Several years ago, Mark Bittman introduced the world to a no-knead bread recipe created by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery. This recipe used chemistry and time to create the gluten sheets necessary for a good loaf of bread. This soft dough was then dropped into a large Dutch oven to bake to crisp crusted perfection.
When I learned about this technique, I rushed out and bought the 12 quart Dutch oven recommended for making this bread. After heating the pot up to a blazing 500º F, I carefully poured the bread dough into the Dutch oven and put the lid on to bake. At the end of the cooking time, I struggled to remove the loaf from the bottom of the pot without searing my flesh.
While this technique produced a decent loaf of bread, baking bread should not be a profile in courage. I have used this Dutch oven many times since then—it is my standard bean pot—but I have never had the nerve to bake bread in it again. All my bread is the soft crusted loaves that my mother used to bake.
One of the blogs that I follow is Serious Eats which recently posted an article on the Fourneau Oven. This oven provides an elegant solution to attaining the benefits of baking in cast iron without the dangers of permanent scaring. The oven comes in three pieces, a flat base (8.5 lb.), the three-sided dome (12 lb.) that fits tightly to the base, and a small, relatively light, hatch (3 lb.) that seals in the heat.
The advantage of the Fourneau oven is that you only handle the heavy pieces while they are cold—when you are assembling them in your oven and after they have cooled down. To bake bread you slide a loaf into the Fourteau oven with a wooden peel—that comes with the oven—and place the three pound hatch in place. One disadvantage is that your oven is dedicated to bread baking for most of the day, because it takes many hours for the heavy cast iron to cool enough to handle safely.
The first loaves I made were using their basic no-knead recipe. They recommend that you divide the dough into four thin loaves. Baking these proved to be a bit of a challenge.
Using a peel turned out to be a bit tricky, the wet dough wanted to stick to the wood. The Fourteau booklet suggests using wheat bran as a lubricant to get the dough to slide off the peel. I found this to be less than ideal as the bran tended to burn on the hot cast iron. The trick I found most useful was to lightly flour the peel and roll the loaf onto the edge of the peel. I then scattered some corn meal down the center of the wood. One more quarter turn of the loaf centered the dough on the peel over the meal.
Tip: Scattering the corn meal on the peel before sliding the dough onto the peel leaves you with corn meal on top of the loaf.
Note: Corn meal and corn flour are not the same, if you made come meal mush with corn flour it would come out more like library paste. I prefer to use Quaker Corn Meal, which is fairly course, but it has become hard to find these days—Target is the only store I found that still carries it anymore.
Another skill to using a peel is to get your loaf to slide off centered in the oven—once the loaf is off the peel it is not possible to adjust its position. My first loaf came off too near the hatch opening. When I put on the hatch it smashed the end of the loaf into the oven. Over compensating, I shoved the next loaf into the back of the oven, smashing the other end. By the third try I had the right wrist action down and I came out with a perfect loaf—good taste, open crumb and a thick crisp crust.
Note: The bottom loaf did not go in far enough. The middle loaf went in too far. The top loaf was just right.
For my second try, I used my rustic bread recipe. The larger loaves proved to be much easier to place into the oven. This loaf baked up marvelously. If you are into baking good crusty bread I can recommend buying the Fourteau oven.