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A Guide to a Better Crust

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It is problematic that today's blended grists demanded by bakers often result in a very strong flour (as opposed to merely strong), which is difficult to turn into a thin crisp crust without very lengthy fermentations. These very strong wheat blends often result in a seemingly good crust which does not have the appeal of the thinner/crisper (or the chunky/rustic), and tend to soften quickly once removed from the oven.

Very strong flour can also result in what Elizabeth David called the “leathery” crust. Too much steam used by the baker gives us “shiny” crusts which are often more like a blistery skin.

Crust and fermentation

The best crusts come from a well-fermented dough. This has to be the basic criteria in searching for the crust grail. “Best” here entails a mix of flavour colour and texture.

The longer fermentation enables a greater liberation of subtle flavour and aroma factors, which are trapped within the wheat matrix and released by the ferment. As the steam escapes the baking loaves, these volatiles are deposited on the crust as the escaping water/alcohol is vapourised.

Thus a well-fermented dough will give the best flavoured crust and textured as well because an extended fermentation develops an aerated protein structure which caramelises as crunchy.

Type of flour for crustiness

Softer or medium strength wheat usually has more flavour components than the very strong wheat, so the potential for excellent crust flavour is increased by using them. However softer wheat/flour is trickier to make good bread with.

My recommendation here is to use a strong flour such as Shipton Mill’s traditional organic white/wholemeal bread flour or the number 4 white bread flour and blend it 50% with our cake and pastry flour. This is not to say the aforementioned flours will not produce a good crust, they will, however we are entering the crust-obsession zone here!

Spelt can also be used to good effect for crustiness either as the whole flour component, or by blending it with a stronger wheat flour 50%.

The oven and crust

Here we do enter the obsession zone and, while we all love a good obsessive, sometimes it’s a little comical for those not steeped in the dark art. This is easily demonstrated by noting the artifice employed by the home baker on the home baking forums online. I’ve dabbled in this and fortunately emerged with only minor burns.

The importance of steam

The most important aspect of the oven is whether it is sealed. Most domestic ovens are not sealed, and all of your attempts to trap steam and slow the crust formation are in vain. The professional crust creating oven is sealed, so that the injection of steam added by bakers in the initial phase does indeed retard crust formation, enabling the thin and the crisp.

There are ways. The most common is to place a bowl of (hot) water in the oven while the bread bakes, to achieve some humidity. This does have an effect. More seriously, leave a tray in the bottom of the oven while it heats, and when the loaf is turned into the oven, pour water into the tray which results in instant steam and is definitely effective, but also dangerous and often hilarious. Again, hopefully the steam hangs around for a few minutes, enabling the loaf to billow and crust up later. My ultimate was a bowl with a slight leak, which dripped water onto the hot tray below and kept up the steam! A foil pie dish with a small hole in the base will do the same job.

One of our correspondents came up with the uniquely clever/obsessive idea of using his steam cleaner to flood the oven with steam before it is sealed, this being much safer. The results looked very good. Others will sprinkle water on the loaf when first placed in the oven or hover at the door, spraying a fine mist of water.

A pot or cloche

The ultimate way to develop a thin crisp crust has to be the use of a baking dome/cloche or pot to cover the baking bread and will even work in a leaky oven. This prevents early crust formation, the loaf achieves greater volume, and the grail of the thin crisp crust is usually achieved. The cover is employed for the first 10-20 minutes of baking, then removed for the rest of the bake.

This isn’t a guarantee however, and some will open the oven at the end of baking, leaving the loaf in for 5 minutes or more with the door open to crisp/harden even further, the last resort for those of you annoyed because all of your efforts haven’t achieved the desired crust….and this does work. The humid environment of the British Isles can even further frustrate a newly won crispness by rapidly softening the crust. This can be delayed by wrapping the loaf loosely in a cotton cloth(teatowel). Obsessives can train a hair-dryer on it until the guests arrive!

Oven temperature

A good hot oven helps develop a real crust, particularly if the cloche/pot cover is used. Usually I have the oven at 250-270 degrees C for the initial heat. Turn it down after 15 minutes to 200/220 C for the remaining baking. Ovens vary so this temperature may need to be adjusted or a thermometer used to ensure accuracy.

A properly hot oven will form the rustic/French crust de campagne with burnished almost burnt results. This is much adored usually, but an anathema to those steeped in the acrylamide forming possibility(which actually only relates to charred meat, and is ameliorated somewhat by drinking beer…(there is a God)…..or by those who simply don’t like the burnished or burnt-ish. Try it out with your particular oven, and moderate the initial blast to 5 minutes if a milder crust aesthetic is desired. The properly hot oven technique (phot) will also provide a more dramatic expansion of a crusty loaf, more in line with professional practice/look.

The boule or crusty shape

Of course we aren’t talking about tinned breads here. Real crusty breads are risen in baskets(banneton) or cloth(couche), turned from the basket onto a tray, then baked.

This is simply done by rising your usual, or any bread dough in the banneton/bowl instead of a tin.

The baking tray should be pre-heated before the loaf is turned onto it prior to baking, which at least replicates some of the bottom-heat effect of the hearth oven. Sprinkle flour or coarse meal (bran) onto the tray immediately before turning out the loaf.

Even better is to use a bakestone, which is heated pre-baking so as to replicate the hot floor (sole) of a brick oven. This promotes a more dramatic rise and of course a better bottom crust.

It is common to under-rise a loaf risen in a banneton, the flow-on effects exacerbated by a too-cool-oven. Be bold and allow the loaf to rise until quite delicate when poked, and ensure such well-risen bread goes into a very hot oven which will promote the rise and reduce flopping and pancake-bread…which is usually still very good but less likely to appear in Facebook.

To slash or not…

Our crusty bread dough is now ready to place on the hot stone/tray … does it really have to be slashed aesthetically so as to replicate the ideal? Not really. Such control is the realm of the professional baker. This is not to say the expert home baker cannot achieve glorious results, it is just more difficult and another factor to deter fledgling breadmakers. If the dough is very well fermented and delicate, probably best not to slash as the subsequent rapid deflation can be shall we say somewhat deflating!

A shorter proof for an easier cut

Often bakers will make the crusty dough a little firmer than for tin bread, which makes slashing easier. Alternatively, if you must slash/cut, don’t allow the loaf to reach the ideal full fermentation but bake a little early, say 15 minutes before full proof. This makes it easier to slash the surface, also leaving some “life” in the dough to expand and open the cuts.

Sharp and decisive

Slashing must be done with a good sharp blade. I use razor blades with tape on one side to save my fingers. It has to be that sharp…scalpel-like, the kitchen knife will induce grief as it catches on the sticky inner dough and tears the loaf open. Procure a fancy French blade, or Lame, if you like.

The cut must be decisive. Decide what shape before-hand (cross or single or parallel)…practice it and execute without hesitation. Life will not stop if you botch it, even though it may feel that way, and next time will be even more pleasing as you attain mastery of a difficult skill, and some craft.

A skewered alternative

The traditional English crusty Cob loaf is fully risen and not slashed, often it will be docked with skewers to achieve roundness with no bursts which is also an option. Simply pierce the fully risen loaf to the centre with a skewer about 5 times immediately prior to placing in the hot oven.

A rustic split

For those unready to slash and burn, ensure the dough is fully risen and the oven is hot. It will often burst with its own seismic tears which usually look great, especially with a nicely coloured crust….and genuinely rustic. Slash it next time.

The baguette

Is the archetype of crusty. Curiously, it is not a French invention, the technique was developed in Vienna.

The crust on a baguette must be within parameters, neither hard nor soft, but with the architecture which allows it to be torn revealing delicious shards of aerated roasty wheaten crust, massive alveolation (holey), and which is audible when broken or bitten-in-to. The dough is always well fermented and the use of softer flour with a big flavour component betrayed by the rapid staling of a good baguette….which would be rubbery/leathery if made from flour which is too strong. Difficult to replicate in the home oven because of the dependence on steam to enable the crustiness, to be covered in a later post, but definitely maybe the holey grail!

A skillful loaf of your hand made bread is the ultimate gift. Pleasing to the eye, the body and the moment.

A couple of recipes

We've put up a couple of recipes that you could try for a crust loaf: one for Crusty spelt bread follows and one for a quick-ish Crust white loaf. We also recommend the white or wholemeal sourdough recipes from the Shipton Mill site for more crusty adventures.

Further reading

If you've enjoyed this, have a look at A ramble through the crusty loaf for a look at the history and traditions of the crusty loaf.

Added by: johndownes


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