Sunday, July 20, 2014

Crispy Crust

I thought I knew all the bread-baking tricks, but apparently, there is one I missed.  Back when I was at home full time with a houseful of babies, I made a serious study of baking bread.  One thing that I couldn't quite master was achieving a crusty bakery-style loaf in my dinky home oven.  All of the cookbooks agreed that steam was the secret and usually advised that you put a roasting pan full of boiling water in your oven.  This was supposed to give you a crispy crust, but it never quite worked and was enormously labor intensive.  One cookbook advised pre-heating a dry roasting pan and tossing a handful of ice cubes into it just before baking.  I tried this and the impact of the ice on the hot pan seared a good three inch gash into the enamel on my roasting pan.  This was certainly dramatic, but did not result in a crispy crust.

Recently, I read South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David and discovered a crispy crust tip I wasn't aware of.  In case you are not familiar with her, Elizabeth David was one of England's great cookbook authors.  She worked in Egypt during WWII and developed a taste for Mediterranean cooking.  Back in England after the war, rationing severely limited the British diet.  As a way of cheering herself and her fellow countrymen, she wrote The Book of Mediterranean Food, even though at the time it was published, most of the ingredients it called for were unattainable.  She went on to publish several more cookbooks.  Elizabeth David was also a food scholar and her books include recipes for historic dishes and essays on the origins of certain recipes. Although many of her recipes are simple, I find her to be a bit intimidating and whenever I cook an Elizabeth David dish, it is something of a project.

Anyway, in this essay on bread baking, she recommends baking your bread under an inverted earthenware bowl in order to obtain a perfect crust.  I absolutely had to try this, right away.  I figured my antique yellowware bowl would be perfect to invert over the loaf as it baked.

I used David's Coburg loaf recipe, from the same book, originally published in English Bread and Yeast Cookery.  It's a very basic bread recipe with only four ingredients: water, salt, yeast, and flour.  Elizabeth recommends baking it on an "earthenware platter" which I assumed was something like a pizza stone.  You mix the ingredients as is usual for bread, and for the second rising, form it into a nice little round cushion.

As I preheated the oven, I began to have second thoughts about my yellowware bowl.  Was it really oven safe?  I was sure I'd read somewhere that old yellowware is safe to put in the oven, but the internet refused to confirm it.  And even it was oven safe, did that mean it was OK to invert it over a pizza stone?  I imagined the bowl exploding when I tried to lift it off the bread.  I saw myself sitting in the triage chair in the ED with a disfigured face and a shard of pottery embedded in my eye.  I chickened out and used my cast iron Dutch oven instead.

You bake this entire contraption at 475° for about 30 minutes and then lift off the cover.  (This is hot work.  Make sure you have superior oven mitts.) Continue to bake, uncovered, until the loaf is done.

This is how the bread looked after I took the cover off.

Here is how it looked when it was finished baking.

It stuck to the pizza stone, but I scraped it off.

The crust was perfect.  My kids' verdict?  "Just like a bakery."


  1. !!!!!!!
    I am geekily excited about this and cannot wait to give it a try myself! On a related note, I somehow accidentally made a ciabotta recently that really was almost as good as ABC's. They are not in danger of any competition any time soon. I love baking breakthroughs!

  2. As a fan of the crisp crust, THANK YOU for this tutorial!

  3. I love baking bread from scratch, but this is one technique I have not tried yet. I'm definitely going to work on this.