This post is part of our 'This Is Fire' series, where our editors and writers tell you about the products they can't live without in the kitchen.
You know that feeling when a brilliant idea or product stares at you from your computer screen and you think to yourself why these brilliant ideas never occur to you? “Why didn’t I think of creating that product?” Yes. That feeling. It was what happened to me when I saw The Challenger Pan flirting with me on social media. My first thought, after that initial envy, was that it was just what I needed. And I am sorry, I was far too deeply smitten to remember what the second thought was. In a jiffy, I had filled in my phone number, address, and the credit card information and hit ‘pay.’ I was all in and giddy with anticipation for the pan’s arrival.
Challenger Breadware The Challenger Bread Pan
Radiates heat and stays hot
Seals well for steam building
Ergonomically designed handles
Takes longer to preheat
Learning curve to use properly
Before I say anything else, let me clarify that I am not an impulse buyer. Well, at least not usually. And I wasn’t always at ease with baking bread. The thought of me baking bread seemed far-fetched, even though I grew up eating bread made in rustic wood-fired tandoors and lived in places that had communal ovens for the whole neighborhood to bake bread in. All that changed in culinary school where we had a big and beautiful wood-fired oven. It was mainly used for teaching and practicing the art of pizza, but after we repeatedly begged, the pastry chef instructor agreed to teach us how to make bread in it. Our first few dozen loaves left us with soot-smeared faces and bruised egos. When I finally made a decent enough loaf that was tasted by people instead of the compost bin, I was dancing with joy.
I soon realized that it was difficult to recreate the exact same bread in my home kitchen. The bread with an airy, open crumb and blistered crust that crackled like a campfire was a distant dream. I tried many things and, while some of them produced good enough results, there was always something missing. I sacrificed many pizza stones while baking bread, used old kitchen towels dunked in water to create steam, and even used my Le Creuset, Lodge, and Staub Dutch ovens to act as bread-making devices. The Dutch ovens worked the best and produced loaves closer to what I was hoping for, but there were always challenges. Lowering bread into a hot Dutch oven is stressful and getting bread out of one is equally challenging. Plus, I was only able to make boules, but not batards. And the loaves always seemed to be slightly less brown on the sides. I was able to produce good tasting bread with all these methods, but what I wanted was a simpler and easier way to recreate the bread made in professional ovens..
It's why the Challenger Pan and I had a moment. It promised to make bread-baking at home a simple and no-fuss process. And it did! Firstly, it has a shallow base and domed lid. The base lets you lower bread into it with ease even when it is hot, and the domed lid provides the space for the loaf to expand. Since the base is lower, it also allows for more steam to build up, which the tight-fitting lid traps in, resulting in more oven spring, those few moments of final rising in the oven. The three sets of large handles are thoughtfully designed and let you maneuver the pan, whether you place it lengthwise or widthwise in the oven. As a side note, while you can grab the Challenger with regular oven mitts, it would be prudent to get a good set of extreme heat-resistant ones for handling the pan when it’s hot.
The oblong shape finally allowed me to make sourdough batards and demi-baguettes in my home oven, but there’s a lot more you can do with its 9 x 13-inch surface area. I am also going to let you in on a little secret: I bake most of my flat breads like naans, shirmal, pita, and barbari on the flat base of the Challenger pan. I also love making bagels in it. The pan holds the heat consistently which makes it possible to bake multiple batches of bread, one after the other. In a way, the Challenger pan acts like a commercial oven creating steam and heat all inside it.
I’ll admit there was a slight learning curve and I almost saw a repeat of my soot-smeared-face days as quite a few of my first attempts were of questionable quality. I quickly learned that, due to the radiating heat in the pan, I needed to adjust baking times because my breads were baking , and browning faster. I also learned that I had to preheat the pan for at least an hour at 500 degrees Fahrenheit and then lower the temperature to 425 degrees when baking. Thankfully, maintaining the seasoning on the pan is easy. After each bake, I simply put a very thin layer of flaxseed oil on the spots discolored by steam and simply slide it back in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. That’s really it, in terms of care.
The one downside of the Challenger Pan is that it is heavy at 22 pounds. It needs to be thick and heavy to perform like it does, but it can be a literal challenge to maneuver it around. My work-around is to store the base and the lid as two units and lift them up one by one. That way I don’t stress my wrists.
After using it for almost two years, I can say with conviction that it is a bread-baking device you definitely need if you are serious about bread. My love affair with it is still going strong and I am still discovering new things to bake in it.
Weight: 22 pounds | Material: Cast Iron | Dimensions: 15.4 x 10.5 x 5.4 inches
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Renu Dhar is a personal chef and culinary instructor who is passionate about making cooking approachable, developing easy and nutritious recipes, and finding tools that help make cooking fun and easy for everyone. She integrates her professional kitchen expertise, knowledge of ingredients and world cuisine to research and write for The Spruce Eats.