What is the best pot for your oven?
There is no doubt at all - you can achieve as good a result using a suitable pot in your oven as any baker can achieve in a state-of-the-art professional oven!
Steam is the secret. Steam is vital to the process known as “oven spring”. Professional ovens achieve steam by injection at the press of a button. Another press, and the steam is evacuated, allowing the crust to brown
A suitable pot achieves exactly the same result, because the tight-fitting lid will trap the steam that rises out of the dough as its heated. Removing the lid then enable the browning to occur and the crust to develop
We find the best and most reliable results come from using a cast-iron “dutch oven”, e.g. Le Creuset), a clay cloche such as Emile Henry or La Cloche, or by using a dedicated bread oven, such as a Rofco or Haussler with added steam. Dedicated bread ovens have thick stone shelves designed to store and transfer massive heat, similar to pizza ovens. We have heard that good results can be achieved with Aga or similar range-type ovens where the degree of heat retention is good
Inverted clay or ceramic pots or cloches work well in a conventional oven and are quicker to preheat. Good examples are the “Emile Henry” dome, “La Cloche” or the “Schlemmertopf”/”Romertopf” –type clay bakers. However, these are not very durable. They will crack or shatter easily if knocked or dropped and might may be poor value in the long term compared to a good quality cast iron dutch oven which should last a lifetime. On the other hand, they are very light so they are best if you have trouble lifting heavy cast iron pans
Do investigate getting a second-hand Le Creuset on eBay, as we have done. There is an obvious benefit – it will cost much less than a clay cloche and last forever. Another reason to do this is to avoid using your expensive new Le Creuset or Staub! The manufacturer recommends not overheating the pot, and overheating is indeed a common cause for problems that could invalidate the lifetime warranty! Having said that, we have baked a great many loaves in Le Creusets with no problems whatsoever! The interior might be be discoloured, scratched or the enamel lining may be chipped. No problem. As long as you use parchment paper as a liner, lowering your scored dough into the pan, then your loaf will be absolutely fine. Best not to use a pot with chipped enamel for other cooking as there may be a danger of enamel shards breaking off and entering your food! Also, make sure there is a good seal between the lid and the pot or steam will escape i.e. avoid chips on the rim or lid
A new, cheap, cast iron pot also makes sense for a bread baker. It need not have an enamelled interior
We sometimes demonstrate baking bread successfully under an inverted terracotta flowerpot on a stone in a conventional oven or even on a barbecue! Anything that successfully traps steam during baking should work well
We don’t really recommend using thin baking stones or steels for larger loaves because the initial release of heat is likely to be inadequate. Use baking stones for small loaves, baguettes or pizzas