When Mark Bittman published Jim Lahey's original no-knead bread recipe in the New York Times back in 2007, it was the method of mixing the dough that got all the attention, and with good reason: The concept of letting enzymes, yeast, and time do all the work of developing gluten, in lieu of kneading, revolutionized the way home and restaurant cooks alike could make bread and pizza dough.* Yet there was another idea in that piece that deserved no less attention for the ingenious way in which it improved home-baked loaves: baking the bread in a Dutch oven.
*Check out my version of the recipe for some more information on the science of no-knead bread.
It's a step that creates a thick, crisp, crackly crust that's better than any you could hope to achieve without a professional bread oven. But the technique has one problem: Dropping moist raw dough into a screaming-hot, 500°F Dutch oven is awkward and dangerous. When the folks at Fourneau Bread Oven told me they had the answer and sent me a unit to test out, I was surprised at how low-tech their solution was. It's a simple tool made of three hunks of cast iron, but it neatly solves the problem, making it essential gear for any home baker who's serious about baking a better crust. They've already raised over $165,000 through their Kickstarter campaign, so clearly I'm not the only one who finds the concept impressive.
How does it work? First, let's do a quick recap on the science of bread baking.
Up until that article was published, most people had been doing what I'd done: baking their bread on a preheated baking stone and splashing it with a bit of water in a desperate (and relatively futile) attempt to mimic the steamy oven environment of the best bakeries. See, bread forms the crispest, crackliest, most blistered crust when it's baked at very high heat in a very moist environment.
The high heat produces oven spring—the rapid expansion of air bubbles and water vapor inside the dough that creates its airy, open structure. Steam not only enhances this process (moist air transfers heat energy more effectively than dry air), but also slows down the rate at which the crust dehydrates, giving your loaf more time to create a thick, gelatinized layer of starch on its exterior, which in turn develops into a thicker, crisper crust. It's very similar to the way in which a parboiled potato will subsequently develop a thicker, crisp crust when you roast or fry it.
Like a baking stone, a heavy cast iron Dutch oven stores plenty of heat energy, which it delivers to the bread as it bakes. Unlike with a baking stone, this energy radiates from all sides, not just from underneath. More importantly, the small volume of a sealed Dutch oven concentrates the water vapor evaporating off the dough, creating the steamy environment we're after. Preheat the Dutch oven in your regular oven, pull it out, drop in your wet dough (while hoping it doesn't get horribly misshapen in the process), slam the lid shut, and bake.
The Fourneau oven does the exact same thing without the awkward drop-and-slam step. It has a heavy cast iron base with a cast iron dome that sits above it. Instead of lifting that dome to put your bread inside, you pull out a metal door, which allows you to slide your dough into the chamber using the provided wooden peel. Put the door back in place, and you've got yourself a mini bread oven.
I baked a few loaves of bread, using a single batch of dough divided into a dozen individual loaves, to test out how effective the oven is compared to a regular baking stone and the Dutch oven method. Compared to a stone, the differences are immediate and obvious: a much crisper, thicker crust, with bigger blisters, that stays crisp long after the bread has cooled. Compared to the Dutch oven, it's a toss-up. Some loaves seemed crisper out of the Dutch oven; others were better out of the Fourneau. Similar performance with greater ease of use is a good trade-up in my book.
The Fourneau also makes it easy to bake consecutive loaves, since it doesn't totally cover an average-size baking stone or steel. Just preheat the Fourneau on top of the stone or steel in your oven, launch the first loaf into it, and let it bake for around 20 minutes to set the crust. Then use the wooden peel to transfer it to another part of the stone, freeing up the Fourneau to start your next loaf.
Of course, there are a few disadvantages. First, the Fourneau is a uni-tasker. A Dutch oven is still gonna make great stews, soups, and braises while it's not baking your bread. The Fourneau will sit in your closet, waiting to be called into action. You'll have to really love baking bread (or have an excess of kitchen storage space) to get the most out of it. Second, unless you have lots of experience launching dough off a paddle, there's gonna be a learning curve before you can do it successfully. Expect a few misshapen loaves early on. Third, there's the price. At $225 (that price includes the wooden peel), it ain't cheap—though, to be fair, a Dutch oven isn't cheap, either.
Finally, there's the shape, which limits the bread you can make to long, narrow loaves that are a maximum of around six inches wide, four inches high, and 10 inches long (sorry, no baguettes or oversize boules). Still, that restriction is a small price to pay for better, easier crusts.
If you're the type of serious home bread baker who's been waiting for a product like this, you already know who you are. I don't need to convince you of its convenience. I'm happy to report that the product is well made and well designed, and it functions exactly as advertised. I've even seen people online using the oven on top of their grill and in their fire pits, with burning embers to keep it fueled. Campfire no-knead bread sounds like a pretty delicious prospect to me. You can bet I'll be trying it as soon as camping season rolls around again.
You can order the Fourneau oven through their site. Place your order by the end of the day today (December 16, 2015), and it should arrive in time for Christmas if you've got a bread baker in your life who's been especially nice this year. You'll be rewarded with more delicious bread next year, I promise.