Before I bought my Dutch oven, I was making mediocre sourdough bread at best. But I was quite satisfied with the result because I knew I couldn’t get anything better until I baked the bread in a Dutch oven…..right? Wrong! Little did I know at the time that there were quite a few ways of getting great results in my sourdough bake WITHOUT using a Dutch oven.
How can you make amazing sourdough bread without a Dutch oven? Sourdough bread needs 2 main factors in place to reach optimum results when baking:
- The ability to retain moisture/steam in an enclosed environment
- The ability to retain high heat consistently
As long as these 2 things are in place, you can deliver sourdough bread results that are just as good as what a Dutch oven can provide.
Below, we go into the various tips and tricks we can use to increase steam and heat in your home oven, along with 3 precise ways to achieve amazing sourdough bread results without using a Dutch oven. But first, let’s take a look at why using a Dutch oven is considered so essential to so many bakers when it comes to baking bread at home…
Why Use a Dutch Oven to Bake Sourdough Bread?
As mentioned above, to reach superior bread results when baking, you need a lot of moisture and a lot of heat. A Dutch oven has the ability to:
- Stay very hot for a long time without losing heat easily.
- Has a heavy lid (usually made of cast iron) which essentially seals all the moisture/steam coming out of the bread, and stops it from escaping.
Hence, giving the bread the 2 things it needs:
- Plenty of steam in an enclosed environment
- High heat that doesn’t fluctuate
In fact, A Dutch oven provides these 2 essential componants to the bread to a high standard, and in the easiest and most fool proof way possible. (Click here to check out my current favorite for sourdough bread baking).
All you do is pop your loaf of bread in it, and put the whole thing in the oven, and you’ve got yourself a baking environment that is pretty much on par with a professional baker’s oven. This is one of the reasons they are so popular for bread baking. (I have a guide to buying the right Dutch oven for Sourdough bread according to your needs; check it out here)
But not everyone has a Dutch oven, and it shouldn’t be a reason to bake mediocre bread. Let’s go into some ways to get those two essentials into your home oven to get those bread results improved for you!
Why does Sourdough Bread need Steam to Get Better results?
Steam carries heat much better than dough does, so when steam is present, it allows the dough’s surface to become much hotter, much quicker than it otherwise would. This means the dough heats up much faster and can rise much higher and quicker during the initial phase of baking before the crust sets.
The steam also helps the dough’s surface to stay flexible for longer, allowing the dough to continue rising for a little longer.
Your bread needs steam, steam and more steam if it’s going to give you a good rise and a beautiful color.
Why Does Bread need such a High Heat to Get a Good Result?
Your bread has roughly a 15 to 20 minute window of opportunity to rise before the crust is set. Giving bread the highest heat possible at this initial baking time will ensure that the gasses can force the bread to increase in volume as quickly as possible during this time, giving your sourdough the best chance of a good oven spring.
Why are Home Ovens not Effective at Baking Bread?
The problem with most home ovens, is that:
- Steam escapes from the oven quite freely
- Heat escapes through the door, but especially when the door is opened to put your bread in. In fact, even briefly opening the oven door can lead to a temperature drop of up to a whopping 20 degrees!
This is commonly why many home bakers struggle with getting a good oven spring. To counteract this, we need to find ways to:
- keep heat in the oven/stop it from escaping
- Find a way to increase heat in the oven
- keep escaping steam in the oven
- produce more steam in the oven than is escaping
Ways to Get More Heat into your Oven
Here are a couple of ways to ensure that you have the highest heat possible in your oven and that it doesn’t escape easily:
Preheat the Oven VERY Thoroughly
This shouldn’t be underestimated. When I’m baking my bread, I give my oven a good hour or so before putting my bread in there to bake. That way, I know it’s definitely hot enough, and it won’t lose its heat too quickly when I open it to put the bread in.
Use a Baking Stone…..or 2!
Putting a baking stone in your oven will keep the temperature of your oven hotter. The advantage of a baking stone/baking steel is that it retains its heat really well. So when you open and close your oven door, the heat of the baking stone will remain high and keep your oven nice and hot.
QUICK TIP: It’s useful and more effective to have 2 baking stones; one on the top shelf and one at the bottom. This will ensure a super high heat all around the loaf.
If you’re after a good value baking stone, this one (available on Amazon) comes with a handy pizza peel to help load and unload your loaves quickly. It will do the job just fine, but if you’re after superior heat retention qualities, this is a serious baking stone that will give you results! (link to Amazon)
What if I Don’t Have a Baking Stone?
If you don’t have a baking stone, adding in some extra roasting trays to the top and bottom shelves will help a little in retaining heat. It won’t be as effective, but will work if you’re in a pinch.
Ways to Get More Steam into your Oven
There are two ways to get more steam into the oven.
- Creating more steam
- Keeping steam in
Creating More Steam
Here are some common ways to add extra steam to your oven:
- Add a shallow roasting pan to the bottom of your oven while preheating, and as you put your bread in you can do either of these:
- Add water to it. This give a burst of steam to your bread.
- Add ice cubes to it. This will release steam quickly.
- Place some wet, rolled up tea towels into it. This will give a steady stream of steam (WARNING: make sure they are 100% cotton!)
- Place some lava rocks into the tray and pour water over them. (Lava rocks are rough edged stones that retain heat effectively. They’ll give extra surface area to the water and help produce steam more effectively. They’re usually not too expensive and are available here on Amazon).
- Spray large mists of water into your oven with a water sprayer as you place the loaves in there. Try to get an even coating so that the steam is evenly distributed.
Keeping steam in
The bread releases moisture as soon as it is put into the oven and another way to add steam is to trap what is escaping. Here are a couple of ways:
- Place your bread inside a clay pot/casserole dish/any large pot that is oven safe and has a securely fitting lid on it (it won’t be as good as a Dutch oven, but it will be better than not using one).
- Place a large deep roasting pan or stainless steel bowl, or other oven safe bowl over the loaf when baking. If necessary, weigh the bowl down to ensure steam can’t escape with some rocks, or another heavy oven safe dish. (Make sure the bowl is big enough to accommodate how big your loaf is going to get!)
Which Method Works Best?
The most effective way to get good results is to use a combination of the methods above. Using only a single tip from above will only marginally improve your bread rise. On its own, it probably won’t give you the results you’re after. In fact, after much trial and error, I have found 3 effective combinations to get good sourdough bread results without using a Dutch oven.
1: The Baking Stone and Bowl Method
This is by far the simplest way I know and it is the one I definitely use most often when I need to bake many loaves of sourdough at once. I also find it a little less dangerous than trying to add water to the bottom of a hot oven! Here’s a quick how to:
- Preheat the oven with baking stones inside. (If you have 2, put one on the top shelf in addition to the one that will hold your bread).
- When the oven is ready, place your loaf onto the baking stone.
- Spritz the loaf with water (optional).
- Place an upside down bowl or deep roasting pan over your loaf.
- If your bowl is large enough to accomodate, place a few ice cubes in with the loaf to create even more steam (optional).
This method keeps a nice high oven temperature due to the baking stone and all the steam is sealed into the closed environment under the bowl. It’s a very good alternative to a Dutch oven and works in a similar way.
2: The Over the Top Steam Method
This method involves going a little crazy with the steam generation. So much so, that your loaf has enough of it available to give a superb oven spring! Here’s how:
- Set up your oven before preheating like this:
- A baking stone on the top and bottom shelf.
- A roasting dish with lava rocks on one side of the oven floor.
- A roasting pan with rolled up damp cotton towels on the other side of the oven floor.
- Preheat the oven.
- When the oven is ready, place the loaf onto the baking stone and place 2 cups of water over the lava rocks carefully whilst wearing oven gloves.
- Pour water over the rolled up towels.
- Spritz some water onto the loaf and around the oven (optional)
- Close the door and watch the magic!
WARNING! Wear oven gloves for this one and be careful not to splash too much water when you put it in your roasting trays. Steam burns are not nice!
QUICK TIP: When placing the hot water into the tray, be sure to cover the door with a cloth. You don’t want your oven door cracking due to cold water splashing onto hot glass.
The following Youtube video shows a really good demonstration of how to do it:
As you can see, the method is very involved. Although it’s very effective, for me it’s too much work. In fairness, it’s the one method that accommodates the largest amount of space. And it’s always exciting to be able to watch your loaf expand, which you can’t really do with the other methods.
3: The Gap Method
This is a rather clever way of getting steam into a really hot area.
- Set up the oven before preheating like this:
- Place a baking stone on the center shelf.
- Place a roasting pan with lava rocks underneath it, but off set it to the side so that steam can come up on the side of the baking stone.
- Preheat the oven.
- When the oven is ready, place the loaf on the stone, and put a deep roasting dish upside down over the loaf but leave a gap over the edge to let steam in from the lava rocks.
- Put some ice cubes on the baking stone if space allows it (optional).
- Pour water into the lava rock tray.
Here’s a quick YouTube demonstration of how to do it:
The Problem with Using A Dutch Oven for Sourdough Bread
A Dutch oven no doubt gives amazing bread results with almost no extra hassle, but if you are making several loaves at a time then this can pose a problem because it becomes pretty tedious to have to bake the loaves one at a time. This was my main reason for learning how to create steam in the oven as it made life a lot easier when baking several loaves of bread in one go.
My Favorite Method that I use Most Often
My favorite method nowadays is similar in concept to the ‘baking stone and bowl’ method. I place one loaf tin over another and clamp it down with two bulldog clips. This way I can get 6 loaves into the oven in one go and you get amazing results! If you do this, make sure the bulldog clips are stainless steel so that they are oven safe. Don’t use colored or plastic ones as these won’t be suitable for oven temperatures! I use these from Amazon. I keep a whole bunch of them with all my baking bits and peices so that I can do several loaves at a time.
NOTE: Is your bread not rising much even though you’ve tried different baking methods? It could be something else in your process. Check out my articles “Awesome Sourdough Oven Spring in 10 Easy Steps” and “20 Tips to Less Dense Sourdough Bread”.
The Importance of Reducing Oven Temperatures Once the Crust has Formed
Retaining high heat is especially important during the initial phase of baking while the crust is still flexible, but it’s important to note that you may need to reduce your oven temperature after the first 15 minutes in order to ensure the bread cooks through on the inside as well as the outside. I turn my oven electric fan oven down to 430F to let it cook through properly and this works well, but individuals ovens will vary. With some trial and error in getting to know your oven, you’ll be baking amazing sourdough bread in no time!
If you’d like more information on choosing good tools for baking sourdough bread, check out my list of essentials here.
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