We’re not always happy with the free-form loaves we are baking. They don’t always meet our standards of what a loaf of sourdough should look like, so we recently asked ourselves the question: Is it us, or is it our oven?
Marie, who is our lead baker in the bakery every day of the week slinging dough, was the first to ask this question, so decided it was time to do a controlled bake.
Taking the exact same recipe we use in the bakery; Marie scaled it down to 2 loaves and mixed it in our home kitchen. Following the exact same method of mixing, stretch & folds, pre-shaping, and shaping, she produced two free-form loaves. One was proofed on the counter for a few more hours, while the other was placed in the fridge just like our bakery loaves.
The real difference to these loaves and our bakery loaves is how they were baked.
Pulling from our roots, and like EVERY sourdough bread blog and book out there, Marie pulled out the trusty cast iron dutch oven. Pre-heated that pot up to 475ºF then baked the loaves in the dutch oven with two ice cubes and the lid on for the first 20 minutes and a final 20-30 minutes with the lid off at 425ºF.
The results were astounding. The dutch oven loaves bloomed beautifully – had a very even oven spring – and came out with a slight shine to the crust. Everything you could want.
So, what does this tell us?
It tells us that our retro stone deck oven is where many of our issues lie.
A dutch oven allows you to make a near perfect loaf because it does such a great job at containing the steam and moisture coming off the loaf and from the ice cubes. This allows the loaf itself to have time to “spring” properly before setting its crust.
Our deck oven on the other hand is far from sealed. Being propane powered it needs to vent out its exhaust, to heat itself there are giant holes that lead to the burners below the oven, the door itself has no seal. Any moisture in the oven escapes in seconds creating a very dry environment. Our oven is not a bread oven, it is an old school pizza oven.
How do we attempt to add moisture?
This has been something we have long since tinkered with. Our current method is to use a garden sprayer. As soon Marie loads the oven, she douses the baking chamber with water from the sprayer. She then repeats the process 3 minutes into the bake.
This method results in our current loaves. Depending where in the oven a loaf is depends on how it might turn out. Overall, the loaves don’t have an even oven-spring and will have a crustier crust.
How do other commercial artisan bakeries do it?
Other bakeries might have a proper multi-deck bread ovens that not only provides contained baking chambers, but most will also have automated steam-injection. This steam injection will ensure the entire chamber is full of steam while also maintaining temperature, giving the dough the correct amount of time to properly “spring” in the oven before setting.
How did we get to this position with our deck oven?
When we embarked on our endeavor to build out a commercial wholesale bakery it cost us much more than we were anticipating. Necessary equipment such as our hood vent and air-make-up unit were costs we had to incur just to become operational back in 2021. At the same time, we had already purchased our big mixer and the deck oven locally from an old pizza place that closed and were using them back in our garage bakery days.
It was, and still is, our intension to use our current deck oven as long as we can due to the high cost of getting a new – proper – oven. However, baking on a wholesale level has shown us that this oven not only has quality limitations, but it also has capacity limitations. The single deck can only bake 12 loaves every 45 minutes (and is horribly inefficient). This has led us to working on so many secondary bread products that can be baked in our convection ovens.
Why go into all this detail about bread baking?
All this is to say, we had a question we needed the answer to. Is it us or is it the oven? We can now confidently say it is the oven. Marie has baked thousands of loaves now (far surpassing Kyle) and had made millions of micro-adjustments in the pursuit of the best loaf possible, given our oven. Our skill set and understanding is there. Our passion is there. The oven is not.
It may be a long while before we can comfortably pursue a new oven so let this post serve as an explanation on how we make our bread and why it is the way it is.