Straight to the Point
Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on the $300 Le Creuset Bread Oven, a dedicated vessel for bread baking. I'll let you read the full review for the nitty gritty details, but my bottom line was that the bread oven was aesthetically beautiful, but ultimately not worth the sticker price—especially since standard cast-iron Dutch ovens are just as effective for baking bread, and useful for countless other tasks.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Le Creuest oven, you might be surprised to know that I actually bake my breads in similar dedicated bread-baking vessels all the time, and recommend them to just about anyone within shouting distance. Regular old cast-iron Dutch ovens work pretty darn great for baking bread, but I still prefer using a vessel designed specifically and only for the task, for a bunch of reasons I will get into below. But first, a brief primer on why you'd want to bake bread in a pot in the first place, from that earlier article of mine:
Lean breads—meaning those without a large amount of fat from eggs, butter, or oil in them—need to be surrounded by steam for the first half or so of the bake for best results. The steam serves to promote good oven spring for a tall, open-crumbed loaf, and to produce a thin-shelled and shiny crust. After a while, the steam is removed in order to let the crust brown and crisp up.
Professional bakers use specialized ovens that rapidly fill the oven with steam on demand, and vent it away just as quickly when it’s no longer needed. Home bakers have devised all sorts of techniques for steaming their ovens—pouring boiling water onto superheated lava rocks is one of the best I’ve found—but no matter how good, these tricks all fall short, for two reasons. One, it is hard to generate enough steam to fill the relatively large space of a typical home oven. And two, home ovens are vented by design, so they do not retain enough steam to have the desired effect. (Electric ovens are better than gas in this regard, but neither is great.)
Enter the Dutch oven. Instead of baking the bread in the “open,” you preheat the empty pot and lid in the oven, add the loaf, cover it, and return it to the oven. After half an hour or so, you remove the lid and continue baking the bread until it is sufficiently browned.
But what about the steam, you ask? Ah, but it comes from the bread itself! Bread baked in an enclosed container “self-steams,” because some of the water in the dough evaporates as the loaf heats up, filling the surrounding space with water vapor. Baking bread in a Dutch oven produces results that rival breads made in fancy, steam-injected bread ovens. It’s something of a miracle of science that such a simple and common device could be so effective, especially with so little effort required.
So, Dutch ovens are great for baking bread, and I think that if you are new to the practice or only bake once in a while, they are the ideal choice, especially since you might already have one on hand. And even if you don't, there are numerous reasonably-priced and well-made options. But you might find yourself eventually wanting something more out of a bread-baking vessel, especially if, like me, you bake on a regular basis. That’s because there are a few limitations to how you can bake bread in a Dutch oven (some that are gotten around with effort, one not so much).
What Are the Limitations to Baking Bread in a Dutch Oven?
A Dutch oven is a pot (obviously), which means you bake the loaf inside of a deep cavity. This is problematic in two ways. For starters, there's always a risk of burning hands or wrists on the rim of the blazing hot pot as you load the loaf; using oven gloves and/or a long parchment sling can help avoid this. More crucially, once the lid comes off and it comes time for the loaf to brown, the sides of the pot shield it from the oven's heat, which produces uneven browning and a potentially too-long bake (which can result in a too-thick crust). You can take the loaf out of the pot at this stage and bake it "naked”, though I have found it helpful to set it on a small baking stone or pan to shield it from the lower oven element and prevent burning.
But, a Dutch oven is also round. This is fine if you are happy making round loaves for the rest of your days, but it's a serious bummer when you want to branch out shape-wise, or if you are like me and prefer a long, rectangular loaf, aka a bâtard. (I like my slices more-or-less identically-sized, sue me!) You can make long loaves in a round pot if you scale them down to fit, but not if you want a full-size loaf. Large, long ones crammed into a round pot will inevitably conform to the shape of the pot, ending up as a blob midway between round and oblong (bloblong?). I can live with the occasional singed wrist, but I need my bâtards, which is why I prefer a dedicated bread-baking pot.
Aside from the Le Creuset, there are currently two main options for bread-specific, cast iron vessels: the Challenger Breadware Bread Pan and the Fourneau Bread Oven. And there’s a third if you count the Lodge Double Dutch Oven, which is not a dedicated pot, but can be used like one. And the great news is that all three options work wonderfully, since they have plenty of heat-retaining mass for good oven spring and are sufficiently airtight to jacket the loaf with steam when it's needed. That said, each of these has advantages and disadvantages worth considering before you decide to invest in one.
The Challenger Bread Pan
The $299 seasoned cast iron Challenger Bread Pan looks and functions a whole lot like a larger, rectangular Lodge Double Dutch Oven. At five times the price, it’s way more of an investment, but if you are serious about bread baking, it's likely money well spent. (Full disclosure: of the three pots I cover here, the Challenger is one I have the most experience with, having owned and used one regularly for more than two years now.) The inner dimensions of the base are 11 1/4- by 8 3/4-inches at their widest, which leaves plenty of room for the sorts of hefty, 1-kilogram-ish loaves I bake all the time, whether it's a long bâtard or rotund boule. And though it's shorter than the Lodge on the inside (a little over five inches, top to bottom), it's still plenty tall enough to accommodate any loaf you set in it.
While the fact that I can make loaves of any shape and size (aside from a baguette, that is) is excuse enough for me to splurge on a Challenger pan, there is another reason I like the extra space it offers: there's room to pull off the "ice cube” trick. Allow me to explain.
While it is true that Dutch-oven-baked loaves contain enough moisture to steam themselves during the start of the bake, it turns out you can improve the texture of the crust further with an extra burst of steam early on. I’m not sure who first figured it out, but the best way to do this in a Challenger is to drop a small ice cube or two into the open corners of the pan right before you set the lid on it. The heat stored up in the base will quickly melt the cubes and fill the cavity of the oven with steam. Loaves steamed this way will spring tall and proud with a beautiful gloss. (The one downside to adding ice and water to the base is that you’ll need to re-season the pan a bit more often than you otherwise might.)
The extra real estate of the Challenger comes at a cost, though, and not just on your wallet. The two halves of the Challenger weigh a combined 21 pounds, 13 3/8 ounces. I like to think I’m a pretty strong person, and even I find the Challenger a, well, challenge to move around, especially when it's ripping hot. It's doable, but it requires hand protection that gives you a solid grip on the pot—Challenger sells heatproof gloves that work nicely—as well as your full concentration in the moment. (It also helps to have oven racks that slide in and out easily, something mine definitely do not do.)
I love my Challenger pan, but there is no getting around its weight. Before investing in one, I’d practice loading and unloading your oven with another item of similar heft (like a Dutch oven filled with water) to be sure it's something you’d want to do each and every time you bake.
There is one other flaw in the Challenger I need to mention. Because the base is heavy cast iron (and dark in color), it pumps heat rapidly into the loaf. This is a good thing when it comes to the initial oven spring, but it can be a problem later on in the bake, since the underside of the loaf can burn before the top and sides are sufficiently browned. If you find this to be the case, one solution is to move the loaf to a small baking sheet or cake pan and finish it outside of the Challenger entirely. (Pro tip: doing so lets you bake multiple loaves in a staggered way, steaming the next loaf while the first one browns.)
Price at time of publish: $299.
- Materials: Cast iron
- Weight: 21 pounds, 13 3/8 ounces
- Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
- Care instructions: Season with oil lightly before or after each use
The Fourneau Bread Oven
Or maybe consider the $325 Fourneau Bread Oven instead, which, while nearly as hefty as the Challenger (the Fourneau's about 20 pounds), does not need to be moved around during use, since it stays in the oven the entire time. Unlike Dutch oven-style bread pots, the Fourneau is more like an oven-oven in design. It consists of an ovoid cast iron dome, open on one end, a cast iron door that fits snugly over the opening, and a grooved corderite (ceramic) base into which the dome sits.
The Fourneau ships with three additional essential parts: an aluminum tray that fits inside the oven (with an angled lip along its front edge), a silicone mat that sits between the loaf and the tray, and a notched steel bar that fits into a slot along the front edge of the tray as a handle. Loading works like you’d expect: you invert the loaf onto the mat-lined tray, score it, use the bar to grab the tray and slide it into the oven, then set the door in place.
You still need a hot mitt or oven glove to protect your hands as you grip the oven door, but at about three pounds, it’s much easier to manipulate than the Challenger Pan is. And because the Fourneau doesn’t need to be moved around during use, it can stand to be much roomier than a bread pot: the tray is 11 3/4 by 8 3/4 inches at its narrowest and the dome is about 5 1/2 inches tall. (It is still too short to fit a 14-inch-long demi-baguette, but you can make very respectable semi-demi-baguettes in one.)
Because the baking tray fills the oven cavity nearly completely, you can’t perform the ice cube trick in a Fourneau oven, but you don’t need to. That's because it’s got another trick up its sleeve: a second groove that runs around the inside of the corderite stone, into which you can pour water that turns to steam once it comes to a boil. You’ll need a gooseneck kettle or the $15 pitcher that Fourneau sells as an add-on to get the water into the groove, but it works just as well as ice cubes in the Challenger.
Unlike either the Challenger or the Lodge Double Dutch, you can’t uncover the loaf completely for the latter half of the bake in a Fourneau. Though they suggest just taking the door off, you definitely get faster and more even browning by moving the loaf out of the oven and setting it (on its tray) on the bare oven rack alongside it. (If you order a second baking tray and mat or transfer the loaf to another pan, you can do staggered baking this way too.)
The primary drawback to the Fourneau is the space it occupies when not in use. The Challenger is heavy, but it’s no bigger than any other large pot you might own, while the Fourneau—at 15 by 12 by seven inches in size, about the size of a large roasting pan—requires a lot of storage real estate. If I had a double wall oven (alas, I do not), I’d just leave it in the lower one the whole time, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Price at time of publish: $325.
- Materials: Cast iron, corderite, aluminum
- Weight: 19 pounds, 6 ounces
- Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
- Care instructions: Season cast iron cloche with grape seed oil 2-3 times per year.
The Lodge Double Dutch Oven
At $60, the 5-quart Lodge Double Dutch Oven is the least expensive of the three options, by a long stretch. While it is a Dutch oven, where it differs from most others is that its lid also doubles as a skillet, allowing the pot to be used in either orientation, lid up or down. Which means you can load and unload the bread without fear of burning, and the bread is exposed to the heat of the oven fully once the steaming phase is complete, so you can just remove the “pot” and carry on baking. It is not enamel-coated, but it is pre-seasoned, so there's no fear of sticking if you bake the loaf directly on the pot. (I tend to use a parchment “sling” to load and unload my breads, so this isn't an issue either way.) And the heavy-gauge cast iron provides plenty of mass for rapid oven spring and good browning. Even so—at 14 pounds, 7 ounces—it’s reasonably lightweight enough to move in and out of the oven without too much effort or brawn.
But in many ways you get what you pay for, at least if you are looking for a bread pot with some versatility to it. For starters, as should already be obvious, the Double Dutch Oven is round. And—with a 7-inch-wide base (on the inside)—it is also a little on the snug side. (Width-wise, that is; with more than six inches of headroom top to bottom, the Double Dutch is plenty tall enough for most breads.) Which means that those of us who dig long loaves are out of luck. Still, given the price point, the Lodge Double Dutch Oven is a great starter Dutch oven/bread pot for those who don’t have either yet, especially since you also get a nice cast iron skillet out of the deal.
Price at time of publish: $50.
- Materials: Cast iron
- Weight: 14 pounds, 7 ounces
- Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
- Care instructions: Season with oil before or after each use
The Bottom Line
As I’ve already said, all three of these devices can be used to make excellent crusty, crispy, and tall rustic loaves, especially once you understand how to use each of them best. The Lodge Double Dutch is the one I’d recommend to beginners or those with limited budgets, so long as round loaves are your thing. The Challenger is for those who want to bake longer loaves, don’t have a lot of storage space, and do have enough brawn to move the heavy pot around. And the Fourneau is my recommendation for long-loafers who have plenty of storage space—or a second oven to leave it in permanently.
What's the best bread oven?
If you're looking for a dedicated bread baker, we recommend all three of the models we tested for this review: the Lodge Double Dutch, Challenger, and Fourneau. They're each best suited for different kinds of bread bakers, but all will produce beautiful loaves.
What's the best vessel to bake sourdough bread?
For baking sourdough bread, you can use a bread cloche, bread oven, or Dutch oven. You should consider the shape you want to make (round, long, oblong), which will also determine which type of baking vessel is right for you.
Can you use a Dutch oven instead of a cloche?
Yes, you can use a Dutch oven instead of a cloche. There are some disadvantages to using a Dutch oven though (like it being harder to load and unload loaves and lack of airflow during the later baking stages), which we go into more above.