Your domestic oven will either be gas, electric, or possibly even wood fired (the latter if you are baking obsessed, or if you live in a cold climate and have a fuel stove). And of course, lately I see lots of 'patio based' manufactured wood fired ovens. These look like good fun. But that's for another article! For now, I'd like to help you set up your oven for baking bread at home.
Setting up Your Oven for baking Bread
It pays to set up your oven for baking bread before you begin. Very few domestic ovens can give you the type of result a commercial baker's oven can. What follows is a quick rundown on getting the best out of your domestic beast - and believe me, neglecting this section can make all your hard work so far a complete waste of time if the oven is set up incorrectly. You might try, time and time again, to get a great loaf, and time and time again you will fail, wondering what went wrong. When you set up your oven according to some basic principles here, you will at least have a fighting chance of turning out homemade bread that's 'just like a bought one'!
General principles follow:
- if you have a gas oven, the heat tends to be sharper; they lose and regain heat quite quickly. Bread needs a steady heat for the best crust and rise. The antidote? If there is space at the bottom of the oven, I recommend placing a couple of paving bricks, just off the floor. You can elevate them with an unused baking rack, or a few well placed pebbles. Obviously, you don't want to put them in the way of the flame, but if you can, put them on a baking rack so that air can circulate all the way around the bricks. This is particularly important if you have a fan forced (or convection) gas oven. These paving bricks will stabilise the heat somewhat. You'll need to 'set' the oven for a bit longer before baking, to get the bricks warm, but the results you get will be worth the small amount of extra gas used. Did I mention moisture? See the next paragraph, and replicate!
- If you have an electric oven, it takes longer to get hot, but it is a steadier and drier heat. A brick at the base won't hurt, but it's more important is to make sure there is adequate moisture in there. When you are about to begin baking, place a small bowl of water at the base of the oven. This will begin to evaporate once the oven gains enough heat, and will really help to set a good crust on your bread. Another way to a good crust is to use a spray gun to spray the sides of the oven just as you put the bread in. This will create steam, which will help to set the crust beautifully. Gas ovens are dry, and need a lot of moisture put into them to get good results.
If you have a fuel stove, you'll already know this is a whole different ball game. Fuel stoves, as you will have noticed, can be quite unpredictable. My experience has been that good ones are very good, and bad ones are just awful. Because the fire box is usually on one side, they tend to have one side much hotter than the other. However, if you vent them correctly, and set the fire well, so that it is full of hot embers rather than flames, you can get a really good result.
Fuel stoves are a solid source of baking heat, and so bread that comes from them will be very good, as a matter of general principle. Like I mentioned earlier, though, unevenness will be your foe, and you will need to use the same common sense when using this type of oven as has been applied to all the other types of ovens in this section.
The other thing I need to mention is that fuel stoves need regular internal cleaning, because the vents get coked up fairly quickly. Temperatures can be quite hard to control too, though the heat tends to be much steadier and moister. Still worth putting a bowl of water on the floor, nonetheless. The other trick with fuel stoves is to rotate the bread once halfway through the bake.
Convection Ovens (gas or electric):
As a rule of thumb, convection (or fan forced) ovens run about 10 to 20 degrees celsius hotter than ones without a fan. The advantage here is that they have a more even temperature. The disadvantage is that they tend to dry the bread out. Again, a bowl of water in the bottom of the oven will work wonders. Remember to put it in when you first fire up the oven, or the water won't be evaporating until you pull the bread out, which is too late.
Ovens without a fan (gas, electric or fuel stove):
These ovens are prone to accumulating heat at the top, and also near the element, wherever it is located. Sometimes the element is on the floor, other times at the back. I've even seen them with the element on one side only! (What were they thinking?) Anyway, there are advantages to these kinds of ovens. One is that they tend to set a very good crust - quite thick and chewy. Sometimes you'll have to turn the bread around halfway through the bake, but generally you'll find the heat is steady and not too dry.
Still air ovens will benefit from the paving brick on the bottom - this will draw in the heat and disperse it more evenly. They also do well with a bowl of water. Finally, allow a good long time to 'set' the oven when first bringing it up to temperature - this will tend to iron out most of the unevenness in the oven itself.
Barbeque ovens are a great way to cook bread! I've written a reasonably comprehensive article about how it's done, but the short and the tall of it is similar to gas ovens, in that the heat is quick, and it's gone equally quickly. Your Pizza stone or oven tile will be the main part of your BBQ oven, and it is very useful to have the ability to bake bread on the 'sole' - a whole new experince, and one the home sourdough baker should not miss! Seriously!
General Oven Things to remember:
- Bread bakes best in the middle of the oven - with a fairly even amount of space around the outside. The distance to the walls and floor should be roughly the same all the way around. So if you're baking tall loaves, for example, the racks need to be positioned in this fashion - i.e., further apart. On the other hand, if you're baking flat breads, you might have to lift the racks up a notch or two.
- Heat, particularly fan forced heat, gets caught up around irregularities. It's always a good idea to dust out your oven after use, and to clean it properly as often as you need to to prevent it from doing this. This is not something I like to do, but it does make a difference to the evenness of the oven's heat.
If your oven is baking unevenly, check the seals around the door for damage. This is particularly an issue for fan forced ovens. Oven seals are usually made of light rubberised material which wears quite quickly. It is easy to replace, and will make a big difference to the quality of crust and evenness in your baked bread.
- If you are getting an uneven bake, once you've set the oven, wind the temperature down 20 degrees or so. If it's still uneven, wind it down a bit more next time. It will take longer, and sometimes quite a bit longer. Don't worry - bread is cooked when it's cooked, and not before. It's pretty hard to overcook bread.
There are more oven tricks in Baking Techniques, which will give you some information about how to apply this information to baking bread.
Happy sourdough baking!