One of the things sadly lacking in home bread recipes is the nice crust. In the US, the tendency is towards bread baked in loaf pans with a milk or egg wash which makes the crust soft. Yet when we go out, we love the crusty French and sourdoughs from the bakery.
Bakers use injectable steam ovens or wood fired ovens to create a humid atmosphere. The crust stays soft for the first part of baking, the oven spring is much better and a nice crust is formed in the second half of baking.
In order to make these breads at home, two things are necessary. First, a baking stone will help you achieve a well-risen, free-form, crusty loaf of bread. If you are a beginner, you may shy away from the expense, but if you bake much homemade bread, you should consider buying one (cost: about $US50.00. King Arthur Flour often offers free shipping on theirs and you can compare prices on other baking stones here:
Secondly, you need steam in your oven and there are three good ways to do this, probably more.
The first way is how I usually do it. After you practice a few times, it will be second nature.
- Start by preheating your oven to 500°F or what the homemade bread recipe calls for. Place an old aluminum pan on the bottom rack and your baking rack and stone (if you have one) on the next level up.
- To bake, place the bread in the oven directly on the baking stone or with a cookie sheet on the rack. Pull out bottom rack with old pan and pour about 2 cups of water into it. Close the door quickly. If you have a spray bottle with water, open oven after 3 and 6 minutes and give 10 quick squirts onto the walls of the oven. Turn oven down to 450°F (or follow recipe) after that and bake according to the recipe, or until internal temperature of the bread reaches 180 - 190°F.
- Some people have problems with this method; if you spray your oven light bulb directly, it could burst, and sometimes the electronics in the oven are finicky and stop working if you spray, but for other people it works well. Be careful to stand back when you pour the water in because steam burns.
The second way is to use a cover over the bread itself. You can buy specially made clay bakers like this one from King Arthur or take a look at the clay bakers from Romertopf. You can also use a cast iron pan or dutch oven with lid.
- You preheat the cast iron pan and then place the dough in it and quickly put it back in the oven. Remove the lid halfway through baking to brown the crust. See example here.
- After placing the bread on the stone in the oven, carefully place a pan with plenty of headroom over the loaf. Remove after the first 15 minutes. Some people find this the simplest method and it avoids problems with steam burns or oven lights breaking as with the steam method.
Whichever method you choose, you will find a marked improvement in your artisanal breads.