Learning how to bake bread in a Dutch oven is the first task many undertake when embarking on their bread baking journey at home — myself included. Introducing steam in the home oven — a beneficial component in bread baking — can be a challenge, and a sealed pot makes this process simple and unassuming. During the initial stages of baking, steam is released from the dough itself into the sealed container which keeps the dough moist, this allows the bread to develop a crispy, shiny crust and attain maximal volume.
There are many types of Dutch ovens and combo cookers out there, made from varying materials, shapes and sizes galore, and at all levels of quality. This comprehensive guide will discuss the reasoning behind using a Dutch oven, discuss baking times and temperatures, present some tips on how to avoid burning the bottom of your loaf, and links to a few of my favorite pots.
I used my Beginner’s Sourdough Bread recipe for all the test bakes and images in this post. It’s the perfect recipe for getting started, and back when I wrote it, I encouraged readers to use a Dutch oven to bake each loaf.
Why Bake Bread in a Dutch Oven or Combo Cooker?
A Dutch oven helps to mimic the environment many professional bakers have in a bakery: a moisture-sealed chamber with intense and (mostly) even radiative heat. The Dutch oven, with its thick cast iron walls, offers ample thermal mass to ensure a temperature-stable baking environment. Additionally, the sealed interior traps steam which is a beneficial component to baking bread. Moisture in the oven during the beginning part of baking allows your bread to rise fully, deepens the crust color, increases the spectrum of colors on the crust, and finally, adds a level of shininess to the exterior.
As an aside, I’m still a big fan of steaming my home oven and baking my sourdough bread directly on a Baking Steel — in fact, this is how I bake my bread a vast majority of the time1. But! There’s something to be said for the effectiveness and ease of baking bread in a sealed pot — it just makes the whole process of baking bread much more streamlined.
Let’s take a look at each of the benefits to baking in a sealed and temperature-stable environment.
Increased Loaf Volume
Without steam in the oven during the first part of baking (when oven spring occurs), the rapidly expanding dough quickly forms a hard crust on the exterior. This early crust formation limits optimal oven spring and will hinder overall loaf volume, resulting in squatter and denser loaf.
When you provide adequate steam the exterior of the dough remains moist and supple, allowing it to expand and stretch further before hardening and “setting.”
It doesn’t take an inordinate amount of steam to provide benefit. When the pot is sealed shut, the first 20 minutes of the bake provides enough steam (which is escaping from the dough as it heats and water in the dough turns to steam) to attain fantastic loaf volume.
A Deeply Colored, Shiny Crust
There’s little as elegant as a crust that’s well-colored with a gradient from almost-white to a deep
As we discussed earlier, steam inside the closed environment of the Dutch oven settles on the outside of the dough, forming a thin layer that prevents the temperature from reaching too high too fast. This helps you ensure the exterior of your loaf doesn’t darken before you finish baking the interior.
Additionally, as Jeffrey Hamelman states in his book BREAD, the reduced temperature on the exterior of the loaf allows the enzymatic activity to continue for longer. This activity, which is the same activity that’s been happening throughout the entire fermentation process, continues to “unlock” sugars which add to crust coloring during baking.
A well-steamed oven also promotes gelatinization2: in the presence of heat starch molecules on the exterior of the dough begin to absorb available moisture (hello, steam), start to swell, and eventually pop to form a thin liquid layer (starch gel). This layer finally bakes hard and becomes a thin and crispy exterior with a subtle shine.
With all these benefits it seems like baking in a sealed pot is a no brainer. However, there are some issues with the method, the biggest being a thicker, and possibly burned bottom. Let’s take a look at a few ways to help mitigate this issue.
General Baking Times and Temperatures
Keep in mind the following times and temperatures work well for me here in my oven at my altitude (5,280 feet). As with anything in baking, you might have to adjust times and temperatures to suit your environment.
I first start by placing my combo cooker inside the cold oven, open, with the shallow side on the left and the deep side on the right. If you’re using a regular Dutch oven with a deep bottom and a shallow lid, still open it up to preheat. Then, I proceed to preheat my oven for 1 hour at 500°F (260°C).
If you’re using a pot with an enamel exterior, such as the Staub I’ve listed below, you might want to preheat at 450°F (232°C) or even skip the preheating of the pot entirely if you’re worried the enamel might crack. I’ve used my pot many times without issue, but each pot is different.
As with anything in baking, you might have to adjust times & temperatures to suit your environment.
After the 1 hour preheat, using heavy duty oven mitts I load my dough into the shallow side, place it back into the oven, and sometimes spritz the loaf just a bit with a handheld water sprayer. Then, I over cover it with the deep end. If you have a baking insulator (Baking Steel or stones) below the rack you’re baking on, be sure to center the pot over the insulator.
Then, turn the oven down to 475°F (246°C) and bake, covered, for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the top of the pot and place it next to it in the oven3. Turn the oven down to 450°F (232°C) and bake for 30 minutes longer, or until done. Check the interior of your loaves; they should register above 208°F (97°C) when fully baked.
How to Avoid Burning The Bottom of your Loaves
I get this question often: “when I bake in my Dutch oven the bottom of my bread gets very dark and thick, how can I fix this?” In my experience baking in a Dutch oven will produce a slightly darker bottom, even with the suggestions below. However, employing one or more of these will help reduce this darkening significantly.
The first important thing is to ensure you are not baking with your Dutch oven directly on a baking stone/Baking Steel. I’ve found when the oven has finished preheating, the stone and the cast iron pot will have stored far too much heat, quickly scorching the bottom of your loaf. From there, let’s play with the baking temperature.
Reduce Oven Temperature For Preheating and Baking
The first approach is to modify your baking temperatures. If you find the bottom colors too quickly and either burns or becomes too thick, reduce the preheat temperature. For example, some of my recipes here call for a 45 minute to 1 hour preheat at 500°F (260°C), reduce this preheat temperature down to 475°F (246°C) and any subsequent temperatures down as well.
Baking times and temperatures will be discussed in depth later in this post, but you can continue to adjust the temperature down until you find the bottom of your loaves bake just enough without burning.
Insulate with a Baking Sheet or Baking Stone
Most ovens have a bottom heating element that can provide far too much heat on the bottom of your dough, especially if you place the rack too close. Using an insulator, such as a baking sheet/Baking Steel/baking stone, can provide some thermal mass between the heating element and your dough. This blocker will help insulate your dough when the heating element kicks on (which likely happens quite often) to provide a more even heat.
Place a rack on the very bottom of your oven and then place another one or two rungs up above that. On the bottom rack, place your baking sheet/Baking Steel/baking stone. Then, use the rack just above this to hold your Dutch oven when baking.
Using Coarse Cornmeal or Wheat Bran
Coarsely ground corn (polenta or corn grits) works exceptionally well to provide a thin layer of insulation between your dough and the Dutch oven. This layer helps to lift the dough off the cast iron ever so slightly and also absorbs some of the heat from the pan.
Sprinkle a generous amount of coarse corn onto the pan after its preheated and just before you turn your dough onto the pan
As you can see below, corn does get embedded in the final loaf, but it’s hardly noticeable when eaten (use parchment paper as discussed below if you want to avoid this). Additionally, the bottom is far from overly baked — it’s just right.
If you frequently mill your flour and have a sifting screen, save the wheat germ/bran you sift out of your flour. These coarse particles (which you can always add back into the dough, later) perform a similar function as the corn, above.
In the image above, you can see the large germ/bran particles I’ve sifted out with my sifting screen. The fine, high-extraction flour falls through my screen into a bowl which I then use in the dough mix. Then, I collect these more significant bits to either add into the dough as a porridge or use it to coat the bottom as insulation.
Double Parchment Paper
As you might have noticed in my Beginner’s Sourdough post, I typically use parchment paper to help drag dough into a blisteringly hot Dutch oven. As I describe in that post, lay parchment paper over your proofing basket containing the dough and cut to fit. Invert the basket on a pizza peel, slide the parchment into the preheated Dutch oven, score the dough and bake.
In this approach, you will follow exactly the same process as before except you’ll layer two pieces of parchment on top of each other to help further insulate the dough.
Additionally, you can sprinkle coarse corn (as discussed above) into the pan before you drag in the parchment holding your dough. In this way, the corn will not stick into the dough.
As seen above, the loaf is well colored, and yet the bottom isn’t over-baked. Extra parchment paper provides just a little extra insulation where it’s needed (and if you still see some burning, add corn into the pan).
Be sure to buy quality parchment paper (I use Reynold’s brand) to avoid scorching in the hot oven.
Recommended Dutch Ovens and Combo Cookers
Any Dutch oven or combo cooker will work for baking bread as long as its oven safe up to 500°F and has a tight-fitting lid. Note that some pots cannot be preheated empty so check with the manufacturer if you are unsure.
I prefer a Dutch oven with lots of thermal mass: cast iron is my material of choice. Listed below are a few of my favorite, and most used, pots.
3.2 Quart Lodge Combo Cooker
|Maximum dough weight||900g|
My favorite Dutch oven (or combo cooker, as Lodge calls it) is the Lodge 3.2 quart cast iron combo cooker. I’ve been using the same combo cooker since I started baking bread so many years ago and it still looks
This pot is extremely versatile and I also use it for a myriad of other tasks in the kitchen in addition to baking bread. I frequently use it to make the wonderful Tartine French toast, crispy-bottomed sourdough cinnamon rolls, and the deep end makes a mean roast chicken.
I’ve been able to fit bread dough sizes from 500g to 900g comfortably in the pot. As with all cast iron, keep it seasoned and it’ll likely last a lifetime.
5.75 Quart Staub Oval Cocotte
|Maximum dough weight||1000g|
|Materials||Cast iron and enamel|
The round shape of most Dutch ovens makes baking an oval (batard) loaf almost impossible. However, the Staub 5.75 quart Cocotte is oval-shaped and has the same properties as the Lodge (cast iron and tight-fitting lid). This pot is a workhorse here in my kitchen, and I’ve made countless loaves and meals in it, yet it still looks the same as the day I bought it.
Note that it might be best to preheat this pot at a lower temperature of 450°F (232°C), or skip the preheat of the pot entirely (load the dough into a cold pot and place in preheated oven
This pot is larger than the Lodge, above, and I’ve been able to fit oval loaves weighing up to 1000g without issue.
I hope this comprehensive guide on how to bake bread in a Dutch oven and combo cooker not only shows a good process for doing so but also presents some useful methods for avoiding common pitfalls. Even though I bake more often on a Baking Steel these days, the handy Lodge combo cooker is always a trusty option. An option that lets me load the dough and move on with other tasks in the kitchen while the scent of freshly baking bread permeates.
Do you have any methods, tips, tricks you use for baking bread in a Dutch oven? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below — it seems each there are as many methods are there are bakers!
If you have an interesting baking approach I’d love to see it! Tag @maurizio on Instagram and hashtag your photo #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!