Are baking stones a must have?
Currently, I bake on a round pizza pan, I have a small aluminum roasting pan filled with river rocks for steaming purposes. I only bake sourdoughs and my general method is to preheat the oven at 500º with pizza pan and river rocks inside for about 45 minutes. The oven is nothing special, it's a basic gas oven that came with the house, it doesn't even have a timer.
Just before I'm ready to bake, I put 3 wet terry cloth rags in the microwave for 3-4 minutes to get them steamy, then I pour about a half cup of boiling water over the stones, and close the oven to let it steam up a little bit. When the rags are done, I pop those in the oven on top of the rocks, close the oven.
I get my loaf out and slash (I've been retarding my loaves overnight for the final proof). I pop the loaf in the oven and quickly pour another half cup of boiling water over the rags. At 15 minutes I take out the rags and reduce the oven temp. to 400º, then continue to bake for another 20-30 minutes.
I get a really good oven spring with this method. I'm still trying to figure out the right temperature and rack location for my oven. I can cook a pizza on the oven floor with no problems, but with my bread on the lower two racks the bottom of the crust sometimes burns a little bit even though the rest of the bread is perfect.
I guess I'm just wondering, what if anything, would I benifit from a baking stone? Would it help with my occasional bottom burning? I'd still have to preheat at least 45 minutes right? Would I be able to cut out some of my steaming steps?