There’s nothing quite like cutting into a fresh loaf of sourdough. When I slice into a loaf and the crust crackles beneath my knife, leaving delightfully bronzed crumbs all over my counter, I know I’ve done a good job. In fact, that crust is one of my favorite parts of the loaf. It’s a key sign of a successful bake. It’s also due to every sourdough baker’s secret weapon: a dutch oven.
A dutch oven is a staple of a well stocked kitchen. If you’re a prolific cook, you probably already own one. But if you don’t, and you’re just starting out on your sourdough journey, you might be looking into buying one- and wondering if it’s really necessary. The answer is: yes. And also… no. Confused? Let’s get a little deeper into the basics of baking bread and the role a dutch oven plays.
Baking bread requires creating steam in the oven. Steam helps create a crispier loaf, while allowing the dough to rise more quickly due to a phenomenon known as “oven spring.” During the first 15 minutes of the bake, steam is essential to creating a crisp crust, as it allows the bread to expand before the crust fully sets. Baking bread without steam would cause the crust to develop too quickly, leading to a denser loaf.
So where does a dutch oven come in? A dutch oven is an enamel-coated cast iron pot that retains heat for longer than other materials. A Dutch oven retains moisture and traps the steam that rises from the bread as it bakes, resulting in a better rise and a crunchier crust. Using it is easy: simply place your proofed dough on a piece of parchment paper and into your preheated dutch oven. Covering the pot with the lid creates an additional layer of insulation, trapping steam inside and providing enough heat to create a perfect loaf of bread with a crispy exterior and chewy interior.
So do you need a dutch oven? I’d certainly recommend it if you want to achieve the best results with your bake. But if you’re tight on space, or just looking to keep things as streamlined as possible, you can hack it by creating steam in your oven. To do so, place a sheet pan on the bottom rack of your oven and preheat. Place another pan right under your bread. Once the oven is preheated, load your bread in to the top pan and pour some water into that empty bottom pan. Make sure to close your oven door as quickly as you can, so the steam that’s evaporating from the water in that bottom pan doesn’t escape. After 15-minutes, open the oven door and remove that water pan from the bottom shelf. That’s it! While the results won’t compare to using a dutch oven, it’s a method you can use in a pinch- and it’ll still yield some pretty tasty bread.
How to Bake in a Dutch Oven
To make the most of this method, start by placing your dutch oven in the oven and preheating it to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Once preheated, turn your dough out onto parchment paper and carefully (it’ll be boiling hot!) lower it into the dutch oven, covering it quickly and making sure the lid is sealed.
Bake for the first 15-18 minutes at 500F. This heat contributes to more steam, which allows for greater ‘oven spring’, leading to a light and airy crumb. The steam will also help create a crisp crust.
After the initial baking period, lower the temperature to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and remove the lid of the dutch oven. Continue baking for another 20-25 minutes until your sourdough is golden brown, caramelized and bubbly in spots and fully cooked. When you knock against the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow. Take it out of the oven, let it cool and enjoy your perfectly baked dutch oven sourdough bread!
Some tips to prevent the bottom of your bread from burning
When you remove the lid of the dutch oven after the initial 18 minutes of baking, remove the bread from the pot and bake it directly on the oven rack.
If you are baking your bread on a lower oven rack, move it up to a higher one. Remember: heat rises from the bottom!
Place a sheet tray on the oven rack beneath the one you are using to bake the bread. This will help disperse the heat throughout the oven.