The Fresh Loaf

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Newby question about crust thickness

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caspersgrin's picture

Newby question about crust thickness


I am new to bread making by hand and I haven't yet tried any of the more fancy breads unil I have plain sandwich bread down so that I get consistent results.  My problem right now is the thickness and hardness of the crust.  I am using Peter Reinhart's recipe on page 266 of The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  I am kneading the dough with a stand mixer just unil the dough passes the windowpane test (about 7 or 8 minutes).  I let it rise, divie the dough, let it rest, form it into loaves and proof it in loaf pans.  The recipe calls for 35 to 45 minutes at 350º.  The bread feels done at 35 minutes and has an internal temperature of about 185º which is close to the 190º specified in the recipe, and the crumb is perfect.  My assumption is that the thickness of the crust and perhap the hardness is directly related to the amount of time it spends in the oven, but since I'm already at the low end of the window called for in the recipe and the internal temperature is close but still under 190º, I hesitate to take the bread out any sooner.

Is there anything else that affects the thickness/hardness of the crust?  Or is it just that bread making is an art, not a science, and so try pulling the loaves from the oven a few minutes earlier?



Chuck's picture

My assumption is that the thickness of the crust and perhap the hardness is directly related to the amount of time it spends in the oven,

A still-moist (not-quite-dry-done) crumb will send additional moisture through the crust as the bread cools, so a crust that is initially "almost too hard" can become "soft going on soggy" after several hours. Let your loaf sit a while first; you may find you don't have to do anything at all.

(Slicing the bread right away will of course partially negate this. But you shouldn't do that anyway. Ideally let crumb temperature drop all the way to room temperature [80F or below] before you slice the loaf.)


If typical cooling is not enough, something that works for manipulating crust color is to turn down the oven temperature a little, and raise the baking time just enough to cancel out the change in temp. The crumb will cook as before, but the crust will be lighter or darker depending on the temperature (lighter in the case of a lower temperature for a longer time). I suspect this will work for hardness too; please let everyone know how it goes.

The thickness of the crust is set fairly early, to a considerable extent by how much steam you use. I suspect manipulating time and temperature won't change it.

caspersgrin's picture


Thanks for your comments.  I will definately have to experiment a bit with time and temperature adjustments and will let you know.

Steam, however, is something new.  Reinhart talks about steam in conjunction with hearth baking, so I never gave it a thought in this case.  Since I'm baking at a much lower temperature than Reinhart uses for hearth breads, I'm not sure how I would do it.  Should I just spritz the sides of the oven a few times before I put the loaves in?  Or is there a more preferable way, such as, say, a pyrex bowl with some water in it on either a lower or an upper rack?


manicbovine's picture

There are a lot of different methods for steaming. The best method depends mainly on your oven. Search around and experiment. I find that Peter Reinhart's method in BBA, which consists of misting the oven in one minute intervals, causes far too much heat loss in my oven.

Typically, for me, long slow bakes lead to thick crusts. You might try raising the temperature and shortening the baking time.



Chuck's picture

As someone else noticed, for baking panned loaves steaming doesn't much matter after all; steam is significantly relevant mainly to free-standing loaves. And as others have commented, there are more ways to deal with crust thickness than just steaming. (Also, good steam usually makes crusts even thicker [although often either crispier or less hard, which may significantly moderate the thickness]. My apologies for implying that steam was a possible solution to your issue when it's probably not.)

In any case, it seems we all agree that it's quite likely that if you modify the hardness of the crust, its thickness won't be an issue any more. (And if your ideal for the thickness and hardness of crust is storebought bread, you can't [and probably don't want to:-] get there from here. The hardness and thickness of the crust on storebought bread is typically manipulated with chemical additives. Baking a "better" loaf of bread at home means the crust won't be as thin and soft  ...that's just the way it is.)

If you get to steaming later, there are lots and lots of different methods. You should do some reading, figure out what's likely to work best in your oven, and try various things. So long as your oven temperature is well above the boiling point of water (212F at sea level), steam generation should work just fine no matter what the exact temperature.

Check out the idea of closely covering your loaf (often called "magic bowl" here on TFL) as a way to generate steam. It uses the moisture that comes out of the baking loaf. It's often not only one of the easiest methods but also one of the best.

A few caveats about steam: The common method of "misting" the oven is not a good idea; it can lead to shattered light bulbs, cracked oven windows, and dramatic temperature drops. Also, a few "modern" ovens have electronic controls vented in such a way that generating a lot of steam throughout the oven will wreck the oven controls! This only happens to a small proportion of ovens -and nobody has ever been able to say exactly which- but if it turns out to be your oven that won't heat at all any more... This alone is a great reason to use some variation of the "cover" methods to steam only the loaf, rather than any "whole-oven" steaming method.

stefano_arturi's picture

I agree. I bake my sourdough bread in a large le creuset with the lid on (starting from a COLD oven: it does work). this is the most effective way of creating steam (much better that spraying the oven walls with water/pouring hot water in a pan).

I prefer my bread with a thick crust and I bake it for a long time (longer than most recipe say). I start at high temperature (240). after 45 minutes approx I remove the lid and I lower the temp and bake it for further 45 min (190), leaving the door slightly ajar if it is a "wet" dough. I often leave the bread to cool in the oven then (door ajar).

as another peson says further down, a way of reducing the hardness of the crust is to cover the still hot bread wiht something (a clolth, for instance).

ciao. stefano

PMcCool's picture

My impression is that the crust on your breads is harder/thicker than you want.  If that is the case, there are a couple of options available to you.

Brushing the loaf with water prior to baking will usually result in a harder crust.  Brushing the loaf with melted butter or some other fat prior to baking will usually result in a softer crust.  Tenting the loaf with foil after it reaches the desired degree of darkness will also reduce crust formation.  That could let you bake the bread to the desired internal temperature with less crustiness.

Since you are baking panned loaves, there's not much gain from steaming so I'd leave that for later experimentation.

As Chuck notes, interior moisture is redistributed as the baked loaf cools.  Some evaporates through the crust.  Placing the loaves in plastic bags after they have fully cooled will also lead to softening of the crust, no matter how hard-shelled it may initially be.  You may find that this one step gives you just the results you want.

If you didn't put anything on the crust prior to baking, you can also brush the crust with melted butter after de-panning the loaves post bake.

Keep baking and keep notes so that you can more easily figure out what worked and what didn't.


pjaj's picture

I've found that putting the loaves in a plastic bag whilst they are still slightly warm will soften the crust even more, as will freezing the loaf and thawing it when you want to eat it.

On the other hand, I had a lucky accident recently. I was making a jumbo sized yeasted boule from 1500 gr white French bread flour and about 900-1000 ml of water. It was about 35-40 cm in diameter when it went into the oven and had a nice oven spring in the early stages of baking. Then I got distracted. Instead of removing it after about 45 minutes as intended, I forgot it for a further 30 - 45 minutes! I thought I'd ruined it, but although the crust was a very dark brown on the side nearest the oven fan (see my recent post about uneven cooking with fan ovens elsewhere in this forum) the other side wasn't too dark. I let it cool and cut it in half. Much to my surprise and delight, although there was a thick crust (3 or 4 mm) the centre was still moist with a good crumb. The crust was crisp but still delicious. A bit of luck that!

BTW, I usually bake my bread till the temperature at the centre is about 200F / 94C using a digital probe thermometer.

hanseata's picture

Though I baked most of the breads from BBA, this particular one I haven't made, yet. But Peter Reinhart revised his steaming technique in his later books, using only a cup of hot water poured in a steam pan (cast iron pan, or other oven proof pan).

I asked him during a Q & A week at "Fine Cooking" about this discrepancy, and he told me he found the cup of water for steaming was sufficient, the spraying of the walls not necessary.


K.C.'s picture

Perhaps if you explained your concern about the crust ? It's not clear from your original post what you're trying to achieve, that perhaps you're not.

The crust is too thin ? Too hard ? Too dark ? Too chewy ?

There are plenty of knowledgeable bakers generously trying to help you but it's still not clear what you're asking.