What can be more idyllic than a freshly baked, homemade loaf with a crisp, golden crust? Add a cuppa tea and a lazy morning….sigh!
Getting the crust is not always that easy, or so I have found. Not that you always need or want a crust on bread. But, when you do, how do you get it?
So, I googled ‘how to get a good bread crust’ and tried every suggestion I practically could, given the equipment I have in my home kitchen.
The aim is to get a bread crust that is light and thin and crispy. Lots of things that I tried worked, but I got the best results when I understood what actually happens in the crust making process. So, if you are interested in the why, it’s at the bottom of the page.
After a bit of trial and error, here are the four things that made the most difference:
1. Add steam.
The method that worked the best for me was ice chips in a hot loaf tin. A cast iron skillet is better than a loaf tin, but I don’t have one!
For this method:
- Put the loaf tin at the bottom of the cold oven.
- Heat the oven to the required temperature.
- Then, just before you put the bread in to bake, put ice chips in the hot loaf tin.
- It’s best to have a plan of how to do this, so that not too much heat escapes!
There are other methods of making steam. Probably, a mixture of a few would be good.
- Pour cold water, rather than ice, into the hot pan. Boiling water also works.
- Spray the oven with water. You are supposed to spray the walls and the floor of the oven. This one I have not tried because you have to be really careful not to spray the light or the glass door, as they can shatter.
- Use a cloche, which is a bowl-like lid that goes on top of the bread, trapping the steam that is created by evaporation as the bread bakes. You can also use a metal bowl to create the same effect.
- Try lava rocks, which create steam, a little bit like a sauna.
- Use hot wet towels in a pan at the bottom of the oven.
- I even read of someone using a pressure cooker, but I’m not really sure how to go about that.
Creating steam is important in the first 5-10 minutes of baking bread, so that’s why it is created just before/as you are putting in the bread.
2. Spray the dough with water.
Before putting the dough in the oven to bake, you can lightly spray the surface of the dough. I used a spray bottle from Ikea with cold water in. You could also use warm water.
Lightly spraying is best, as you don’t want to saturate the dough.
You can also spray the bread again 5 minutes into the bake. The disadvantage of this is that you can end up loosing heat in your oven by opening the door. I just spray it lightly once before it goes in and then leave it.
3. Use simple ingredients.
The best crusts are on breads made with simple ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast. Extra ingredients such as eggs, sugar and milk act as softening agents and so they don’t help in crust formation.
Using flour with a high gluten content such as bread flour will aid the formation of a good crust.
4. Cool the finished bread in the oven.
Once the bread is baked, turn off the oven and take the bread out of the tin, or off the baking tray. Then put the bread back in the oven straight on the rack. Leave the oven door open a little.
You can also use a normal cooling rack on the kitchen surface, but raise it up. I used upturned glasses as columns.
Another thing I have learned is that when you want to store your bread, make sure it is completely cold before wrapping it up. This stops the bread from getting soft.
Why do these things work?
There is science behind crust formation. There are lots of in-depth explanations out there, but this is what my brain can make sense of:
Flour contains starch.
At a certain temperature, the starches at the surface of the dough burst and liquefy into a gel-like material.
This hardens and helps make the crust.
The slower this gelatinization happens, the better the crust.
At the end of the bread making process the crust dries out and hardens further.
So, anything that helps this process of starch ‘gelatinization’ is going to help to form a good crust…
Adding steam early on in the baking process works because it provides more moisture for the starches to absorb. Therefore they make more gel like material, which hardens for the crust.
Spraying water also adds more moisture, like steam. It also evaporates quickly off the surface of the bread, which helps make the crust.
Using simple ingredients works because there are no extra softening agents in the dough. In addition, bread flour has a high gluten content, which helps it to absorb moisture quickly, which helps in crust formation. Salt slows down the baking process, which means crust formation is slowed down. This is good because if the crust forms too quickly, it restricts the bread and it becomes dense rather than light and airy.
Cooling the finished bread works because once the starch has hardened and formed the crust, you don’t want to do anything to soften it (i.e. moisture is not your friend at this point). So a warm oven will help any remaining moisture to evaporate quickly from the surface. If you raise the bread while it is cooling, you are creating more space for the moisture to escape. This way, it does not hit the kitchen surface and then condense back on to the bottom of the bread. Also, if you make sure the bread is completely cool before storing it, no moisture is trapped inside the bread which can make it soggy.
One thing that did not work.
Making a slurry.
This is basically a cornstarch and water mix that you spread on the loaf at the end of baking.
I think in principle it must work well, as more starch is being added. But, in practice it’s quite hard to make, it involves opening the oven door and so letting heat escape, and it did not seem to have a huge effect on overall crustiness.
But it’s definitely one to experiment with.
There are lots of other things that can help to develop a crust.
- Using a steel baking tray, a pizza stone or a baking stone. Anything that retains heat really well and is super hot when you put the bread on it will help in crust formation.
- Using a glaze will definitely affect the colour of the crust, so might help with the look of the bread.
- Lastly, a slow rise, for example in the fridge, is said to help make a better crust.
Have a go and see what you think. Hope these 4 easy ideas help you get a great bread crust!