Congratulations, you made it to the final part of your baking bread journey!
You’re about to reap the fruits of your mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping and scoring labour. It’s time to transform your dough into delicious bread. Baking bread in a conventional oven at home only needs a few considerations and adjustments to give you that crisp, caramel crust and airy crumb.
Whether it’s a fan (convection) or non-fan (conventional) oven, you can cook great bread in both as long as you know your oven well. What you need is intense heat and steam – both of which home ovens need a little assistance with.
What temperature should you bake your bread at?
Oven temperature is important, and you should follow your specific recipe for it, but most breads are cooked at a high heat to create leavening steam inside the bread. Fan ovens cook faster than non-fan do since they distribute heat better, so lower the temperature by 20°C.
The standard bread baking temperature is somewhere between 220C (430F) and 250C (482F) which gives a nice coloured bread with good texture, otherwise known as The Maillard reaction. This is a chemical reaction that occurs during baking, giving baked goods their golden brown colour and caramelized flavour.
Preheating your oven for at least an hour is best as it allows every part of it to reach an even temperature. This even temperature allows you oven to maintain the heat easier when you put the bread in.
A Dutch oven is essential. With its thick cast iron walls, ensuring a temperature-stable baking environment, and heavy lid trapping steam essential for your crust formation, it’s a sure-fire way to achieve an artisan loaf worthy of a place on a bakery’s shelf.
The heat of a Dutch oven remains much more constant than the heat in a conventional oven at home, giving you a strong, radiant heat. But the big win here is steam. When unbaked dough, with all its interior moisture, is put inside your Dutch oven, precious humidity is captured in the form of steam. The steam keeps the crust soft longer, so it can continue to expand during the early stages of baking. This is far better in terms of results than spritzing your oven with water or putting a pan of water into the oven.
Preheat your Dutch oven in your oven on the highest heat for about an hour.
Remove it carefully from the oven, tip the dough seam-side down into the pot using parchment paper, score it as quickly as possible, then place the lid and put it back in the oven.
Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on and then 15-20 minutes without the lid to allow maximum heat and evaporation at the surface, and thus maximum development of the scrumptious crispy crust.
Although a pre-heated Dutch oven is your miniaturized version of a professional steam-injected baker’s oven, the limitations are its size. If you are making baguettes or more than one loaf at a time then you will have to use a baking stone. Baking without a Dutch oven will mean working a little harder to create and maintain the best baking environment.
Investing in a baking stone is worthwhile as it’s a hardy and versatile bit of kit. Often referred to as pizza stones, this large thick piece of stoneware absorbs and retains heat, providing a consistent source of radiant heat despite fluctuations or hot spots in your oven. Since the stones retain so much heat, they also help keep the oven at a much more even temperature and make up for some of the heat that is lost when you open the door to put your dough in.
Bread needs an initial push of heat to rise properly and the hot surface of the stone provides this direct thrust of heat that your heated oven air can’t which is great for pizzas too. Another advantage is the stone’s slightly porous surface draws moisture from the dough to produce a more definitive, crisp, and tasty bottom crust. What’s not to love?
Put your stone on the bottom rack of your oven to replicate the brick floor of a traditional baker’s oven and preheat your oven on the maximum setting. A stone heats up slowly so you may need over an hour to do this.
Add steam - either place an oven proof dish filled with water either above or below the baking stone at the beginning of your preheat or 20 minutes before you want to bake but with boiling water.
You can spray your preheated oven with water using a spray bottle as you put your bread in to bake. A bottle that you might use for ironing or spritzing house plants is ideal. Put the dough on to a dusted bread peel or an upside down baking tray, score it and then slide the dough onto the stone in the oven. Spray the sides of the oven generously and the dough and shut the door. Work quickly and carefully here to keep the heat in and avoid burning yourself.
Never put a cold stone in a hot oven – it may well crack and nobody wants that.
With both methods, remember to turn the oven down to the recommended temperature specified on the recipe once you have put your dough in the oven.
Tips for your best bake
For a cripsy crust
Controlling the crust is mostly to do with moisture, less so about temperature. Steam in the oven is crucial to making a crusty loaf of bread but only for the first 5 - 10 minutes, until the bread begins to brown. Adding steam later in the bake cycle will cause a harder, thicker, crisper crust to form. Be careful of over steaming the breads. Over steaming will result in flattened breads and a thick chewy crust as well as reduced oven spring.
If you are getting an uneven crust, try lowering the temperature about 10 degrees.
For more crispness, some bakers open the oven at the end of baking, leaving the loaf in for 5 minutes or more with the door open.
If your crust is nearly done but the inside of your loaf is not, loosely cover the top with a sheet of foil. Don’t close it up to trap any moisture but it will act as a shield to prevent further browning whilst the interior continues to cook.
Use parchment paper to prevent sticking and a burnt bottom
A layer or several layers of parchment paper go a long way. Not only does it make transferring and moving the dough around easier but it adds a thin layer of insulation to prevent an over-baked bottom crust and prevents the dough sticking to a preheated surface. Why not try cutting it into a sling shape to help that tricky move into the oven.
Buy a temperature gauge
One of the most common baking problems is caused by inaccurate oven temperatures. Some ovens run hotter than you think, causing your bread to burn and the inside to remain a bit gummy. Plus be aware of hot spots, especially near the walls of your oven. Buying an oven thermometer that hangs on one of the racks will help keep track of those hot spots and give you a better idea of what temperature the oven actually is.
Check the oven seal
An important thing to have on an oven is a good seal. If the seal between the oven door and the oven isn’t tight enough to hold in steam, you’re going to lose that precious moisture and your bread isn’t going to be as good as it should. You can check your oven seal by pouring some boiling water into a baking tray in a hot oven and watching for steam escaping from the door. If there’s no steam escaping, you’re all good in the steaminess-hood ;-)
Keep an eye on your loaf
Regular check-ups are a good idea especially if you’re not sure how your bread is going to bake. Baking is the last stage but it’s also the last variable so be on the look-out. Definitely check your bread 10 – 15 minutes before the end of the recommended baking time to make sure it isn’t browning too fast and it’s doing what you expect.
How can you tell when your bread is baked?
Your bread should pull away from the side of the loaf pan or Dutch oven and the surface should be firm. With practice, you’ll soon be able to tell just by looking at your loaf but the crust will be dry and a flavoursome golden brown colour. If the crust is pale, pop it back in the oven for a few minutes.
Get your artisan hat on, and tap the bottom of your loaf. If it sounds hollow, then your bread mission is complete. Put it on a cooling rack and wait till it has fully cooled down. It’s important to allow bread to cool to complete the cooking process as the excess moisture evaporates.
Bread usually tastes best the day it is made so rip it open and enjoy.