before baking is not just for decoration, but to let the gases escape during hearing and allow the bread to rise whilst baking. I tried slashing with a sharp knife but it seemed to drag the dough and not cut deeply or cleanly. I then found out about something called a ‘lame’, so bought one of these. I got two types in a set, both are really razor blades in a handle. My favourite curves the blade onto a metal handle and does a lovely job of scoring round loaves.

The second holds the blade flat, and I still find this hard to use – the corner of the blade catches on the dough.

It also helps to spray the surface with water just as it goes into the oven as this makes stream. There’s a lot of different opinions about steam baking bread, but I find a flat tray of water pre-heated in the oven improves the crust.

Dutch ovens for bread-baking was the next thing I found out about, and bread baking cloches are also talked about a lot. But these are very pricey and it’s just another specialist own to find a home for in the kitchen, and they are quite big!

My first attempt was using my old and much-used, large, oval Le Crueset cast iron casserole. Because the best results are when the Dutch oven is pre-heated, it was tricky getting the dough into the lower casserole dish without catching my hand on the hot metal. However, it made a nice crusty loaf.

Something called the Challenger, also cast iron so heavy, looked interesting. It has a low bottom pan and a large, high-domed top. The low pan means it’s easy to pop the proved dough in without burning your hands. but ridiculously priced, so not for me. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but no way I could justify paying that price- making my own bread is an economic as well as a dietary issue. I can’t see why people pay £3 or more for a sourdough loaf at the artisan bakers when they can bake that own for the cost of flour and power!

So, I put my thinking cap on. I have a pizza stone and a large Pyrex mixing bowl which made a reasonable cloche. However, these were not very air tight, but still made a better crust than straight on the shelf.

The Challenger’s shape reminded me of a Pyrex Chicken Roaster I used to have – the lid got broken many years ago. I checked out if its ok to heat Pyrex empty in the oven, and the consensus send to be ‘yes’. So I took the plunge and spent £13 on a new one of these.

This has worked very well. It has a low sided bottom pan, so it’s easy to put the dough in. It pre-heats really well and isn’t as heavy as cast iron. The roaster seems to seal pretty well so the dough makes steam. Finally, the bread is great. I am happy!

I heat the (fan) oven for 20 minutes to 220 C with the roaster in from cold. I cook a 600g boule for 30 minutes in the lidded roaster, then remove the lid for the last 20 minutes to brown it nicely.

I may not use this every time as finding the right sized bowls to prove two smaller loaves has not been easy. So only large boules made so far, but that’s the next challenge.

Update July 2022

After some thought I have purchased an oval banneton basket with a linen liner. This has proved useful as it makes a better loaf for the Pyrex roaster’s shape. Because of this I have also been able to moved on to making higher hydration sourdough; the most successful has been about 70%, and gives a lovely holey crumb. I tried 75%, but found the dough really difficult to handle.

Another useful tool has been a 20cm (8 inch) plasterer’s spatula. This is excellent for shaping and moving high hydrated dough around on the work top. I think I saw this in a King Arthur video on YouTube, and it’s a great tip!

A plasterers spatula and Banetton basket with a loaf baked in the Pyrex roaster