How To Achieve An Amazing Crust (It's So Easy!)

How to achieve an amazing crust

Want to make super-crusty bread at home? This article is for you. I have a simple technique. No hassle. Works every time :o)

I've been experimenting with crustiness this week. Whenever I buy good* bread it always has this amazing, thick, crunchy crust.
*Not the cheap floppy stuff that comes pre-sliced in a plastic bag, though I do buy that sometimes. It has its place.

By 'good' bread, I mean the kind that you pay a bit more for because it is made locally, in small batches. It may be labelled 'artisan' and it may be sourdough. It may be covered in oats or seeds. It probably isn't tin-shaped and it probably has some pretty marks cut into it, or the concentric ring markings left by a proving basket. Maybe it has all those things. It certainly has a robust crust that is dark and flavoursome, having been caramelised almost to the point of being burnt.

My mum made the bread in our house when I was little. My packed lunch always included stout, wholemeal sandwiches that were a workout for the jaws. I wouldn't have had it any other way. I did not envy the flabby, colourless sandwiches of my peers although I could see that the other children did have a certain speed advantage when it came to finishing their lunch and getting out to play.

It was there, in the school lunch hall, aged four, that I first began to consider crusts. Children all around me would carefully nibble up to the edge of their sandwiches and discard - what?! As far as I could see, the edge was only slightly less soft than the rest of their insubstantial bread. I pondered on this strange lack of effort as I stoically ploughed through my homemade bread. I rather liked crusts. I still do.

Good bought bread, as I was saying, has a great crust because commercial bread ovens are designed to create the perfect baking conditions (I'll get to those in a moment) but, never fear, I've been experimenting again and there are some things that we can do to replicate these conditions at home. In fact, I've honed a really simple, no fuss technique that works pretty bloomin' well, every time.

Homemade crusty bread

Incidentally, there is a lot of information on line about crusts. It makes interesting reading but I'm not going to try and go into all the science here. My aim is simply to share the technique that I have found most successful with the least hassle. That said, it helps to know that a good crust depends on sufficiently caramelising the starches in the flour on the surface of the bread. This requires an even heat and a high temperature. You don't want the crust to form too fast, however, since that will restrict the bread from rising properly and make for a less fluffy loaf. Those enviable bought loaves that are fluffy on the inside with a dark, crunchy crust have been given sufficient temperature and time to spring up in the early stages of cooking before the crust is allowed to dry out and brown.

Homemade crusty loaf

Assuming that you have used good quality ingredients to make a decent bread dough, two things seem to be important in creating a good crust:

  1. Heat - You need to help your dough to reach a high temperature as rapidly as possible, once it goes into the oven. Ideally, you want to distribute the heat evenly. This will enable the 'oven spring' - an initial expansion of the air bubbles to inflate the dough in the early stages of cooking, making it light inside.
  2. Moisture - You need to ensure that your crust doesn't dry out too fast, preventing the bread from rising fully. In a commercial oven, this is achieved with jets of steam.
Don't worry: I have a master plan.

To give you context for the master plan, here are some ways that you could easily obtain optimum heat and moisture in your oven. (Read on for my overall easiest way.)

To maximise the amount of heat going into your bread, and distribute it evenly, you could use a baking stone, which you preheat as the oven is warming up. I do not have a baking stone but I have found that preheating my baking tray or loaf tins has a similar effect. (Also, preheating loaf tins seems to prevent sticking - nice side effect!)

As for moisture, there are various ways you could create steam in the oven. Suggestions include: putting a bowl of water on the bottom of the oven, putting ice-cubes on the bottom of the oven, using a spray bottle to create mist in the oven.

Those techniques work and, anyway, you just have to do the best you can with the equipment you have.


Here's what I do (super simple technique)


The best success I've had with great crust creation has been using my Le Creuset casserole dish* (the link is to the same one as mine, on Amazon, but I think any heavy cast-iron casserole dish with a lid would work well. Maybe even a Pyrex casserole dish would be good enough.)
*This is an affiliate link. If you buy anything on Amazon after clicking through with this link, I may get a commission. So please buy something really expensive. Thanks ;o)

You need to preheat it in the oven so that when the bread is ready to bake, you can pop it onto the hot metal surface and it sizzles. Then you put the lid on to start the cooking. The heavy lid traps enough steam in the casserole dish to slow down crust formation and let the bread rise sufficiently. After 15 or 20 minutes (it's not crucial) you remove the lid and let the crust begin to dry out and caramelise. By the time the cooking time is complete, your bread will be crusty all over and a tasty, dark brown colour. And because you pre-heated the casserole dish, the loaf just pops off the surface as easy as anything. Bonus!

Now, I know everyone has their own way of doing things, and I'm not even saying mine is the best way, but it's the most hassle-free way I've found of getting great results.

Feel free to leave a comment below if you have a great technique to recommend too.


More!


Beginners, this book is for you.

It is your blueprint for your first loaf.

You are only a few hours away from the smell of freshly baked bread in your own kitchen.

I will guide you.


And here is my ever-expanding recipe collection:

30+ original recipes from Freshly Baked in a printable, easy-read format.

10 comments:

  1. This is the technique I use, as Rachel says, you get a good crusty loaf.
    I prove the load in a banneton then when I am ready to bake cut a piece of baking parchment and lay it across the banneton then put a flat plate or baking sheet over that. Now flip it over and lift the banneton off. You can now score the bread and use the baking parchment as a sling to lift the loaf in to the casserole. Leave the bread on the parchment to bake. The bread wont stick to the parchment so you can re-use the same sheet a number of times, but eventually it becomes brittle.

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    Replies
    1. That sounds good - especially the instructions for transferring from banneton to casserole dish. I've been proving my loaves in a bowl but the transfer is always a bit tricky. Your parchment/plate method will make it easier. Thanks!

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    2. Just chipping in to agree with Richard M about re-using parchment - it does become brittle with repeated use, and my record (so far?) is five bakes.

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    3. I wonder if reusable silicon liners would work here, or if they'd affect heat transfer adversely.

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  2. I've been using this casserole (in the US they call it 'Dutch oven') method for all my loaves so far. I have an old cast iron casserole from Sweden which I picked up on a holiday there (they have amazing flea-markets called 'loppis', particularly in the country areas) - it cost me the equivalent of a pound! I originally followed the approach from 'Jenny can cook', so I do 35 mins covered and then 10 uncovered (the approach is quite forgiving I find, so the timing doesn't have to be absolutely precise). Crusts are always splendid.

    The loaves are of course always round and 'cottage loaf' style - and excellent - but I have been wondering whether to invest in a baking steel in order to go a bit more free-form (maybe also to make pizzas). Do you or any other readers have any experience of using a steel? Unlike baking stones (I don't have one of those either) they are not prone to cracking.

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    Replies
    1. I haven't used a steel but I often preheat a standard baking sheet on which to bake bread or pizza and that certainly seems to work well: crispier bottoms (and we all love a crispy bottom, no?). Yes, I've resisted the baking stone idea because of the cracking. I'm tempted to get a steel. Maybe someone else will chip in with experience.

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  3. I make a no kneed pot bread that gets baked in a cast in pot with a lid that we use on a fire when camping, perfect every time.
    Another trick to placing the proven dough into the now very hot pot. I do the final prove in a mini wok, about 20cm/8" diameter. I can then just tip the dough in clear for the heat. I grease and oil the wok first then sprinkle sesame seeds onto the surface before I do the last proving of 30mins.
    For my other breads on trays/stone/tins, I use a preheated baking dish in the bottom of the oven and just after I put the dough in I pour boiling water into the tray that gives the steam burst you need. (Make sure your hand and wrists is fully covered completely) I then mist the oven with a spray bottle twice for the first 2mins. Do not put ice in the water as this lowers the oven and water temperature too much.
    Tony, I use a pizza stone for years and never had any issues with cracking. From what I have read about steel baking sheets is that they are very expensive and need to be thick, around 8mm/3/8" to hold the heat and must not cover the full area of the oven as heat flow is restricted. Much cheaper to here in South Africa to replace the stone each if it breaks. The benefit I see form a sheet is that you can place more than one loaf into the oven.

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  4. I have tried and tried but just can't seem to achieve a white fluffy loaf. I have tried bread flour, cake flour, a mixture of both, stoneground flour etc andalways the loaf turns out a rather grey course loaf which stales very quickly. What am I doing wrong?

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    Replies
    1. I wonder what recipe you're using? Have you seen my 'Formula for Great Dough?' https://www.freshly-baked.co.uk/2013/01/the-formula-for-great-dough.html That might help you. It sounds as though your quantity of water might be slightly off. Email me for more help.

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