I believe one of the most successful ways of getting great results when baking bread in a domestic oven is by using what in lay terms can only be described as
“baking in an oven which is within an oven”
Curiously, this technique isn’t unique to any particular nation/culture, such ovens have been used for a very long time all around the world, they are just referred to by many different names. For example:
in France, this method is referred to as: baking in a cloche, which is a clay oven (container) with a lid and is a method of creating a hotter steam environment when baking bread inside an oven. Cloche(s) come in all shapes and sizes these days. More about the steam etc later.
Similar baking techniques can be accomplished with a Dutch Oven, which is usually a heavy cast iron pot, but can be ceramic too and has a tight fitting lid. Dutch ovens have been used as cooking/baking vessels for over 300 years. The Dutch produced these in the late seventeenth century, and imported them to Britain from where later they found their way to the North American Colonies. In fact these ovens over there were deemed so valuable that they were often bequeathed in wills. For instance, Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, specifically bequeathed her Dutch Ovens to her grandchildren. In the Netherlands Dutch Ovens are also called Breadpans and if you click on the image links you can start to appreciate how each concept is similar to the other.
The Australian Damper Oven is not much different, nor is the Japanese Tetsunabe Oven, then there is the South African Potje and also the Balkan Sac, not to mention the Russian Chugun Oven. I’m not sure if an Indian Tandoori oven qualifies here… I think that actually is an interesting subject all on its own. But the list probably goes on, feel free to comment, I would love to hear about them and get a list of such utensils here! Many of these ovens have been used on top of hot coals and cinders for cooking/baking purposes or even buried in them! The lids often have a lip so you can place hot coals on top to increase the heat above. Pots with legs enable them to be stood on top of the fire.
So what do all these utensils have in common, apart from being traditional cooking vessels. Well at best of times they are also used for baking bread. They are particularly effective because if you preheat these vessels really hot and then place your bread inside – carefully! and then back inside the hot oven
Hence – “baking in an oven which is within an oven”
this helps create an atmosphere of intensive heat which effectively creates better oven spring whilst the steamy moisture that is created at the same time stops the bread from developing too thick and heavy a crust too quickly. The baking is more even and the caramelisation of the crust is more pleasing. In other words, the oven spring tends to be arrested if the crust develops too quickly and you end up with a flatter bread. Once the spring has been achieved, the lid is then removed towards the end of the baking and further baking will allow that lovely crust to develop which we crave in our bread.
If you don’t have any of these rustic Damper, Dutch, whatever ovens, any heavy cast iron casserole will do the trick in a domestic oven, even a Romertopf (which is another version of a cloche) will qualify for this purpose! I love using my Damper Oven, it works a treat! I have made soda bread in it too when camping in the Mallee with friends.
May you baking only get better & better with a pinch of Flour and Spice! 🙂 – keep watching out for the Bread Crumb Trail