The Power of Pots
If you’ve read my book (did you know I’ve got a book out?), you might have noticed I’m a fan of baking bread in cast-iron pots. It’s simple: all you’ve got to do is preheat your pot, lid and all, to as hot as your oven goes. Then, slide your risen loaf into it and bake with the lid on for 20 minutes and another 20-30 minutes with it off.
Cooking on a thick, hot surface helps give you a good crust and even bake all round. The pot’s heavy lid keeps any steam inside, helping to caramelise the sugars on the surface and give a crispy, tasty final crust. On top of that, the humidity delays this crust’s formation to give you a better ‘oven spring’ (the rise of the loaf in the oven).
What I didn’t emphasise enough in the book is just how AWESOME cooking in pots is.
If you’ve read all those wandering words, you might notice I also talk about the two proves and how underappreciated the first prove is. It is far more important than the second. To emphasise this, and the power of the pot, I did a wee experiment.
I made a loaf with the following ingredients:
420g strong white flour
80g plain wholemeal flour
10g table salt
7g instant yeast
390g tepid water
And I didn’t knead, I left the rough dough for ½ an hour, gave it a few stretches and folds in the bowl until it had a smooth surface and then I proved for not-far-off 2 hours. By this time, it had got big, but not to the point of collapsing. I scraped it out, shaped into a tight ball and placed it in a proving basket to prove.
Straight away, I put this in the fridge and I put my Le Creuset pot in the oven at 250C for 20 minutes to preheat.
Then I scored and slid my loaf into the scorching pot and baked. When I closed the lid over it was barely bigger then when I put in the fridge and a little squint due to the way it had fallen (not a concern). And then the next I saw, it was spectacular.
In that first prove, there are loads of bubbles that you then smoosh whilst shaping. But if you’ve shaped well, those bubbles aren’t gone, you’ve just squeezed most of the CO2 out of them. The potential space is still there. Then, because of the steam that’s kept in by the pot, you’ve got a humid and unrestricted environment for what little gas is there to expand HUGELY. As a result, you get the most phenomenal oven spring.
The result is a loaf that is just about as massive as a loaf that has had a 2nd prove that is 3x as long. So check out these pictures (sorry, just taken on my iPhone) and remember: take your time with the first prove.
(you’ll notice it’s a bit wonky – this is due to the sliding and will affect it’s appearance but not it’s overall texture)
NB: Some bakers don’t like this. Some would say this loaf was “underproved”. But it’s not – it has been proved enough to plenty it a good flavour and good structure. It’s just been baked and shaped at different times. It is still of exceptionally light texture.