NB.This post contains affiliate links to Amazon. If you purchase items using these links I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Why use a Dutch oven?
Baking your loaf in a Dutch oven can improve the results that you get. A Dutch oven is a catch-all term for enclosing your loaf inside a chamber for the first 20 minutes of the bake and then baking without the lid for the next 20 minutes.
Enclosing a loaf like this in the initial part of the bake helps the loaf to achieve really good oven spring. The steam that comes out of the bread as it bakes is trapped in the chamber creating a really good steamy atmosphere preventing the crust from drying out. The carbon dioxide trapped in the gluten expands in the heat and the loaf grows in the oven bursting through any slashes/ scores that you have made. This steamy atmosphere also helps with the caramelisation of the crust later when the lid is lifted and the bread finishes baking.
Using a Dutch oven can make up for an underperforming oven too as it creates the effect of a very hot oven inside an oven.
How to use a Dutch oven
I like to preheat my dutch oven before use, so I place it in the oven as I turn the oven on to preheat at 220C, gas mark 7, 425F. It takes about 30 minutes for a cast iron dutch oven to preheat. Some prefer to use a Dutch oven from cold so feel free to experiment and find your favourite method.
When your loaf is ready to go in the oven you can transfer it to a piece of baking parchment on a bread peel or the underside of a baking tray to make transferring the loaf easier. Score/ slash the loaf so that it bursts where you want it to burst rather than at its weakest point. Place the loaf inside the Dutch oven. Put the lid on and bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove the lid. The loaf will still be very pale but should have grown considerably and burst at the score/ slash. Place back in the oven without the lid for a further 20-25 minutes until golden brown, feeling light, taps hollow and has an internal temperature of 90C. Cool your loaf on a wire rack until completely cool.
Suggested Dutch ovens
There are several ways of creating a Dutch oven effect. The first (and my favourite) is using an actual Dutch oven, aka a combo cooker. These are cast iron and retain the heat very well creating a beautifully crisp loaf. The downside is that they are very heavy so you need very good oven gloves and strong arms to carry them to and from the oven. The Lodge brand is synonymous here and they are very good quality, although expensive. The Amazon Basics range is more affordable but there is a slight difference in quality and slightly less height so I find that if my loaf really expands with oven spring it can get a little flattened out on top. A good mid range buy is the Pinnacle, there is very little noticeable difference between this one and the Lodge, except for the price.
If you want a Dutch oven that is specifically designed for the bread baker then you cannot get better than the Challenger Breadware pan, now available in the UK from Bakery Bits. Be prepared to shell out some serious cash for it though.
A beautiful alternative to this and a great buy as you would be supporting a small business in Shropshire (my home county) is the bread cloche from Netherton Foundry. Their pans are excellent quality. It’s worth a look at their website if you are in need of a pan of any kind, or even if you aren’t. They also do loaf tins, baking trays, copper pudding tins, pie dishes, cake tins. Treat yourself.
Beyond the cast iron, you can also use a ceramic bread cloche. These are not my favourite as they tend to produce a softer crust, but others love them for that very reason. I also find them difficult to lift in and out of the ovens as they don’t have the handles of a cast iron combo cooker. Bakery Bits also sell terracotta spring ovens. I haven’t tried these so can’t comment.
Other solutions recommended to me by Jonathan on our Facebook group Bread Made Easy is to use an aluminium roaster such as this one. It has a ridged bottom on the shallow pan but this can be overcome by using parchment paper under your loaf. The benefit to using this one is that it is much lighter than cast iron so makes it easier to transport to and from the oven.
You can also use a casserole dish if you already have one in the cupboard. I use my Le Creuset, and it works well. The downside to this is that you don’t have the shallow pan of the Dutch oven which makes it easy to transfer your loaf from the banneton to the pan. With a casserole dish I recommend that you use two pieces of baking parchment to transfer your loaf onto and then lift your loaf into your dish using the paper. Cut off any excess paper, put the lid on and bake for twenty minutes, then remove the lid and bake for a further 20 minutes until the loaf is fully baked and golden. The paper will leave a ruffled edge around your loaf but this can look attractive.
If you are baking an oval shaped loaf or a loaf in a tin then using two one-third size gastronorm tins can create a good enclosed chamber to improve oven spring. I use the deep one (200mm) for the lid and the shallow one (65mm) to load the loaf into. You don’t need to preheat these before use.
If you have a favourite type of Dutch oven please do comment below to tell others all about it.
You can find out about how to use a dutch oven and lots more in my online bread masterclass Bread Made Easy