Its well known that baking your home made bread in a dutch oven can give it a real artisan appearance and taste. Its the high heat capacity of the dutch oven and the steam created inside the dutch oven that creates the superior crust and facilitates a better oven spring. One of the best bread baking books out there, “Flour, water, salt, yeast” by Ken Forkish contains recipes for artisan breads with are all baked in a dutch oven. So, it certainly seems to be a good investment for keen home bread bakers.
Having at some point, way back in the day, received a science doctorate it seemed only fitting to carry out a little controlled experiment to prove, or disprove, the reported benefits of bread baking in a dutch oven in my own home kitchen. For true validation all the other possible variables in the entire bread making process have to be kept constant and identical loaves must be baked side by side just one inside a dutch oven and one on a normal baking tray.
I chose to use a fairly standard yeast bread recipe, and also a bread that my family enjoy to eat, since there is going to be alot of it made in this test! So a whole wheat honey bread fits the criteria in all respects.
Recipe for whole wheat honey bread for Dutch oven bake test
This recipe yielded a whopping 4 kgs of dough, and all of it must be created as one. There is no batch baking allowed here, so I clevery used the electric mixer to knead and develop a portion of the dough as a batter, then added the rest of the flour and kneaded it by hand. Because the electric mixer had done some of the hard work for me it didnt take long to get a nicely elasticated dough. I still did get quite an arm work out though!
Poolish or pre-ferment
500g strong bread flour
1g dried yeast
Mix all the ingredients for the poolish, cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature over night (or approx 8-12 hours)
Main dough batter
all the poolish from above
1kg whole wheat flour
12g dried yeast
Mix the overnight poolish, whole wheat flour, water and honey and yeast and knead with the dough hook of an electric mixer for 10 minutes.
Final main dough
all the batter from above
500g whole wheat flour
500g strong bread flour
In bucket mix all the extra flour, water and salt into the batter and knead inside the bucket until a rough dough forms. Then tip out the dough onto a work surface, knead, stretch and fold until the dough is nicely elastic.
Return the kneaded dough to your bucket or large container and loosely put the lid on. Then refrigerate the dough for 6 hours (I had to remove a shelf in my fridge to fit the container in).
Take the dough from the fridge, deflate and take out enough dough to make 2 700g dough balls, weigh them accurately. Then place in floured prooving baskets for the final proof at room temperature for 1 hour. Return the rest of the dough to the fridge. In the meantime pre-heat your oven, with the dutch oven on one shelf and a thick heavy duty baking tray or baking stone on the other, to 250 degrees C.
When ready to bake turn out one loaf onto a bakers peel, slash the top and gently slide onto the pre-heated baking tray. Place aroasting tray of water on the oven floor to provide steam for the baking tray baked bread. Then quickly turn out the second dough, slash the top and place into the heated dutch oven. Bake at 250 degrees C for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 210 degrees ad bake for a further 45 minutes.
While the 2 smaller loaves are baking, go back to the dough in the fridge and make 2 1kg dough balls. Proove the larger loaves in bread baskets for 1 hour, before baking one on a baking tray and the other in the dutch oven exactly as for the smaller loaves.
Results of the Dutch oven bread baking test
1. First impressions
By comparing the same sized loaves baked in a dutch oven and on a baking tray it is clear to see the loaves are significantly better from the dutch oven bake. The loaves are browner, and the shape is more rounded.
2. Oven spring and height.
The loaves baked in the dutch oven were approximately 2 cm higher and judging by the opening of the slashes did have better oven spring. For both the smaller and the larger loaves the oven spring and was better in the dutch oven loaf.
3. Crumb and texture
Both the loaves baked in the dutch oven and on a baking tray had a nice even crumb. There was no significant difference between the 2 types of baked breads. This is to be expected since the crumb and bread texture is determined more by the type of leavening, in this case yeast, the hydration level and the choice of flours.
The baking tray baked bread has a thicker crust than the Dutch oven baked bread. This is because it was baked in a dryer environment than the bread in the dutch oven. Judging this criteria basically comes down to personal preference, and my preferred crust is the thicker one of the baking tray loaf. However, my preference shifts to the dutch oven bread on the second day of eating. As the baking tray bread dries out more the crust does become a little tough.
5. Taste and eating
There was no difference in the taste between the dutch oven bread and baking tray bread. Both breads had a nice rich whole wheat flavour and a subtle hint of honey.
Both loaves are good for sandwiches but the the dutch oven bread does make neater slices.
When it comes to toasting the dutch oven bread is the clear winner. It toasts nice and evenly whereas the drier slice from the baking tray baked loaf, when toasted, is much darker around the edges and the crust becomes too hard.
So there is a clear conclusion to this little experiment. By directly comparing 2 methods of baking the same bread its clear to see the dutch oven does bake a nicer loaf. I am impressed and would recommend investing in a dutch oven to any keen home bread baker.