Two elements create that thick crust that we love on great European hearth breads: Steam and high temperatures. The steam creates a thicker crust and the high temperature drives the moisture from the loaf.
In this article, we will teach you how to create that effect at home, but please remember to be very careful while creating steam in your oven. We will also discuss an option to make a thick crust without so much steam at the end.
Disclaimer: The Prepared Pantry does not take any responsibility for any accidents that may arise from attempting this process. If you are not very careful, quick, and precise with your actions when filling your oven with steam, you will get burned. If the burns are severe, please call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.
On another note, we have made this bread time and time again without having any need to rush to the hospital, and that is only because we were being very, very careful and cautious while working with the steam.
How to Create a Thick Crust
As explained before, one of the key components to creating that thick and chewy crust that we love on European hearth breads and other artisan breads is steam. And you’ll need lots of it. Here’s how we do it, but please remember to be careful and quick during these next steps.
Similar to when you’re frying, steam can smell fear. If you work with the steam with an unsure hand, the steam will likely come up and bite you (or rather burn you), so it’s very important to be confident in what you’re doing, even if it’s your first time making artisan bread.
If you would like to bake crusty bread from a mix, check out these focaccia mixes.
Making the Steam
- Place a large, shallow, metal pan in the oven on the lowest shelf. You will pour hot water in this pan to create steam in the oven. High heat is hard on pans so don’t use one of your better pans. An old sheet pan is ideal. Fill a spray bottle with water. You will use this to spray water into the oven to create more steam.
- Being very careful not to burn yourself with the rising steam and with a mitted hand, pour two cups of very hot water into the pan in the oven. Quickly close the oven door to capture the steam.
- With spray bottle in hand, open the door and quickly spray the oven walls and close the door.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
If the idea of steam clouding up in your face bothers you, another trick is to throw ice cubes into the bottom pan instead of pouring hot water into it. This will not be so quick to create the steam, but it will also give you a good time frame to get out of the way before you’re faced with a hot cloud of steam.
Steam Baking Your Thick Crust
- When the oven is hot and the bread is fully risen and is soft and puffy, gently invert the loaf or loaves onto a lightly greased non-insulated baking sheet on which a little cornmeal has been dusted.
- With your sharpest knife, quickly make two or three slashes 1/4-inch deep across the top of each loaf. This will vent the steam in the bread and allow the bread to expand properly.
- Immediately put the bread in the steamy oven. After a few moments, open the door and spray the walls again to recharge the steam. Do this twice more during the first fifteen minutes of baking. This steamy environment will create the chewy crust prized in artisan breads.
- After the bread is in the oven, turn the temperature down to 400 degrees and set the timer for about forty minutes.
- Check on the bread ten minutes before the baking should be complete. If the top is browning too quickly, tent the loaf with aluminum foil for the last while to keep it from burning.
- The bread is done when the crust turns a dark golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees.
It is important that the bread is well-baked to drive moisture from the loaf. If the bread is under baked, the excess moisture will migrate to the crust and you will no longer have the dry chewy crust of a great artisan loaf.
Making an Artisan Bread Without Steam
Everyone loves artisan breads for their thick and chewy crusts, but you can make a similar effect without using the steam method. The main difference will be that with the loss of steam, you will not be trapping nearly as much moisture into the crust, so it won’t get as thick and chewy. It will still taste great though, and it is a great way to start.
To make artisan breads without steam, you can simply spray the prepared dough with water before it goes into the oven, maybe even spray the sides of the oven with water if you’re adventurous, and then follow the same instructions above for baking the loaf.
With this spraying method, even if you are spraying water into the hot oven, you will not be creating the big cloud of steam, but the overall effect on the crust will be close enough, but maybe not professional grade.
Overall, it’s okay to start out by making your artisan loaves with thick and chewy crusts this way, but it’s worth venturing out, when you feel comfortable, to steam bake your loaves.