What a crock, part 2

Success! After my recent post about baking bread in a Le Creuset crock pot (here) I tried again and had much better results.

Bursting at the seams… Fresh out of the oven.

So why did it work this time? Well I changed my whole approach based on what happened the first time round. For a start, my dough was dryer than before, a wholesome blend of spelt, wholemeal, rye and plain flour (35/35/20/10, percentage geeks). I also baked the whole loaf as one (usually I turn a kilo of dough into two loaves, but given the size and capacity of the Le Creuset (a 27cm oval) the size of the fermented dough seemed to fit better (and therefore, I assumed, would benefit more from the proximity of the scorching hot cast iron enamel ‘walls’ surrounding it). Here’s the dough in all its glory, ready for baking:

It's alive! A well risen, bubbly dough, ready for baking.

The only tricky bit I’m discovering about baking like this is getting the dough into the pot. When a dough has risen properly, the last thing you want to do is over handle it and risk knocking any of that precious air out, but getting it into the Le Creuset isn’t as simple as turning it out onto a baking stone. What’s more, once it’s in the pot (which is fiendishly hot anyway, so trying to carefully place it in there is impossible) it’s difficult to get in there and make slashes on the dough. So what I did was flour my hands, turn the loaf out gently into one hand, quickly slash the top of the dough and then sort of slide it into the pot. Lid on, back in the oven…

Fresh dough meet hot pot. Words cannot describe the joy of cold fermented dough coming into contact with 250°C cast iron. The sizzle, the wafts of steam, the immediate reaction of the dough… Love it.

So, temperatures: The crock-pot had gone into the oven cold and was brought up to the maximum oven temp (it’s a fan oven, so maybe it gets hotter than the 250°C on the dial). With the dough inside the pot, the lid on and the pot back in the oven, I reduced the temp to 220°C (fan) and left it for 30 mins. Then I removed the lid and gave it another 10 mins, before letting it cool completely on a rack.

And the results? Well, I’m very happy with this new way of baking. The spring of the dough seemed really pronounced, but also quite wild and irregular (you can see how it split beyond the slashes, always a good sign of ferocious expansion). I loved how dark and crackly the crust became, it seems much more ‘scorched’ than usual oven-baking. The texture is great too, it’s a strong, crunchy crust, but it’s also quite thin and chewy (to get the same crunchiness in the oven, I would have had to bake it for longer and risk drying out the loaf). And on the moisture scale, the crumb is lovely and soft here, and it has stayed that way for three days now. It’s not the most well-formed crumb in the world, but then again, I didn’t use much strong flour (only the spelt I guess, the wholemeal, rye and plain white are all quite ‘soft’ in gluten terms). Next up I’m going to try a strong white/spelt blend and see if I can get the bread to lift the lid off the Le Creuset!

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Hunk of pâté, chunk of gooey cheese, bottle of red and the rest of the day off? It's gotta be done.

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What a crock

©William Thomas 2012

100% spelt sourdough loaves freshly baked inside a Le Creuset crock

I’ve been baking bread at home for around four years now. While I enjoy using sourdough starters and emulating a stone based oven with a thick tile, the holy grail for me has always been a proper bread oven, something with a brick interior that absorbs the heat of a long firing and radiates that ferocious heat back to the bread for maximum crust formation and oven spring. There are many shapes and sizes, dating back to Roman times, but I would ideally want something like this. Hey, it’s my dream.

One alternative to baking in a proper Roman oven, so I’d heard, is to use a heavy enamelled crock, such as a Le Creuset. Left in a HOT oven, the entire pot becomes a sort of mini oven in itself, so when the bread is dropped in and the lid replaced, the radiant heat from all sides, not to mention the trapped steam, cooks the bread far more intensely than a normal domestic oven can. Well, it turns out I got one of these for Christmas, so let the baking fun begin…

Not being much of a scientist, of course my first foray was a rubbish experiment. I couldn’t get hold of my normal flour (Burcott Mill’s wonderful Glastonbury spelt) and ended up using Dove’s farm spelt, which I’ve never used before. As all flours are different, it’s hard to get consistent results when you use a new one, especially the first time.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (if you really want to know about sourdough bread baking, my best advice would be to get yourself a copy of Dan Lepard’s excellent The Handmade Loaf) I ended up making a very wet dough (70% hydration) which might have scuppered my desire to get a really dramatic oven ‘spring’ (the magical bit when the heat of the oven expands the air trapped inside the loaf and it blooms). As you can see from the pic above, the loves came out a little flat, but having said that, the quality and colour of the crust itself was very encouraging.

And the results? Well, I definitely need to experiment more here, but as a first foray, I’m simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. I guess I was expecting miracles, but that’s not how bread works. It’s a process, and when you change any part of the process, you change the finished loaf. I guess I’ll just have to adjust my method. But as you can see, the crumb is lovely and open, even though the dough ‘flowed’ more than ‘sprang’ in its first stages. The overall bread is different to usual, it definitely feels like it hasn’t dried out as much and has retained more moisture in the crumb, but at the same time it feels like it’s better cooked.

As to the taste, well, that was never in question really. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that good organic stoneground flour, made overnight with sourdough starter and plenty of salt, is always going to taste good, no matter how it’s cooked. But with the added sweet dark crust, this is a lovely tasting loaf, perfect for cheese and ham sandwiches. And as it’s nearly lunchtime, that’s exactly what I’m going to have. Right. Now.

©William Thomas 2012

Good crust, nice crumb, who's hungry?