Monday, 18 May 2009

Getting an upper crust upper crust

For some, the mention of Real Bread conjures up the image of an artisan loaf with a chewy, uneven crumb, toasty brown base and lacquer-like upper crust. That these characteristics are rarely spotted in the domestic loaf is reason enough for some to dismiss home baking as not able to produce what they see as Real Bread.

Although the Real Bread Campaign’s basic definition is more inclusive than this, believing that any loaf made with all natural ingredients is Real Bread, it sounded like a fun challenge. Here is the report from my latest attempt.

Once you find the right recipe, it’s not all that difficult for anyone with some experience of basic bread making to get the texture right, or a make a passable version of it. Several of the books listed in the soon-to-be-launched companions section of our website give such recipes.

The parts that are really difficult to achieve at home are that dark base and the glossy crust as, simply put, domestic cookers are pretty crap for baking fantastic bread. Firstly you need dizzyingly high levels of heat to evaporate moisture in the dough quickly enough in the first few minutes of baking to generate steam. The oven also must be close enough to airtight as to trap the majority of this steam to turn the outside the dough into a gel, a bit like the glossy skin of a Chinese steamed bun. This done, the heat will take care of the crust.

The ideal bit of kit is a wood-fired, brick and clay oven, which does all of the above. The oversight on the part of my landlords to install one of these in my flat in Shepherd’s Bush means I had to improvise. Here’s what I came up with. I inverted a large, thick walled stock pot (a cast iron casserole dish would do the trick) onto my pizza stone (it was a present, okay?), put them into the oven and whacked it up as high as it would go (in reality, about 20 degrees less than the 250°C it says on the dial) for twenty minutes to get up to temperature.

With the help of my gorgeous assistant (I really wanted to be a magician when I grew up), quickly as possible, I pulled out the oven shelf, lifted the pot, slid the loaf underneath, replaced the pot, slid the shelf back in and closed the oven door.

Fifteen minutes later, I whipped off the pot, closed the oven door, turned it down to about 190°C and left my loaf to bake for another half an hour.

The results? Not bad: although my oven won’t ever get up to the sort of temperature needed to get the taste of the base right, my upper crust was glossy and crispy.

If you enter into similar crusty breadventures yourself, we’d love to hear how you get on.

Chris Young

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