This is meant to be less of a blog post and more of a handy tip but it’s a good one so bear with me!
One of the things you want to do when you put a loaf of bread in the oven to cook is get as much heat into it as possible. This is because three basic things happen when the loaf goes in.
Firstly, as the dough warms up the yeast gets an extra boost and starts working overtime which results in lots of extra air bubbles and therefore extra rise in the loaf. This is known as ‘oven spring’.
Unfortunately this doesn’t last long as the temperature soon becomes to high and the yeast is killed off. From this point on the rise comes from the existing air bubbles expanding in the heat. The more the gluten was worked during the kneading, the bigger these bubbles are able to stretch and the lighter and airier the finished loaf will be.
Finally, as the temperature in the dough rises further and the dough cooks these bubbles set which gives you the finished loaf.
If the oven is not hot enough then the cooking will progress to the third stage too quickly and you will get a dense, underdeveloped loaf. This is why bread recipes normally suggest turning the oven up as high as it will go, at least for the first 10-15 minutes.
It is also why they sometimes suggest preheating the baking sheet before you put the loaf in as this helps get as much heat as possible into the dough during those crucial early stages.
However the best way to do this (short of building a clay oven!) Is to use a baking stone. This is essentially a slab of stone which you put into the oven when you preheat it and which you then bake the loaf directly on. The idea is that the stone is able to store far more thermal energy (heat) than the baking sheet or the air in the oven and therefore this energy is transferred to the loaf far more efficiently.
A quick Google search for ‘baking stone’ reveals a wide variety on offer ranging from ceramic pizza stones to large slabs of granite and with prices ranging from about a tenner to over £50!
I can’t remember who gave me this handy tip but a while ago, when I was thinking about buying a baking stone somebody said “don’t bother, go to Wilko’s or Dunelm or somewhere like that and get a Granite Worktop Saver for about £7.50”
I tell you what, it works brilliantly! As long as you remember to take the little rubber feet off the bottom (not that I’d forget that…no…) you are getting a great big slab of granite really cheap because it is not branded as a baking stone!