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Friday, February 25, 2011

Romertopf Clay Baker for Sourdough Bread - Review

I've heard from various sources, including Breadtopia, that there's nothing like baking sourdough bread with a clay baker - that it gets the crust crackly and the crumb tender and it's easier.  Since I've been having real problems getting my crusts the way I like them, I tried this method for the first time with my new Romertopf clay baker and had my eyes opened for the first time.  Put simply, it brought me into the big leagues.  I now can do oven spring!  Till now, I've only done oven limp, producing tasty loaves but with extremely variable crusts that mostly turned out too thick.
Sourdough Bread Baked in Clay Baker
Reco International Romertopf Clay Baker
First I should mention that the principle of baking with clay, or even baking with a baking or pizza stone, is to trap steam for the first part of cooking to mimic the steaming action of old-fashioned brick ovens, which is necessary for getting that crisp, rustic artisan-bread crust.

The "trapping steam" method is used by various bakers, including those who make no-knead bread and the innovative Theresa, who runs Northwest Sourdough - it seems to be her trademark.  She says on her website that she uses a roasting pan lid over a Fibrament baking stone.  After investigating the stone, I discovered that the composition of the Fibrament stone is proprietary, and, not being real keen on the idea of baking on surfaces whose origin - natural or otherwise - I don't comprehend, I decided to use the pizza stone we already had, and when that wasn't working so well (I only recently had success with it), the clay baker.  The clay used in the Romertopf is food-safe terra cotta, made without lead.

Besides steaming action, baking with clay (and stones, for that matter) means baking on a material that is porous and can be brought up to, and maintain, high oven temperatures (like 500 or 450 degrees), which makes for a wonderful bottom crust.

My first problem was finding instructions on how to use the Romertopf clay baker to bake bread. All the instructions mention soaking the baker top and bottom in water and seemed specific to cooking meat and vegetables.  Bread, not so much.  People just say they used it to bake great bread, but not exactly how to use the baker specifically for loaves and rolls.

So what did I end up doing?  I ended up soaking the lid for fifteen minutes in water and putting it, along with the unsoaked bottom, into a cold oven to preheat to 450 degrees F.  I was really happy with the result, but will try it without soaking next time.  I'm not sure it's necessary and I'm too lazy to add a procedure to my cooking that's unnecessary.

Another problem I had was that I received the baker in a broken state - the bottom part had been shattered in shipping.  (Apparently this happens sometimes with these bakers, which seem not to be packaged for shipping purposes as securely as the Sassafras La Cloche baker, whose packaging, according to Breadtopia, has improved to prevent such happenings.) 

Mother Dough From Which the Sourdough Bread Was Made
Fortunately, the seller, Chefs Catalog, immediately sent me a replacement no questions asked.  This was a relief, as I found that the baker was simply not available locally, and I really wanted a vessel that could accommodate an oval loaf shape. (Sassafras also has one that I think would work, but I didn't know it at the time.)  I was afraid the new one would arrive in the same state, but it was perfect and intact.

Slashed Dough for Oval Loaf in Preheated Romertopf Clay Baker
Nice Crazy Looking Sourdough Loaf from Mother Dough
I purchased the 3 quart oblong Romertopf baker designed to be used with a whole chicken or a meatloaf - that kind of shape.  Its bottom length and width determine the dimensions of the loaf - the inside dimensions as measured by my tape measure are about 9.5" x 4.5" on the very bottom surface, though  there's some room for expansion as it curves broadly out and up on the sides.

The baker was easy to use.  I know I have a careless, slapdash way of doing things in the kitchen, so I was extra careful to have a cloth ready on which I could place the hot lid and bottom.  (The baker can't withstand sudden temperature changes like placing the hot baker on a cold granite countertop.)  There was no need for a peel, which I don't even own yet.  I simply proofed the dough on parchment paper on top of a wooden cutting board on top of the preheating oven.  When 30 minutes had passed, I put on an oven mitt, pulled out the oven rack, removed the lid to the cloth, took off the oven mitt, picked up the dough carefully by the parchment, and set it gently into the baker.  Then I rather haphazardly slashed the bread, put the lid back on, and closed the oven.  After 20 minutes, I removed the lid, then baked an extra 10 minutes at the same temperature, 450.  Far from the burnt charring I'm used to, the color of the finished loaf was a bit pale, so next time I'll take off the lid after just 15 minutes.

The result was utterly delicious sourdough bread that the family raved over - one member said it was the best bread she's had in years.  Unfortunately, the loaf did not last a day, so I can't tell you how its taste would have matured (one thing I love about sourdough is that it's often better on day 2 than day 1).

Loaf and Romertopf
As you can see, it's not the most gorgeous loaf ever sprung - I overestimated the length of the dough and it ended up scrunched at the ends (you can see this on the photo above of the proofed dough in the baker) and my slashing definitely needs work - but it got fantastic oven spring, and the crust...oh.  My.  God.  Even the youngun, who notoriously refuses to eat bread crusts, gobbled the whole piece up...and the second piece...and the third.

One thing I should also mention that I love about the Romertopf clay baker is that it's not too heavy.  I was afraid it would be, and was dreading lifting it, as my back isn't all that it used to be and I hate lifting out heavy baking stones from the oven.  It was actually quite light and easy to lift - not awkward like the stone - and you can take out the lid and base separately, which makes it effectively lighter.

I am now chomping at the bit to try the Romertopf on whole grain bread.  So far, my great successes have been using whole wheat starter but white bread flour (or all purpose flour).  My whole wheat bread turns out too black, thick-crusted and sour for my taste.   I'm looking forward to seeing what the clay baker does for the charred and bitter crust that every other method I've ever tried produces on whole wheat bread.

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