If you've ever made bread from scratch, found a technique and a recipe you like, and then practiced it a lot, you probably can make a pretty great loaf of bread. But people who make bread at home often complain that it just doesn't quite approximate the bread they have from a French bakery, which is somehow lighter inside and crispier outside. You've worked so hard, you want a deep brown crust that shatters when you hit it, right? The missing piece is a level of heat and steam that is almost impossible to generate in a conventional home oven.
A bread cloche recreates the same conditions that you find in a traditional bread oven so you can actually bake a delicious, crusty loaf that is light and airy inside. I took one for a spin this week and I can tell you it works.
A cloche works by trapping moisture that evaporates from the dough as it bakes. The moisture turns to steam, which keeps the dough moist during baking. The dough expands, swelling into a plump loaf of bread. Once the moisture evaporates, the loaf develops a crisp, thin, golden crust. The base of the cloche is a glazed platter which absorbs heat during baking. This heat is released back into the dough helping it rise into a bakery-like loaf. The ridges on the base keep the dough from sticking while it bakes, and there's barely any clean-up.
There is a glazed cloche made by Emile-Henry (pictured here) and also two very similar unglazed options. The glaze has the extra benefit of being super-easy to clean and resistant to thermal shock (if the cloche is cold when it hits a hot oven, crack!) and mechanical shock (you just dropped it!). An unglazed cloche works similarly, but will stain with use (like a pizza stone) and can break easily.
Any yeasted loaf recipe, including no-knead bread, will work in a cloche, and of course if you don't have room or budget for another kitchen gadget, this recipe will work just fine in a Dutch oven or other large, covered, oven-safe pot, or in that brick-oven you're thinking of building in the back yard.
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast or 2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 cups (12 fluid ounces) warm water, 90°F - 100°F
4 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) plus 1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour,
2 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the 4 1/2 cups flour, sea salt, olive oil and sugar. Stir until the flour is just moistened. Knead by hand or in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and silky, about 5 minutes.
Form the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly and let the dough ferment and rise until doubled in bulk, from 1 1/2 to 3 hours, longer in very cold weather. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Form it into a tight ball by rolling it toward you on a floured surface or Silpat baking mat.
Lightly sprinkle the base (or the bottom of a 3 1/2 quart Dutch oven) with some flour. Place the dough in the center of the base. Cover with the cloche top and let the dough proof and rise until expanded 1 1/2 times in size, from 30 to 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, adjust your oven rack so that it is in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 450°F.
Sift more flour on the top of the dough if desired. Using a serrated knife, make three parallel cuts on the surface of the dough. Cover and bake until well risen and golden brown, approximately 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the cover and continue baking, if desired, until the loaf is well browned and the crust thickens.
Carefully remove the loaf from the cloche and set to cool on a wire rack.
• For a more uniform shape, allow the dough to rise in a cloth-lined bowl instead of on the base of the cloche: Line a medium-sized bowl with a clean dish towel. Sprinkle it with some flour then place the dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it proof as above. When fully proofed, lightly sprinkle the base with some flour. Place the dough in the center of the platter and proceed with baking.
• If you would like to bake several batches of bread in your cloche, mix the dough in stages staggered approximately 45 minutes apart. While one batch of dough is baking, proof the next loaf. You can proof the loaf in a lightly floured cloth-lined bowl or on a parchment-lined baking sheet. When it is time to bake, turn the dough out onto the heated base. Or slide the dough and parchment paper directly onto the platter when it becomes available. Trim the paper to fit under the cloche. If the cloche and base are still warm, your bread will bake more quickly. Just be careful when handling the cloche if it is very hot.