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My wife has been baking sourdough bread in an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and has been getting a very nice crust.

She preheats the pan and oven to 500 °F (260 °C), then puts the dough in the pan, cooks a while at 480 °F (250 °C) covered, then at 450 °F (230 °C) uncovered. Dutch ovens are round and our main use case is sandwiches, so it would be nice to cook in a rectangular pan. When I search for them, it appears they are all ceramic. Does the lower heat conductivity of ceramic make it not form as nice a crust?

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    I searched Amazon for "cast iron casserole rectangular" and found several immediately. – RedSonja Jun 7 at 13:24
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    Does this answer your question? What are the differences between a Dutch oven and ceramic casserole? – 2cents Jun 7 at 13:29
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    @2cents: No, it does not. It does not address the effect of the material on bread crust. Thank you for the reference. – Ross Millikan Jun 7 at 13:47
  • Do you really want crusty bread for sandwiches? Usually recipes and loaves marketed for sandwiches have a soft crust. – aswine Jun 7 at 14:33
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    @aswine: yes, we do like crusty bread for sandwiches. – Ross Millikan Jun 7 at 14:35
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Doesn't matter; you cannot use a ceramic pan with that baking technique.

If you heat the ceramic pan to 500F and then add the wet dough, it is likely to crack, and possibly even explode. Same goes for glass. Ceramic pan maker Emile Henry says:

Never preheat your ceramic baking dish dry, always add cooking oil or some type of liquid to the dish.

You should, instead, find a covered cast-iron loaf pan, such as the one by Staub, or a different baking technique, such as the traditional cold-oven cloche technique.

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  • This might be true for generic casseroles, but there are many ceramic bread cloche's on the market. I would guess that they are fired and cooled in production in such a way to release internal tension that could lead to cracking. In any case, they are designed for this use. – 2cents Jun 7 at 13:33
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    Hmm, I think that, just on general principles, I wouldn't buy a bread pan that's so expensive that the seller offers to finance the purchase. <g> – Pete Becker Jun 7 at 13:50
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    2cents: that's incorrect. You do not bake with a cloche by heating it to 500F dry and empty; the instructions, such as the ones I quote in my answer, specifically warn against that. Bread goes in the cloche at room temp. – FuzzyChef Jun 7 at 15:54
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    Also, relevantly, I'm a potter so I know a little bit about ceramic ovenware and what you can and can't do. – FuzzyChef Jun 7 at 15:54
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    Buy 2 for 20% of the cost and use one as the lid? Or use foil as a lid? – Ecnerwal Jun 10 at 18:10
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In a very similar position to you, I switched to an old-fashioned sheet steel loaf tin. The method is a little different

I line the tin with reusable non stick liner, and prove the dough in the tin (overnight in the fridge, taking it out an hour before baking, though 2-3 hours would be better). I bake uncovered, and when I put the loaf into the oven I add boiling water to a preheated pan on the oven floor.

The side crust is a bit easier for slicing this way, and overall the loaf is better for sandwiches. Proving in another container and preheating the loaf tin didn't work for me - shaping the loaf and placing it in the tin was the problem.

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  • Reusable non-stick liner can't be heated to more than 230C usually, right? Just asking because OP mentioned higher temperatures. – Nobody Jun 7 at 12:16
  • @Nobody mine says 260°C. I heat the oven to 240, but because I don't preheat the pan and liner, it never gets that hot. It's optional anyway; oiling or flouring the pan can be enough (with different effects on the crust) but mine sits cold in there for near enough 24 hours and tended to stick in the corner seams otherwise. I've cut the liner so the corners are protected. – Chris H Jun 7 at 12:35
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There are two good answers here at this point, but I'll just add a little more about why your wife's method works. It is not just heat conductivity. First, cast iron does store a ton a energy as it is being pre-heated in the oven. When the bread is first placed in the pan, that stored heat is transferred to the dough, helping to create the bottom crust.

Secondly, however, you cover the pan, creating a very moist environment, as moisture from the dough is turned to steam and trapped. In a way, this recreates the effect of a steam injection oven found in artisan bakeries. This steam generation and capture is difficult to recreate in a home oven, even with various hacks that home bakers uses.

That said, a sandwich loaf is usually baked differently, as pointed out by @FuzzyChef. As a follow-up to his answer, you might also search "cast iron bread cloche" to find other options. Most are not rectangular, but a more elongated shape might be more to your liking.

While the pan material does have an impact, when using this method, the cover on the Dutch oven is critical. That is hard to reproduce. I have seen success, baking a boule, with a sheet pan and a stainless steel prep bowl as an alternate. That might work as an experiment, if you have a large enough prep bowl that you can place over a loaf pan. Alternately, why not try a heavy loaf pan with some of the more common moisture hacks (spray bottle...water pan in bottom of oven...etc.)? As @Chris H points out, the crust won't be as thick, but maybe you will enjoy the texture for sandwiches.

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  • Thank you. Many of the ceramic pans we were seeing have covers as well. We are happy with the crust we are getting, even for sandwich use. – Ross Millikan Jun 7 at 13:48
  • I also added a link to traditional cloche technique in my answer; that's what those ceramic pans are intended for. – FuzzyChef Jun 7 at 15:59

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