The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

New member with question

MonkeyDaddy's picture

New member with question

Greetings All!

     Mike here.  ER nurse by profession, scientist by training, and baker by avocation.  I have been enjoying this site for a few months now and finally had a question-generating experience that I felt could be addressed here.


I live in Denver, the Mile High City, and have been dealing with the complexities of baking at high altitude for years (began hobby baking about 20 years ago, but have really gotten my teeth into it over the last 5 or so).  I asked for Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day as a Christmas present because my wife complained about 2- and 3-day builds for making sourdough - a process which fascinated me, but annoyed her to no end.  I have had a lot of fun with the recipes in the book, and the speed factor makes my wife much happier.  The very first loaf came out of my oven here in Denver beautifully - shiny caramelized crust that "sang" as it cooled, nice ears, open crumb, and tasted excellent.  My oven is 1 a year old Kenmore electric, I have a 12" Lodge cast iron skillet on the bottom rack for my steam pan, and I have to admit I "cheat" and use an upside-down cookie sheet as a baking surface.  I cracked my prized pizza stone a couple years ago by preheating it and putting a cold pizza on it, so I'm still looking for the perfect baking stone.  This equipment list is the prompting for part II of my question below. 

Part I stems from a trip I just got back from.  We did a vacation home rental for a week in Seattle (sea level) and I was excited to do some low-altitude baking.  I decided on using the same recipe mentioned above because I had already memorized the recipe and techniques.  When we got to the rental, the equipment I found there was lackluster, to say the least.  I wrapped aluminum foil around a rusty cookie sheet for a cooking surface (a mistake, I discovered, since rising and baking dough sticks to foil like glue), and the best steam pan I could find was a heavy stainless skillet with a clad bottom.  The first loaf I made was a 3-cup-of-flour batard and while it smelled and tasted great, it just wasn't pretty.  The crust had a grainy, matte appearance, kind of like the look a loaf takes on if you brush it with oil or butter when it first comes out of the oven.  Also, my docking was totally ineffective - the cuts didn't expand at all and the loaf split out the side near the bottom.  The crumb was a little dense, but I know what happened there - I fooled around with it too long during the shaping and probably deflated it a little.  My cast iron skillet back home is like a volcano until all the water is gone, but the stainless skillet in Seattle steamed ferociously for a few seconds then tapered off quickly to a slow simmer.  The second batch, I divided my 3 cups in half and made two 1.5 cup ciabatta loaves which had a superior crumb but still the suboptimal crust.  So my question is this: Anybody baking at low altitude have any trouble getting a good crust?  Does the atmospheric pressure affect the steam density in the oven and therefore alter starch gelatinization and mess with the oven-spring?  Or was it more likely that the oven was not reliable and the temperature was off?  I know the majority of the populated areas of this planet are at low altitude, and most bakers do just fine.  So I suspect that it was just a crappy oven, but I'd love some feedback on this issue.

Part II has to do with the equipment.  As I mentioned, the steel skillet did not steam nearly as profusely as my trusty cast iron.  However, I had actually been keeping an eye out for a steel skillet to use at home because of rust.  The oxidation that occurs during evaporation at high temperatures has long-since eroded the factory seasoning on the skillet, and the subsequent rust sprays upward onto the bottom of my cookie sheet while the steam is erupting.  I'd hate to think that I'm getting rust on my bread too, but I suppose it is a possibility.  I had thought that a clad steel skillet would be a good rust-free alternative, but after the performance in Seattle I'm having doubts.  Does anybody have any insights on a good rust-free vessel to use as a steam pan?  My other equipment question is about stones.  I love cooking on stoneware - great crusts on everything from cookies to pizza to bread.  But I don't want another cracked stone.  I've seen a couple stones in catalogs, but I'm leery of buying a pig in a poke.  So I'm wondering what stones people have had good luck with.  I'd like one about an inch thick and almost as big as the rack in a standard home oven, and can handle cold dough after being preheated.

I know... wordy for a first post.  But I love reading the posts here that have a little background rather than just firing off questions, so I felt I should reciprocate. 

Happy baking!

DavidEF's picture


Hello, and welcome! First, I tend to agree with you about background info in the post. One long post is better than having someone add info one little piece at a time. You've done well, as far as I'm concerned.

About the stone: If you've been here a while, surely you've read some posts about using fire brick? It seems to work well for a lot of people. I still use my cheap little thin pizza stone from Lowe's, but I'm hoping to graduate to something more substantial as soon as I have some loose change I can spend. The other option someone pointed out here before is to use a thick plate of metal, like 1/4" - 1/2" thick, instead of stone. It supposedly transfers the heat to your bread even better, and should be very durable against cold things being set on it. If you have a place around you that can cut you a piece of metal to fit inside your oven, you may want to give them a call. The thicker the better, but 1/4" steel will already be better than even 1" stone, I think.

About the steam: I've also used a cast iron skillet, like you, but I stopped short of rusting it out, because I like to also use mine for cooking on the stovetop. Once, when I dumped the water into the skillet, I must have thrown it in too fast, and about half of it splashed out and spilled into the bottom of my oven. That is when I noticed that my oven has about a 1/2" depression in the bottom (probably for catching spills) and I decided to take advantage of this feature for steaming. Now, I just throw the water directly into the bottom of my oven, and the billows of steam fill the cavity, surrounding the bread in a thick cloud. Poetic enough? Okay, so check to see if your oven is designed with a depression in the bottom. That may be all you need. I don't know if it's damaging to the oven or not. I haven't seen or heard anything bad happening in mine yet, but really, why would they design an oven that will break when something spills in it, right? Mine is also a self-cleaning oven, so I'm sure it's made especially tough, or at least I'm counting on it to be.

If you can't find any other suitable solutions, and you don't want to throw water directly into the bottom of your oven, you can still use your skillet. For one thing, the rust can be cleaned out, and the skillet can be re-seasoned. But, really, it's not likely affecting your bread, because you have the cookie sheet there. And even if some of it is getting on your bread, it shouldn't hurt you. Just consider it getting more iron in your diet. In fact, even in a well-seasoned skillet, some of the iron always leaches into your food while cooking, and some people use cast iron just for that reason.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

What a rusty pan means in the oven is more iron in your bread, I would much rather eat my iron that way than pop iron pills.  About the rusty cookie sheet, if it had a lip, it would have been on the bottom for steam and the SS pan would have made a better baking surface.  

You can always go to a thrift store and pick up a rusty steel pan (old bread pan?) for your oven and resurface the fry pan.  I would not throw water into the bottom of a hot oven, I chipped and cracked the enamel that way.  Lots of sharp shards to deal with for years.  Another thing altogether if your oven is already in bad shape.

Covering the loaf, trapping in steam (mist the lid or foil cover) seems to work best for average home ovens not built to take enormous amounts of steam.  I use this method most often as it is kinder to the oven.  

If you still have the cracked stone around, Mike, and it is only two or three pieces, try putting it back into the oven and use it broken.  You aren't wasting anything and may get more use out of it now that it's "broken in." Use some baking parchment under your loaf if you're worried about chips or sticking to cracks.  

(I also turn baking sheets upside down and don't use a stone.)