New clay pot cooker--experimenting today!
I recently bought a clay-pot cooker at Ikea and after following the forum posts on this topic, decided to give it a try with two recipes from Tartine. As the bread was rising, I remembered that I also have a large removable crockery insert for my slow-cooker. Aha!
Forum posts and online research suggest two ways to use the clay pots: (1) at room temperature, place the shaped loaf into the pot for the final proofing, and place in a cold oven to let both dough and pot rise to oven temperature together; and (2) heat the clay pot in the oven, while the dough is proofing at room temp, and then transfer the dough into the hot pot for cooking.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must note that the slow cooker insert was black, while the clay pot was terra cotta. I placed all four doughs on parchment to proof, and then used the parchment to transfer the dough into the baking vessels...to preserve my sanity (I'm a klutz) and in order to avoid any difficulties removing the baked bread. Additionally, I baked the first batch of dough using approach #1, and since the baking vessels were hot after the first baking, I was able to try approach #2 with the second batch of dough. As per Tartine's instructions, I lidded each pot for the first 20 minutes of each bake and removed it for the subsequent 20 minutes of bake. For #1, I let the cooking vessels and oven heat for 20 min before officially setting the timer for bake time.
Results: #1 resulted in paler crust and a "steamed appearance." I did get some oven spring. Crumb was adequate, crust soft. #2 gave me a much nicer, chestnut crust with crispness, a little more chew in the crumb, and slightly more oven spring. Of course, the dark slow cooker insert gave me darker crust in both situations--and I was going to get rid of the thing! (the heating element is unpredictable and I had lost patience with scorched stews).
One flaw in my research--the first batch of dough was a 75% hydration semolina bread, while the second batch was a 70% hydration basic Tartine SD...don't know if 5% more water would make that much difference in results.
The other thing I didn't care for was the appearance of the loaves--because I had them on parchment and was trying to fit rectangular parchment into oval baking vessels, the parchment folded and the loaves have "ripples" at each end. Not going to win any beauty contests, but my 3 teens will never notice.
So why did I not use a Dutch Oven, like Tartine suggests? Well, last time I made no-knead bread a la Leahy, I put our dutch oven in to heat while the dough proofed. About 10 minutes into the heating process I head a loud "foom!" followed by a "ka-ching." Oops! I had not realized that the lids to our cooking set are two-piece--a metal cup covered by a metal dome--and it seems that water had gotten in between the two components. Which wasn't a problem until that water became steam!