After years of baking in tins and on baking trays, discovering sole baking was a revelation. The bread was just so much better in every way - the crust was thinner, and the kick was phenomenal. And then, I looked at my bakery full of stuff, bread tins and trays everywhere - rooms full of it in fact - and pretty much decided there and then that I had been barking up the wrong tree for the past dozen years.
Why would I react this way to sole baking? I guess, if you are a baking tragic like me, it's all about the bread. Proper bread doesn't like training wheels. It wants to be set free. And I want to be set free too. Free of having to hoard all these tins and trays, and to be free of the assorted limitations associated with baking this way.
You'll want to do this as well, I imagine. But you'll need to set up your oven correctly to get the best result.
Pretty much any home oven will be able to be set up to bake on the sole - but don't think that baking on a pizza stone will do the job. Heat isn't heat - it's more complex than that. If you would like to know more about how heat works, have a look at the article about it here. Heat, as the article mentions, is an essential ingredient in making bread, and to make sole baked bread, you need to change the type of heat your oven generates.
Heat is heat, right?
Domestic ovens are known as convection ovens because they work on convected heat. This type of heat comes and goes in a flash. But sole baked bread needs stronger, more lasting heat - it needs conductive and radiant heat as well. When you bake on top of a pizza stone, you are baking with conductive heat, as the heat travels from the stone to the bread directly.
Your oven has very little radiant heat - all it has is the element or the gas flame. In order to build up the radiant heat in your oven, you need to increase its thermal mass. While the oven won't get hotter, the heat will be able to come from multiple sources when the thermal mass is heated enough, and this will make the heat in the oven more steady. In effect, I'm going to show you how to build a hearth in your oven.
One thing before I continue: Some ovens are crap. There is no identifying mark to them - some very expensive ovens are just very weak, and struggle to get more than 200 degrees C. Conversely, I've had very cheap ovens that were excellent pieces of kit for this type of bread baking. As is often the case, simple is good. The less fancy programming the oven has, the more likely it will be that you are going to be able to make your oven work like a hearth. If you do have a fancy, all bells and whistles oven, there is still a good chance that it'll work with a hearth in it, but if it struggles to give you about 220 degrees, it's going to struggle to do this technique.
The hearth of the oven
Building a hearth inside your oven is not expensive. You'll need:
- A base stone to bake on - options include any of the following: a pizza stone (square is better than round as it'll hold two loaves easily, but if round is all you have, then start with this); a thin paving stone made of anything but cement - and by thin, I mean about 1.5 centimetres or so (too thick takes too long to heat); an upside down square terracotta pot base or a large terracotta tile; a non ceramicised tile
- A water dish that's made of thick material - options include the following: another terracotta pot base (used to hold the water that comes out of the hole at the bottom of the pot); a low, cast iron pot or baking dish; a low, clay, pyrex or ceramic baking dish. A big, wide dish with low sides is the best, as it doubles as a water container and to increase the thermal mass in the oven
- A thermometer that can measure the temperature on the base of the hearth. You can buy a really cheap one from the supermarket with a dial on it, or you can get a laser one from your hardware store which will give you a pretty accurate reading if you want to spend a bit of money. Neither one is better than the other.
First, you set the racks in the oven up. One rack will go just below the center of the oven. Imagine that the bread, when placed on your baking tile base, is right in the middle of the oven.
Next, you set the other rack up as high in the oven as is possible, allowing enough space to put your water dish on it. It might not be on the highest rack - as long as the space between the tile base and the water dish is more than enough for your loaf of bread to rise (about 15 centimetres is fine).
Fill the water dish with water. Place your thermometer on the baking base tile, pizza stone or whatever you have used. Wind your oven up to 250 degrees C. It will take about 30 - 45 minutes to bring the oven up to temperature, or even longer in a weak oven. Refer to your thermometer on the base stone - you will need about 220 degrees or more to successfully bake on it. If you have a laser thermometer, point it at the base tile. It will be even more accurate. Then try pointing it at the underside of the top water tray in it. If it's over 180 degrees, you are good to go.
Now, you will need to have followed the basics of proofing your dough from this article before loading the oven. You can slide the dough directly from your board onto the hot stone - or, of you have a decent sized peel, use it. A Pizza peel is a handy thing to have - though I find round peels difficult to use when you need to load more than one loaf.
If you are using a peel, make sure there is plenty of semolina under your dough so that it slides well. Many a good loaf has been lost at this very late stage of the game by not ensuring the dough can slide before committing to peeling it into the oven!
The trick with transferring ripe dough to the baking stone is to work with momentum. If you can make the peel or board go forwards into the oven, and then pull it back in one smooth motion without stopping, the momentum will carry the dough onto the stone. This is very tricky to write about, but easier to do.
Once you've got your dough onto the hot stone, simply close the door, and wind the temperature down to about 220 degrees. The temperature really is quite arbitary. Oven temperatures vary quite a bit. I'll talk about this more later.
After fifteen minutes, have a look at your bread, and make sure you pull it out of the oven when you do this. The back of most baking chambers is almost always hotter than the front. So rotate your bread (or breads) - if you have 2 on the stone, it's a good idea to spin them around individually, so that the sides as well as the back get cooked evenly. Then, put them back in, and check every fifteen minutes until the crust colour pleases you. Don't be scared of colour! A darker crust provides more flavour.
When cooked, have a look at the bread. Is it cooked more on the top or the bottom? If it's the top, then next time, lower your rack by a notch. If it's the bottom, raise it by a notch. Obviously, if they both look about the same, you've got it right!
Baking on the sole of the oven is a lot of fun to do, and yes, the first few times you try it, it is possible to have some nervous moments while you transfer the dough to the stone. But sole baked bread, as you will have learned, has the most amazing 'kick', and gives you a quality of crust that just isn't possible any other way - even when compared to baking on a tray. So dive in, and give it a try! As always,
Happy Sourdough Baking!