One of the things sadly lacking in home bread recipes is the nice crust. In the U.S., the tendency is towards bread baked in loaf pans with a milk or egg wash which makes the crust soft. Yet when we go out, we love the crusty French and sourdoughs from the bakery.
Bakers use injectable steam ovens or wood fired ovens to create a humid atmosphere. The crust stays soft for the first part of baking, the oven spring is much better and a nice crust is formed in the second half of baking.
In order to make these breads at home, two things are necessary. First, a baking stone will help you achieve a well-risen, free-form, crusty loaf of bread. If you are a beginner, you may shy away from the expense, but if you bake much homemade bread, you should consider buying one (cost: about $50.00 USD).
Secondly, you need steam in your oven. Here are three good ways to accomplish this.
- Start by preheating your oven to 500°F or what the homemade bread recipe calls for. Place an old aluminum pan on the bottom rack and your baking rack and stone (if you have one) on the next level up.
- To bake, place the bread in the oven directly on the baking stone or with a cookie sheet on the rack. Pull out the bottom rack with old pan and pour about 2 cups of water into it. Close the door quickly. If you have a spray bottle with water, open the oven after 3 and 6 minutes and give 10 quick squirts onto the walls of the oven. Turn oven down to 450°F (or follow the recipe) after that and bake according to the recipe, or until internal temperature of the bread reaches 180 - 190°F.
Some people have problems with this method; if you spray your oven light bulb directly, it could burst, and sometimes the electronics in the oven are finicky and stop working if you spray, but it works well for other people. Be careful to stand back when you pour the water in because steam burns.
Use a cover over the bread itself.
- Preheat the cast iron pan and then place the dough in it and quickly put it back in the oven. Remove the lid halfway through baking to brown the crust. See example here.
Some people find this the simplest method and it avoids problems with steam burns or oven lights breaking as with the steam method.
- Find a pan which covers the bread and sits directly on the stone or sheet. A foil roasting pan or a more permanent cover like a deep, steam tray pan will do the trick.
- After placing the bread on the stone in the oven, carefully place a pan with plenty of headroom over the loaf. Remove after the first 15 minutes.
Whichever method you choose, you will find a marked improvement in your artisanal breads.