Artisan baking in the home oven

My two previous columns dealt with, first, the milling of grain into flour and next working with the dough made from the flour, specifically using time to increase the depth of flavor.

Well, now that we have gone from flour to dough, the next logical step is to prepare the oven and bake the loaves.

Ovens have been around for a while. I'm sure it didn't take long to come up with the idea of trapping and controlling heat or to notice the convenience of a smooth cooking surface. There is only so much one can cook on a stick over an open fire, after all. I know that my own experiment with Cinnamon Roll Kebobs was quite disappointing.

Technology has led us from simple mud ovens built wherever that week's encampment was, heated by burning whatever combustible material was lying around, to giant (and, to me, beautiful in its polished stainless steel utilitarian glory) artisan stone deck ovens powered with electricity or gas, capable of maintaining heat within a couple of degrees and operated with precise electrical controls.

The myriad ovens available, however, simply produce heat. The better ones also inject steam and have a stone baking surface. Does one, then, need a fancy professional deck oven to produce professional bread? No. Though it is easier, and definitely necessary if you need to produce, say, 1,000 loaves a day.

First, the baking surface. Stone or ceramic is ideal. Perhaps you have a pizza stone somewhere in the cupboard or out in the garage that came with the impressive-looking countertop toaster oven that was a great idea once but now sits unused.

Perfect. Or, buy some untreated stone tiles or thin bricks. I have heard that terra cotta ones work well (though they do have to be heated moderately a couple times before use, apparently, or they will crack). Place them on the middle rack of the oven, tightly pushed together.

If you are going with stone, then at this point go ahead and pick up a pizza peel (a large, flat wooden shovel-like implement) at your local kitchen supply store, as you'll need it.

Stone or brick is an ideal surface, however, if you don't want to bother and are content with cookie sheets, I recommend using parchment/baking paper. It is available by the roll at most grocery stores. The loaves won't stick to it and it helps create a nicer bottom surface to the loaves. Using a cookie sheet, however, won't give you the nice thick and chewy crust on the bottom that stone will. No real way around it. But, hey, fresh-baked bread is fresh-baked bread and a 95 percent is still an A.

Now turn on the oven. If you have a stone surface, you want it getting nice and hot, and if not the air needs to be hot anyway. So, turn the dial to where the recipe suggests and then turn it up another 50 degrees.

High heat is a critical element to artisan baking. It will lead to a nice "oven spring" as the yeast produce one frantic final rise before they are baked to death and the water in the dough expands roughly 1,600 times its volume into steam.

You will want to start with a high initial temperature, not only to get the best rise, but also to prevent heat loss when you open the oven door and spray or pour water into the oven.

Steam, then, has two roles in baking artisan breads. It expands the dough as it bakes from inside, but it also allows the loaf to rise fully by keeping the exterior of the dough moist initially. Moist dough stretches, dry dough does not. Without adding steam to the oven, the crust will form too early, preventing the loaf from getting as big as possible.

There are several ways of introducing steam. The most popular ones are to use a spray bottle to spray the inside of the oven or to pour water onto a hot pan on a rack beneath the bread. Use warm water. Many books suggest cold water and, though it makes for a more dramatic event, warm water will vaporize just as well without robbing as much heat from the oven.

Once the oven is heated, either quickly spray a few squirts onto the sides and/or bottom of the oven or pour 1/4 cup water into the heated metal pan and swiftly shut the door. If you are baking on stone, get out the peel you bought, dust it with cornmeal and place the loaves on it; otherwise get the cookie sheet at hand.

Make a couple 1/4-inch-deep slashes in the loaves (feel free to be creative here) and get ready to load them in the oven. You want to be swift with the loading to retain as much heat and steam as possible. Wait a couple minutes, load your loaves, give another couple squirts or pour some more water in, shut the door and set your timer for five minutes. When the buzzer goes off, give one more quick steam treatment, lower the temperature to the recommended level and finish baking.

There is one more step. If you like an extra crisp crust on your loaves, leave the oven door ajar for a couple of minutes once baking has finished. This will take care of the extra moisture you introduced to the process.

You have now replicated, as closely as possible, the conditions that make artisan breads what they are. Now you can admire the sight of the beautiful loaf you have made as it cools on the rack, then admire the taste when you eat it.

Roger Stukey is an owner/operator of Cedar Creek in Sequim.

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