Yes, yes, yes...more about bread! When I set out to learn something, I don't stop until I feel that I have a deep understanding of what I set out to learn in the first place. My bread journey is no different.
Until today, I hadn't yet hit the bread grand slam I was hoping for. Now, however, I think I've finally got it. Big, airy holes, and a crust to put a smile on the face of any bread lover. A quick preview...
Now that I've started your mouth to watering, let me take a turn and share a few revelations, and the steps that led me to the wonderful, and much desired result I achieved today...
Up to now, I can't say that I was disappointed in my bread results, but making crusty bread in a traditional oven is not the 'slam dunk' one might think. The biggest issue for me had been capturing/producing steam in the first 10-15 minutes of baking, which, from everything I had read, is really the way to take a boule from good to exceptional.
I kept reading about the 'song' of the crust, which, to my understanding, is a crackling that takes place after the bread is removed from the oven.
I don't have a professional deck oven, and one is not going to be built into my kitchen any time soon. I have baking tiles, which I love, and that work beautifully for the bottom of the bread, but what about the rest? Well, there is something called a 'cloche', which is a clay bell that sets over the bread right after it's put into the oven. The bell shape of the cloche captures the steam produced by the moisture in the bread in the first several minutes of baking. Once removed, the bread continues to bake, and the crust browns up as it should.
This steaming is what I had been missing.
Not one to spend money on something unless I know it's going to work well, I decided to do a cloche test. I took my large clay baker (which I haven't used in many, many years - I think it was a wedding gift, and I've been married to my husband for almost 20 years!), I inverted the bottom, and I used it as a make-shift cloche. I heated it in the oven, with the baking tiles. Once the oven was to temperature, and my bread had rested sufficiently, I slid it onto the tiles, and covered it with the inverted clay baker bottom.
After about 10 minutes, I removed the lid. The loaf was beautifully risen, with a steamy sheen. Perfect! I left the bread to continue baking, uncovered. When I removed it, the crust started to crackle! This is what I had been missing. This, I think, is the 'song' I have heard so much about.
But what about the texture of the crust and the inside? The crust looked and felt extremely promising, but was the inside going to be full of those big holes I was so hoping for? Well, it was close, but still not quite what I imagined in my mind's eye, and knew was possible.
There's no question the bread, which is the same recipe I have been making lately, was better. More moist on the inside, crustier on the outside, but still not the home run I was hoping for. I really wanted a grand slam, and I had enough dough to try one more time.
What was I missing?
I decided to take a look at Chad Robertson's suggestion of baking in a cast iron dutch oven, or combo cooker. Chad Robertson appears to be the God father of bread making, and his Tartine Bread cookbook has an almost narcotic affect on me! If he says the best way to duplicate the results of a professional deck oven is with a cast iron dutch oven or combo cooker, I trust he knows what he's talking about. I have a cast iron dutch oven, but I needed something as a base.
I ran out to my local market, which also happens to carry many non-food items, including kitchen appliances, clothing, furniture, etc. I quickly located the cast iron section, and found a griddle that would make a great base for my make-shift combo cooker. With the low edge, it would make it far easier to slide the bread onto the hot griddle without burning myself. As luck would have it, it was on sale - $16.49.
I already had the dutch oven. I just removed the lid, which I wouldn't need for baking my bread, and it was ready to serve as a lid over my griddle.
I simply turned it upside down, placed it on top of the griddle, and instant 'combo cooker'!
It's my humble opinion that this little cast iron 'cooker' made all the difference in the world, and I finally achieved the bread I'd been imagining. It was crusty, chewy, airy perfection!
Not just a beautiful, crackling crust, but big, beautiful holes on the inside. I'm very pleased, and feeling like I hit this nail squarely on the head. Bakery quality? In texture, I think so.
I think the flavor could use just a little more work, but it's damn good, and anything I lose in flavor, I more than make up for when I slice into a warm loaf. =)
Finally, the grand slam. What I had imagined was now sitting in front of me. I'm so very proud of this loaf of bread. I'm so glad I didn't give up trying.