I adore the bread you can buy from artisan bakeries. You know the kind - the ones with the thin crisp golden crust, a tender crumb studded with air holes and a nice chew. I have tried many times to create this at home, baking bread on a pizza stone, spritzing the oven with water, brushing the bread with salted water, but nothing has ever come close…until now!!
I recently read about a man named Jim Lahey who has a technique for baking bread in a cast iron pot. I was intrigued and decided to give it a go. All I can say is the photos more than speak for themselves – it was an absolute success! I have no idea who Jim Lahey is but he’s a genius in my books.
The technique involves making a dough that is very moist and wet. This is left to prove overnight before being transferred to a preheated cast iron dish and baked with the lid on.
As it was my first attempt, I used a very simple bread recipe of just flour, water, yeast and a little salt. The dough was very sticky and wet. After its overnight proving you can see just how elastic it became and absolutely full of air holes.
I heated my Le Creuset casserole dish and flopped the dough into it… the results were incredible! It came out perfectly risen with the beginnings of a crust. After a few extra minutes without the lid it became wonderfully crisp and golden. I loved the crack along the top, proving a hint at the texture underneath. The inside crumb was so full of air holes and had such a wonderful springy soft texture whose appearance and taste reminded me very strongly of Ciabatta. If I didn’t know, I would have guessed that the dough was made with olive oil.
I’m guessing that because of the moisture content in the bread, steam is created in the confided space of the pot which helps form the crust while it’s surrounded by the intense heat of cast iron on all sides. This means a wonderful crisp and chewy crust is formed whilst enabling the crumb to remain light, soft and airy in texture.
The bread was just as good as any I have bought from artisan bakeries and I love how rustic and natural it looks, crisp and golden with a few flour streaks. I can’t wait to experiment with other flavours and varieties. I would never have thought of baking bread in a casserole dish but I urge you to give it a go, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Casserole Dish Baked Bread
(Technique inspired by Jim Lahey)
360g strong white bread flour
1 ¼ tsp salt
7g dried yeast
Heat the water until it is just warm to the touch and stir in the yeast. Leave to one side to allow the yeast to dissolve and bubble.
Weigh out the flour into a large bowl and stir in the salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeasty water. Stir with your fingertips until it begins to form a very wet and sticky dough.
Scatter a work surface generously with flour and tip the dough out onto it. Working quickly, knead the dough for about 2 minutes, folding the sides into the middle, it should still be very wet and sticky, so don’t try and knead too much extra flour into the dough.
Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to prove overnight or for at least 10 hours.
The next day, the dough should be risen and full of large air holes. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knock it back with 2 or 3 kneads and form into a round ball. Dust a tea towel generously with flour and place the dough into the centre. Fold the edges of the towel over the top and leave to rise for 2hours.
When ready to bake, put a sturdy cast iron casserole dish, complete with lid, into a cold oven and preheat the oven to 230C.
Once hot, remove from the oven and quickly flip the bread dough off the tea towel and into the casserole dish. Replace the lid on the dish and return the pot to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes.
Then remove the lid from the casserole dish and allow the bread to continue baking for a further 15 to colour the crust a lovely golden colour.
Once baked, remove from the oven and use a fish slice to lift the bread out of the dish and transfer it to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 1 large loaf