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.
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.
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.