For breads that contain butter and sweeteners, I usually bake them at 350 degrees F for about 55 minutes to an hour for loaves, and 25 to 30 minutes for rolls.
For “lean” breads, which contain only the basic four ingredients, I bake them at 450 degrees F. Baguettes and rolls bake for about 20 – 25 minutes, while most other loaves bake for 35 to 45 minutes.
An instant read thermometer is a big help in telling when a loaf is done. Stick the thermometer into the bottom of the loaf and push until the tip is in the center of the bread. Breads with butter and sweeteners are done at about 195 degrees F, while lean loaves should be at about 205 degrees F.
For lean breads that are freeform (i.e. not panned), I like to use a baking stone to get better volume and a crisper crust, though you don’t need one – a greased cookie sheet will work just fine. If you use a stone, it needs to pre-heat for at least 45 minutes before baking. When you place the dough on the hot stone, it absorbs a lot of heat very quickly, causing it to spring beautifully in the oven.
You can purchase these at most cooking stores or online for anywhere from $30 to $70, depending on the size and thickness. Mine is one-half inch thick and measures 14.5” by 16”. It’s plenty big enough and works great.
If you’re feeling frugal, many people I know prefer to use unglazed quarry tiles, which can sometimes be had from home supply stores for much less than a baking stone. I haven’t used them, myself, though.
To get the bread onto the stone, either use a baker’s peel or the back of a cookie sheet that has been well dusted with cornmeal or semolina flour. Then, slide the bread off its back and onto the stone with a quick jerk.
Steaming: A crackling, crunchy crust requires more than just a hot oven. It also needs steam, and that’s not easy to do in a home oven. But it can be done. Here are a couple of methods:
• The Cast Iron Pan Method: Under the stone, even on the bottom of the oven, if you like, place a cast iron pan and let it heat up along with the stone. Not one you like to use day-to-day, because this process will rip the seasoning right off.
Just before you put the bread in the oven, boil some water. Get a towel and, after you open the oven door, cover the glass of the oven door with the towel. This will prevent water droplets from hitting the hot glass and shattering it (ask me how I know.) You may also want to shield the front of the pan with aluminum foil so that droplets don’t jump out of the pan onto the glass and crack it (again, ask me how I know).
Load the bread and dump one cup of boiling water in the pan. WEAR MITTS WHEN YOU DO THIS. Close the oven door, and let it bake. About halfway through the bake, remove the pan so that the bread can finish in a dry oven.
• Covered Cooker Method: In this method, do not use a baking stone. Instead, place a cast-iron Dutch oven (enameled and non-enameled both work fine) or a clay cloche (Sassafras makes a good one – you can find them at Amazon or King Arthur Flour for about $50) in the oven and let it heat up for 45 minutes. Pull out the oven rack, take off the lid, plop your bread into the bottom, score it quickly and replace the top and the rack.
About 15 to 20 minutes before the bake is done, remove the top so that the bread can finish in a dry oven.
The covered cooker captures the steam given off by the dough, and so mimics a wood-fired brick oven. Unfortunately, this method only works for round loaves (though Sassafras also makes a 14 1/2 x 5 1/8 inch clay cooker which works for batards).
Breads should cool for about an hour on a rack (or something else that will allow air to circulate underneath) before slicing.