Lately I've been baking a bit, due to not so much wanting to eat the styrofoam bread commonly found in non-bakery grocery stores. The "a bit" is due to only needing to feed two people. So I've tried out several different recipes than our previous basic all-purpose "bread: yeast water flour salt sweet; mix knead rise knead rise bake" formula. Lo and behold, I am succeeding, and we get to eat real, serious bread, with things like flavor and texture!
There has been one small problem, however. Whenever I bake a loaf of bread that is supposed to develop a serious, thick, fantastic crust, it wimps out. Sure, the bread is fine, and the crust isn't soggy or anything. But if you are trying to make a decent baguette, it's a little discouraging to only achieve a marginally firm or a leathery crust. I want to tear at a crispy crust with my front teeth. I want contrast. I want a real baguette, with all it entails. Brushing the loaf with water does not cut it. So what can you do?
Well. I have a cookbook called The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, by Beatrice Ojakangas. I largely use it for the cake and roll recipes, but there is a substantial bread section as well. So I decided to look and see if I could find any Scandinavian methods of achieving a good crust.
I discovered that in Iceland, the ovens have piped-in natural volcanic steam, and that is how they make good crust on their bread. Great, but I don't live in Iceland. Fortunately, the author of said books lives in Minnesota, and provided an easy way to get a similar effect in a regular oven. I tried it Saturday morning, and finally made a baguette that looked and tasted just how it should: soft and white on the inside, golden and crispy on the outside. Yay! I win!
The method is simple. You need:
A batch of bread dough, ready to bake,
An oven in which to bake said bread,
Two racks in said oven,
A jelly roll pan, or some similar large shallow metal pan (do NOT use glass!),
And some water.
Adjust the racks in your oven so that one is in the lowest slot, and one is in the middle. Put the empty jelly roll pan on the low rack, and preheat the oven. While it's preheating, finish shaping your bread or whatever.
When your oven is sufficiently hot, slide your bread onto the top rack. Then pour a small amount of water into the jelly roll pan, maybe half a cup, and immediately shut the oven door. The water will hit the hot metal and instantly evaporate, producing a burst of steam. I used a watering can to pour in my water, since I didn't want to burn my hand off either in the steam or on the pan, but as long as you are careful, a measuring cup should work fine. The steam then stays in the oven and helps the crisp crust develop. So, leave your bread in to bake normally. Remove when done. Cool, slice and eat. Eat lots.
Why does this work? One explanation I've found says that the steam (or water, if you just brush the loaf, or spray it) keeps the dough moist enough to rise completely before the crust develops. Another says that modern ovens are badly insulated; when bread bakes, it loses moisture, so the steam replaces that lost moisture. Both explanations say that the bread needs to do its work before the crust forms. The key seems to lie not in the crust, then; it lies in caring properly for the entire loaf.
Also, Professor Pi tells me that "the heat capacity of (saturated) moist air is much higher than dry air. Also, heat transfer from moist air may be better than dry air (compare this to sticking your hand in a 300 F oven, or touching the wall of that same oven (same temp., but OUCH!)". Personally, I know next to nothing about physics, but this strikes me as a much more plausible explanation.
Beatrice Ojakangas, The Great Scandinavian Baking Book