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Artisan Loaves from Your Kitchen Oven


There’s no doubt that a wood-fired brick oven produces the crispiest crusts on artisan loaves, but not many people have a brick oven in their back yard. There are some ways to achieve similarly crispy crusts by simulating a brick oven in your kitchen, though. A couple of inexpensive baking stones are a very worthwhile investment if you long for that toothsome crunch from your free-formed loaves and pizza.

Be sure to place your baking stones in a cold oven, one on the lowest rack and another on the top rack. If you place cold stones in a hot oven you risk cracking the stones. You will be placing the loaves or pizza only on the stone on the lowest rack. Preheat the oven, with the baking stones inside, to 500°F. Let the stones heat up for at least 30 minutes. If the stones are fairly thin (less than 1/2 inch), 30 minutes is long enough for them to get hot, but if your stones are thicker (3/4 inch or more), you may need to allow 45 minutes to an hour for them to get thoroughly hot. Lower the oven temperature to 425°F just before placing your loaves on the stone. If you are going to be cooking a pizza directly on the stone, leave the oven at 500°F.

Free-formed loaves achieve better “oven-spring” if the loaves are somewhat cool (around 50° to 55°F) when placing them on a hot stone. It helps to have a bread or pizza peel (a large paddle with a handle like the ones used in pizza restaurants) for transferring loaves in and out of the oven. Sprinkle the peel with cornmeal, brown rice flour, or semolina flour before placing your artisan loaf on it. Approximate where you want your loaf placed and then, using a quick “jerk” motion, deposit the loaf on the stone. It may take a little practice to get the loaf to land exactly where you intended. Don’t try to reposition the loaf once it is on the stone until the bottom crust is solid enough to slide easily. 

Have a clean spray bottle filled with hot water near the oven. As soon as your loaves are placed on the hot baking stone, liberally mist the loaves and walls of the oven and quickly close the oven door. Repeat the misting after 5 to 10 minutes. The steam produced will help produce the crisp crust. Most loaves will require about 30 to 45 minutes of bake time. If your loaves are getting too dark, you can shield them with foil, but one of the desirable characteristics of artisan loaves is a dark, almost burned crust.

Try not to open the oven unnecessarily while the loaves are baking, since steam escapes every time the door is opened and it's desirable to keep as much steam as possible in the oven. Some people place a shallow pan of hot water on the very bottom of the oven to help with steam production, but generally just a couple of liberal mistings is sufficient.

Use the peel to remove loaves to a cooking rack when the crust is crispy and the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. If in doubt, insert a thin-probed cooking thermometer into the loaf. It should register around 200°F. If your loaves cooked in less than 30 minutes you may not achieve the thick chewy crust you desire. If you take them out of the oven before they have cooked to the proper internal temperature there will be enough moisture left in the crumb to soften the crust as it cools.

With just a little practice and a small investment in baking stones you can produce artisan loaves that rival those from brick-oven bakeries. And as for pizza, you’ll never to call out for pizza delivery again!


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