Baker’s Secret # 3 – Location, Location, and Location

Fully Proofed Loaf in Baker's Parchment

The location of which I speak here is the environment of your bread baking – in most cases, your oven. One of the earliest recognitions to occur to most home bakers is that their kitchen oven lacks a few characteristic advantages that commercial bakers have – its size, heating ability, hot and cool spots, and faulty thermostats are a few of the big disadvantages – but the biggest home oven failing of all to quality baking is that almost all home ovens have no ability to introduce moisture to the oven’s interior during baking, and moisture is an absolute for top quality breads.

In terms of location, most home ovens are like Arizona – you know, hot and dry. That may be fine for humans, but it’s not us getting baked in our home ovens – what we really need for our breads is The Amazon – hot and wet! Commercial ovens come with moisture injectors which automatically or manually increase the humidity of an oven whenever it’s needed – that’s perfect – not so home ovens.

Yes, there are ways of increasing -somewhat- the humidity of our kitchen oven when we bake, but frankly, I think all of them have at least one or more negatives. I have a little spray bottle that I use for that purpose, but of course, it requires that the oven door is opened to spray, and that lets the heat out (do you realize how much heat is lost from your oven every time you open the door? Google it for a shock!). I’ve also used a heavy pan in the bottom of the oven, and when it was super hot, I’ve poured boiling water, or ice cubes, into it – that’s better than the spray bottle, because it keeps on working for 5 minutes or more, without loosing any heat! But, what pan do you use? If you use a ‘light’ pan, you risk damaging it through warping (and over time, even medium weight pans will begin showing damage) – and if you use a heavy cast iron pan, after a few uses, the carefully seasoned pan will have lost all its beautiful seasoning. And if you simply toss a few ice cubes into the bottom of your oven, you’re asking for trouble, my friend – the floor of most home ovens is not made for that kind of sudden temperature fluctuation.

But of course, I have a better idea – an idea I honed during my hiatus – and here it is.

For several years now, I have continually gone back to a baking process first introduced by a guy by the name of Jim Lahey in 2006 – at that time, Lahey shared his ideas with Mark Bittman of The New York Times, who of course wrote an article in the paper, and as they say, the rest is history! It was an incredibly popular article, and millions of people learned a new way to bake an artisan loaf – if you’ve never tried it, you must do so.

Scored and Ready to Bake

Basically, Lahey’s idea was using only a tiny amount of baker’s yeast (a quarter of a teaspoon) in a very wet dough, and to give it a long (12-18 hours) proofing -with no kneading- before baking – but to me, his most valuable idea was that the baking of his loaf was then done in the confines of a heated dutch oven – he literally just plopped the risen lump of dough into the hot dutch oven, put the lid back on, and slipped it back into the oven to bake.

You see where I’m going here? Lahey effectively solves the problem of dry heat in a home oven! By baking the bread in a dutch oven -with a lid on- all the bread’s inherent moisture, and any extra you may spray on at the last moment, is captured within that confined environment, and the bread gets all the moisture it needs.

It’s beautiful, and I love Lahey’s ideas – but they are not without their own issues. And of course, I’ve also made improvements on them – first, the issues.

With Lehey’s process, he has you taking a mass of risen dough and dropping it into a super heated dutch oven, and then quickly putting the lid back on before getting it into the oven. There is no chance for scoring, or to make the loaf attractive on top – it is what it is, and frankly, it’ll make its own expansion marks, which are at times very beautiful in their own right. But sometimes they are not! Sometimes the expansion occurs at the side of the loaf – and yes, the loaf will ALWAYS have oven spring – sometimes shockingly so.

The other issue I have with Lehey’s process is that when it’s time to switch from wet heat to dry heat (half way through the baking), the best that Lehey’s process can do is to remove the lid – that’s not ideal, because now the loaf needs as much exposure to dry heat as it can get – and the sides of the pot do not allow that exposure.

My answer to these issues involves a very familiar product to bakers, but maybe not to home bakers – I speak of something called, Baker’s Parchment. BP is a highly temperature resistant paper sheet with a non-stick surface – it’s used by bakers to avoid having to grease or oil sheet pans, and it classically comes in a size that fits a full size commercial sheet pan. This is too big for most home ovens, but cut in half, BP will adapt itself to commercial half size sheet pans, which will fit in most home ovens.

I use Baker’s Parchment for many things, such as building my pizza prior to transfer to the oven stone (prevents sticking on the peel), as an extra protection in cake pans for especially problematic cakes, or just in any situation where you may wind up with a very dirty pan. In this case, I use a half sheet of BP inside a basket or bowl, in which I let my very wet dough rise/proof – I can then easily transfer my risen bread to the hot pot by grabbing two corners of the BP and neatly dropping it -right side up- into the heated pot. This allows you to easily score the risen bread before it goes into the pot, thereby avoiding any potential burns. Zip-Zap-Done! And you don’t risk losing any of your bread’s rise.

Baker’s Parchment is fairly expensive – especially if you buy it in small amounts. I used to get mine at our local chain grocery that had an in-store bakery – but then they started telling me that they couldn’t spare any, and that I could get it in the store’s bakery supplies section – No thank you. So I went over to our restaurant supply store and bought a box of 1000 sheets – that was 10 years ago, and I haven’t used half of it yet! If you bake a lot, it’s well worth the investment.

Finally, one last suggestion to round out this bundle of secrets – Lehey doesn’t remove his loaf from the dutch oven until the bread is well cooled – that’s not because that’s the ideal way to do it, it’s because it’s too damn hard to remove the loaf from the super hot pot at the half way point! However, by using the baker’s parchment with Lehey’s process, when the initial 25 minutes is done, and the lid is removed, it’s not that hard to remove the loaf from the pot, and to continue the rest of the bake on a stone or on a sheet pan – you’ll get a much better finish on your bread.

Fully Baked in Baker's Parchment

Are you still with us? Well, congratulations! You may not have noticed, but what we’ve done here today is to take what is arguably the easiest process known to man for baking a good loaf of artisan bread – and we made it easier – and safer. That’s pretty damn good – hope you agree.


P.S.,  I have a request of you – I’m still playing with the text of my posts, hopefully to make them more readable.  But I suspect that I’m the only one being helped.  Please comment, or email me if you wish (under About Drfugawe), and let me know if this text, or my previous smaller text, reads better on your browser.  Thanks.  (and if anyone could please tell me why, when I add a bit of text, such as this snippet, to the bottom of my previously saved draft, I can’t seem to get it in the same font as the rest of the post’s text, I would be most appreciative.)

About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
This entry was posted in Baking, Food and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Baker’s Secret # 3 – Location, Location, and Location

  1. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc

    I do exactly as you are suggesting, except I don’t take the bread out of the pot after the initial 25 minutes, I just take the lid off. I particularly like this technique for my small city oven which does not seem to get as hot as my bigger newer oven. I also picked up this technique from Lehey.

    In Australia, what you refer to as Baker’s Parchment is sold as baking paper in the supermarkets.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Glenda,
      I’m not yet entirely convinced that it’s worth the effort to take the loaf out of the pot half way through the bake – but I suspect that with Lehey’s very wet dough, the more it can dry out, the lighter will be the bread’s final texture – and of course, there’s a balance between that and how carmelized the outer crust will get in the time it takes to finish baking. As I say, I’m still playing with this part – but then, I’m always playing!

  2. pavlovdog says:

    It is posts like this one that make me wish I had the patience for baking! Nice work drfugawe! As for me…I’ll stick with being a cook…and eat the bakers efforts…Pav

  3. drfugawe says:

    I remember when, in the old days, I heard Mario Batali say, ‘I wish I could bake.’ That really surprised me, since I’d always been quite interested in both – but it got me interested in seeking the differences in them, and I now believe that cooking is the realm of ‘art’, and baking of science – at least, if one is to become proficient in either.

    Thanks for visiting my world, my friend.

    • pavlovdog says:

      I wouldn’t say art, although there is art involved in pâtisserie or as Anthony Bourdain calls them, the “Brain Surgeons” of the cooking world. I’d say being a cook is akin to being a craftsman. It’s all about skill, technique, dedication, and mindless repetition that makes you good at what you do. Baking… Yes Science perhaps… but there’s more as well, knowing when your dough is going to be running a fever by “feeling” the air or sensing humidity…it’s something that really can’t be taught. It’s really just out of my reach…and not for the lack of trying.

      No, Thank You!

  4. MC says:

    Hi Doc, I too use the baking paper trick. It works wonders! But I no longer follow the Lahey method of transferring the dough to a hot Dutch oven. What I have been doing for years is putting the dough inside a non-preheated Dutch oven, close the lid and put the whole thing inside a cold oven. I then turn on the oven to 470°F and bake for about 40 minutes. After 40 min, I remove the loaf (using the parchment paper to lift it) from the Dutch oven and put it directly on the rack, lower the temperature to 450°F (or 425° depending on the oven) and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes (or until it sounds hollow when tapped at the bottom). That method gets you terrific oven spring. I also always score the bread before putting it in the Dutch oven.
    By the way, it is wonderful to see your blog up and running again. I missed your voice and your wisdom!

    • drfugawe says:

      What a pleasure to see you again, MC! And your kind words are most gracious – for a very long time, I’ve considered you one of our (the serious home bakers) inspirations – and I’ve long enjoyed your depth of detail in your blog posts – I’m honored to see your comment.

      I will certainly try your procedure re the cold pot into a cold oven – quite interesting! I’ve always thought of the preheated pot as a boost to over spring – it’s interesting to see your opinion that this cold process gives you more oven spring than the preheated pot does. Yes, I will immediately do that.

      Thanks for visiting and renewing our contacts – much appreciation.

  5. MC says:

    Thank you, Doc! 🙂
    To come back to the cold method, I didn’t invent it. I first read about it years ago in an old French magazine, so it isn’t really new. But not that many people know about it here. Last November when I took a BBGA class with Richard Miscovich at JWU in Providence, RI, I had an opportunity to mention it and Richard decided to do a comparison baking test. We took two identical miches and baked one in a hot Dutch oven in a preheated oven and the other one in a cold Dutch oven and a cold oven. The cold one had a much better oven spring than the hot one. Andrew Janjigian, an associate editor (and passionate baker) at Cooks Illustrated was in attendance and said he would write it up in the magazine and lo and behold, his article is to be found under the title No-Knead Bread 3.00 p. 31 of the June 2012 issue of CI… He does things a bit differently though. He says to set the oven dial at 425°F and not to start the timer until this temperature is reached. After that, he bakes for 30 minutes with the lid on and 20 to 30 minutes with the lid removed. He doesn’t take the loaf out of the Dutch oven (maybe to minimize the risk of burns), He also says that the oven spring is identical to the one obtained with the hot method. I am sure he conducted testing that led him to this conclusion but at JWU, the cold method produced a strikingly better oven spring and I can document the fact as I photographed both loaves. 😉

    • drfugawe says:

      Oh I love this discussion – I’ve been thinking I was quite alone in this quest – I much appreciate your comments, and the revelation that other serious bakers are also curious about it – and I look forward to trying the cold bake approach at first opportunity (today’s bread is Nury’s Ciabatta Rye).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s