One option would be to buy a reconditioned rack oven and convert the garage into my own dream bakery. But, back on planet Earth, I looked for a slightly easier solution. I read about Dutch ovens - a cast iron casserole with a tight-fitting lid would create the steamy atmos I wanted, while at the same time ensuring an even heat distribution and protecting it from burning. I looked online for likely candidates, while Tallboy carefully measured inside the oven. I flirted for a while with this large specimen from Lakeland, but finally lit on this fine example from Ikea, and its friend.
I've been using them for a couple of months and I'm really pleased with the results. I put them into the oven before I turn it on, so that they heat up gradually. I decant the proved loaves from the banneton straight onto a piece of silicone liner, then drop this gently into the hot casserole, slamming the lid on quickly to keep in the heat and steam. I bake at my normal bread temperature (230° C, or rather 210° C in my oven) and leave the lids on for 20 or 25 minutes, then complete the bake topless, leaving the lids on the hob. This gives a lovely rise during the first session, and much better browning during the second. During my initial recuperation from the car accident when I couldn't lift, Tallboy and I got quite good at the ballet sequences involved in my opening the oven door and his removing/replacing the casseroles, but since his motorbike accident coincided with the return of my ability to lift things it's a solo effort nowadays.
Some observations about using a Dutch oven for baking bread:
- Maximum of two loaves at a time - I could do four direct on the baking stones.
- I made sure that the handles on the lids were cast iron too, rather than plastic which might not have been so happy at high bread-baking temperatures
- They get hot. I mean really hot. Seriously hot. So hot that I have hurt myself simply by touching the outside of the oven gloves I used to get them out of the oven.
- I haven't yet gone to pick up a discarded lid with bare hands to tidy it away while still searingly hot. But I fear that one day I will.
- They don't do so well if the loaf is small - it needs to take up a decent volume inside the casserole or it will pancake.
- I have found that the round one works best with my 500g round bannetons, and the oval one with my 1kg oval banneton.
- You can use baking parchment to decant the proved loaves onto but it chars after a few times in the oven.
- Having cast iron casseroles in your batterie de cuisine makes you feel strangely grown up.
- They have helped me produce loaves of which I'm really, really proud.
- Baked on flour residue makes for an attractive spotty finish on the lids. Or so I tell myself.
- The oval one is bigger than the round one. It won't fit on the bottom of the oven, no matter how many times you try.
Here are some pictures from some of today's batch (50% stoneground spelt, 50% strong white)
Silicone liner for decanting proved loaves
The big oval casserole
After twenty minutes - beautifully risen but pale as you like
After another fifteen or so minutes, now with crust
The smaller round casserole
After twenty minutes
At the end of the bake
Round loaf sitting up and looking pretty