Monday, 23 June 2014

Getting a Crisp Crust

If you check out some baking web sites and blogs, you will find that one of the biggest issues is about getting a nice crisp crust on your bread. The answer is providing steam in the oven during the early part of baking. Professional bakers use sealed ovens that have steam pipes to provide steam just when it is needed. Unfortunately most domestic ovens are not sealed and have no provision for creating steam. 

The simple answer is to put some cold water (or even ice cubes) in a hot dish in the bottom of the oven as set out in this recipe. Too little water will not produce enough steam and too much will stop the crust crisping. So measure it accurately and if there is any water left in the dish half way through the bake take it out and reduce the amount of water the next time.

Another option is to get a water spray/atomizer and squirt water into the oven several times during the early stages of baking. Some people swear by this technique but it does mean keeping opening the oven door.

The best method is to enclose the loaf during the early part of the bake (as the dough itself gives off steam) using a covered casserole dish, metal Dutch oven or a cloche (baking dome). Then remove the lid part way through baking so that the crust crisps up. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

Better Sourdough

Having worked my way through every combination of the variations in the previous post, I finally arrived at the one method that works for me every time and produces really good bread. I usually bake in the morning so the following method starts in the evening, but if you want to bake in the evening just start in the morning, the steps are the same in either case.

This recipe will produce a 660g loaf (about 1½ pounds), using a bread tin or baking tray.

Flour 400g strong white bread flour
Water 220ml preferably filtered water at room temperature
Starter 100ml sourdough starter at room temperature
Salt   1 teaspoon preferably sea salt


Get the sourdough starter out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature for about 2 hours. Make a sponge by mixing the sourdough starter, water and half the flour but not the salt and leave it in the mixing bowl covered with cling-film overnight in a cool place.

In the morning remove the cling film and the sponge should be fermenting (thick and bubbly). Add the other half of the flour and salt and mix well. Add more flour or water if necessary but keep the dough as sticky as possible.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and satiny (around 10 minutes). 

Shape the dough and put it in a bread tin or on a baking sheet, dust with flour, cover with a tea towel and proof in a warm place for two to three hours until nearly doubled in size.

Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp bread knife and put it in on a low shelf in the oven. Put 100ml of water into an ovenproof dish in the bottom of the oven (to create steam) and set the oven to 230°C (190°C fan), 450°F or gas mark 8.  Bake for 35 to 40 minutes once the oven has got up to temperature or until the crust is golden, turn the oven off and leave the bread in the cooling oven, with the oven door slightly open, for another 5 minutes, then turn the loaf out onto a rack to cool for at least an hour.