There’s no doubt that a wood-fired brick oven produces the crispiest crusts on artisan sourdough loaves, but not many people have a brick oven in the back yard. There are some ways to achieve similarly crispy crusts by simulating a brick oven in your kitchen and using a few simple tools.
USE BAKING STONES
Place baking stones in a cold oven, one on the lowest rack and another on the top rack. Placing cold stones in a hot oven may cause stones to crack.
Preheat the oven, with the baking stones inside, to 500°F for at least 30 minutes. If the stones are fairly thin (less than ½ inch), 30 minutes is sufficient; for thicker stones (¾ inch or more), allow 45-60 minutes for preheating.
Lower the oven temperature to 425°F just before placing loaves on the stone. For baking pizza directly on the stone, leave the oven at 500°F.
Place loaves or pizza crust only on the stone on the lowest rack.
USE A BAKER’S PEEL
A peel is a large paddle with a handle like the ones used in pizza restaurants. It is a useful tool for transferring loaves or pizza in and out of the oven.
Sprinkle the peel with cornmeal, brown rice flour, or semolina flour before placing your artisan loaf on it. Using a quick “jerk” motion, deposit the loaf on the stone. It may take a little practice to get the loaf to land just right, but avoid repositioning the loaf once it is on the stone until the bottom crust is solid enough to slide easily.
To achieve better oven-spring, loaves should be somewhat cool (50°-55°F) when placed on a hot stone.
Use the peel to remove loaves to a cooling rack when the crust is crispy and the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. If in doubt, insert an instant-read thermometer into the loaf. It should register around 200°F.
HOW TO BAKE LOAVES WITH A CRISPY CRUST
As soon as loaves are placed on a hot baking stone, liberally mist the loaves and walls of the oven with water and quickly close the oven door. Repeat the misting after 5 to 10 minutes. The steam produced contributes to a crisp crust. If loaves are getting too dark, shield them with foil.
Avoid opening the oven unnecessarily while the loaves are baking, since steam escapes every time the door is opened. A shallow pan of hot water on the very bottom of the oven can help with steam production, but generally misting with a spray bottle as described above is sufficient.
Baking for less than 30 minutes may not result in thick, chewy crust. Removing bread before it has fully cooked to the proper internal temperature leaves enough moisture behind in the crumb to soften the crust as it cools.
With just a little practice you can produce artisan loaves that rival those from brick-oven bakeries. And as for pizza, you’ll never call out for pizza delivery again!