Why do we use a dutch oven for baking sourdough bread?
Baking sourdough bread with a dutch oven is one easiest methods which produces great and consistent results.
The heavy cast iron pot and lid of a dutch oven is perfect for baking sourdough bread as it is able to retain steam and heat very well. The dutch oven is also oven safe, and it is usually tall enough to accommodate the expansion of the sourdough bread during oven spring.
The easiest way to bake sourdough bread without a dutch oven
The easiest way to bake sourdough bread without a dutch oven is by using two identical bread pans. Load the sourdough into one bread pan, and use the other bread pan as its lid to form a seal which prevents steam from escaping; the two bread pans are held tightly together using metal clips.
About half way through the bake, remove the top bread pan, so that the sourdough bread finishes the bake without a lid, allowing the steam to be released, which ensures a thin and crispy crust.
This method is great as the materials required are commonly found in the kitchen; you only need two bread pans and some metal clips, and it traps steam well enough. The bread pans are also very light, which makes it easy to remove from the hot oven quickly.
The downsides of this method is that the loaf would be covered for the first half of the bake such that you can’t see the bread expand and brown during oven spring.
Aysha has written an excellent article on this method at: https://truesourdough.com/3-ways-to-make-amazing-sourdough-bread-without-a-dutch-oven/
The most common way to bake sourdough bread without a dutch oven
The most common alternative to baking sourdough bread without a dutch oven is to bake your sourdough bread uncovered on a baking stone on the middle shelf, with a pot of boiling water on the lowest shelf. The oven heats up the hot water in the pot, producing steam that saturates the entire oven.
About half way through the bake, remove the pot of boiling water, so that the sourdough bread finishes the bake in a dry environment, which ensures a thin and crispy crust.
This method allows full control over the quantity of steam in the oven as you can easily add in more pots of boiling water into the oven to produce more steam. As the sourdough bread is left uncovered throughout the baking process, you can see the loaf as it expands during oven spring, and monitor the browning of the crust more closely.
The downsides of this method is that the removal of the hot pot of boiling water can be quite cumbersome, as you have to be careful not to burn yourself handling the unstable pot of swirling hot water.
Other ways to bake sourdough bread without a dutch oven
An ovenproof stainless steel pot with a stainless steel lid (without a hole) works well as a replacement for a dutch oven. Place the dough on a parchment paper and lower it into the pot, cover it with the lid and load it into the oven. Remove the lid halfway through the bake.
It may be quite challenging to find a lid without a hole; do not use a lid without a hole as steam will escape during the bake, and your loaf will be stunted in size, and your crust may crack.
You can also bake your sourdough bread using a baking stone and a stainless steel pot (without the lid). Preheat the oven with the baking stone, place the dough onto the baking stone and cover it with the stainless steel pot turned upside down. Remove the pot halfway through the bake.
Can you use CorningWare to bake sourdough bread?
A CorningWare may seem like a perfect substitute for a dutch oven when baking sourdough bread, but there are some precautions that you need to take.
According to CorningWare, CorningWare glass-ceramic products are completely oven safe. CorningWare products come with a 10 year warranty against heat damage on their pots, and a 2 year warranty against heat damage on their glass cover.
However, they recommend that you preheat the oven without their products. If the CorningWare is preheated in the oven, and then loaded with your sourdough, the rapid drop in temperature may crack the vessel.
CorningWare Corelle products are not suitable for sourdough bread baking, it is only safe to be used in the oven up to 175 Celcius, which is far below the usual sourdough baking temperature of 235 Celcius.
Why do we need steam for baking sourdough bread?
Steaming is a very important procedure in the baking process. Steaming lowers the temperature of the surface of the dough, which does two things:
- Delays the formation of the hard crust to allow an uninhibited oven spring
As your sourdough enters the hot oven, the temperature of the dough rises, fermentation rate increases, gas production increases, which causes the dough to expand rapidly (oven spring) for about the first 15 minutes of the bake.
As the temperature on the surface of the dough is lowered, it takes a longer time for the hard crust to set. The loaf is able to expand fully during oven spring, producing a sourdough bread with great volume.
Without steam, a hard crust is formed before the loaf has finished expanding in the oven. The hard crust inhibits the expansion of the loaf in the oven, resulting in a flatter sourdough bread. The internal pressure inside the dough continues to push outwards on the hard crust, which causes the crust to crack, and in extreme cases, the loaf may protrude 1-2 inches outwards where the cracks are formed.
- Prolongs the activity of amylase enzymes to ensure sufficient browning of the crust
Amylase enzymes are responsible for converting starches into simple sugars, which is the food source for yeast and bacteria fermentation in your sourdough. These simple sugars caramelizes and goes through the Maillard reaction when exposed to heat, which imparts a rich brown coloration to the crust.
As the temperature on the surface of the dough is lowered, amylase enzymes remain active in the sourdough for a longer period of time, continuously releasing more simple sugars into the surface of the dough, resulting in a deeper, richer brown coloration of the crust.
Without steam, the temperature on the surface of the dough rises rapidly, amylase enzymes get deactivated much quicker, and the resulting crust is pale in coloration as there isn’t as much simple sugars for the caramelization and Maillard reaction.
Why do we need a pot with strong heat retention for baking sourdough bread?
During the baking of a sourdough bread, with or without using a dutch oven, we are required to open the oven door in the middle of the bake to vent the steam, allowing the sourdough bread to finish baking in a dry environment.
As we open the oven door, the heat inside the oven drops rapidly, and it would take sometime before the oven rises back up to our baking temperature.
A vessel with strong heat retention reduces the fluctuation in temperature during the bake, which allows us to achieve consistent baking results as baking time is more predictable with an even baking temperature.