I like easy bread. I bake because I am too lazy to go down to a bakery and buy bread. There have been times when I could put the tea kettle on, and step out the door, and be back with an excellent baguette before the kettle boiled. If I could still do that, I would bake less often.
We remodeled the kitchen six years ago, and the oven was selected so we could have good bread often, and easily. Our oven is an electric convection oven. It is a “home” model, so it does not have the very high temperatures, or high recovery rate, or high thermal inertia of a commercial baking oven. It does not have steam injection. Nevertheless, it serves to easily produce any bread (or pastry) that we want, with a minimum of fuss and effort. That includes excellent baguettes, pain de campagne, and other breads and pastries that I am proud to serve.
Our home oven has a “Stone” function for making “Artisan Breads”, however, that requires an expensive accessory baking stone and a long preheat. I do not use it.
I do not use any kind of a baking cloche! They are not needed, and they interfere with the shape and form of my breads.
I do not add water or ice to the hot oven. Bread dough is about 70% water, and water takes a lot of energy to heat it into steam. Just after loading the oven, the problem is getting enough heat to the water in the dough. Throwing water in the oven means there is less heat to cook the dough. That water to make steam is more cold stuff in the oven. (The heat used to warm the water/make steam is not in the dough – on the other hand that water can convert heat in very high temperature metal into oven into latent heat at a temperature suited for baking bread.) A cloche will provide both thermal inertia and moisture control – if I had a gas oven, I would use a cloche. Cloches are easier and often better than throwing water in the oven.
My approach is simple, I add some thermal inertia to the oven, so the temperature of the oven does not drop too much as I put the bread dough in the oven!
In my oven this usually takes the form of some aluminum castings that I put on the bottom rack of the oven. The aluminum heats rapidly, and the heat rapidly transfers back into the oven environment. I use some aluminum supports from an old table saw that I got from a junkyard. They preheat rapidly and they release heat back into the oven environment rapidly – much faster than a pizza stone. However, a large cast iron skillet or cast iron griddle works almost as well but needs an extra 5 or 10 minutes of preheat and does not release heat back into the oven environment as fast so there is a bit less oven spring. In any case, the extra thermal inertia heats water vapor coming out of the bread dough to aid in heating keeping the crust elastic and cooking the crumb.
Then, I bake on the center rack of the oven using convection. I bake Artisan Breads using heavy, commercial aluminium (1/2) bake sheets lined with parchment paper or Silpat at 395F convection, dropping the temperature to 325F convection during the last 5 minutes to improve the crust. I bake homestyle breads in loaf pans at 375F convection. I try to arrange the bake so that I load about a kilo (2 pounds) of raw dough into the oven at once. This is two nice sandwich loaves or one large Artisan loaf. If I want to bake a 2-kilo loaf, then I have to add more thermal inertia (iron) and raise the temperature to 450F. Baking a single 1-kilo loaf at 450F convection results in a burned crust long before the crumb is cooked. Bread doughs with fat/oil in them get baked with convection at 350F or 375F. (High fat pastry, such as pies, get started at 375F convection for a few minutes, then the temperature is dropped to a much lower temperature.)
Baking a single pound of dough in my oven does not produce enough steam in the oven to produce a good loaf. My baking one 1-lb loaf at a time without a cloche results in failure, so I bake two loaves and freeze one. (Or, some breads are just better the next day!!) It is easier to bake two 1-lb loaves than to drag out a cloche, preheat it, and etc. All my “bread” recipes have been scaled to between 400 and 600 gr of flour, except with items like baguettes and buns which with their large surface area, and large contact with the baking sheet, work well at 300 gr of flour. (A fresh bun can turn a “sausage” into a very nice meal! Sometimes Artisan Breads are not right for the menu. )
When baking breads, after 10 or 15 minutes, I open the oven door and rotate the loaves, this gives me more even baking, and it releases some steam from the oven. I do get a blast of steamy air, so I know there is a lot of moisture in the oven. And, even at the end of the bake, as I take things out of the oven, I again feel the moisture. Thus, baguettes get rotated 2 or 3 times while baking to allow the oven atmosphere to dry. In the old days, with gas ovens, the blast from the oven was always dry.
Much of the lore about baking comes from the old days of wood or coal or gas fired ovens that were vented, so the steam could escape as fast as it was produced. Even the original electric oven in our current house was vented.
In Julia Child’s or James Beard’s day, all gourmet kitchens had gas ovens, so an approach that worked was to heat the oven very hot, and throw water in it. That converted the high temperature of the oven into latent heat at a temperature useful for baking. When I was in high school, my family had such a commercial gas oven; it was the kind of oven that Julia Child and James Beard had in their kitchens. Those ovens were similar to the ovens that were in the first commercial kitchens I where I cooked professionally. Circa 1970; I threw water in my gas oven when baking bread; Louis Diat was my hero; and I turned out beautiful breads. That was then, and now I use an electric convection oven, and baking is easier.
This year’s Thanksgiving was smaller, as some had health issues. The menu was more traditional American, so the bread was almost white, made with yeast, and baked in buttered loaf pans at 375F convection. Such breads can be just as good as, and more appropriate to the menu than “Artisan Breads”.