Baking Bread in a Closed Clay Pot (“Cloche”)– the best crust yet!

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So many people asked us about baking our dough inside a closed cast-iron pan that Zoe did a beautiful post on the subject a few weeks ago.  The cast-iron pan method is based on a much older method, where bread is baked inside a closed clay pot (or “cloche,” meaning “bell” in French).  Both methods depend on trapped steam from the dough to create a perfect crust, but the clay pot has the added benefit of being porous, so moisture is trapped, but also conducted away from the surface as the bread bakes.  I tested the Sassafras brand “La Cloche” product, and I’m very impressed with the crust I’m getting –take a look at the picture above; this crust is thin and shatters when broken (the burned bits are perfect in artisan loaves; that’s how you know you’ve baked long enough).  Keep in mind that these crust results are hard to re-create with loaves very high in whole wheat (because of oils in the wheat’s germ).  The bread above is about 15% whole grains– it’s a light version of the Peasant Loaf on page 46 of the book.  Whole grain breads perform beautifully in “La Cloche,” but the crust tends to be softer and thicker.

For crust aficionados, I think the ”La Cloche” results are a little better than what I get inside closed cast-iron.  We didn’t put these two methods in our first book, because we wanted to keep things as simple as possible.  But with results like these, they’re going into he second one (publication date is 10/13/09)!

Sassafras claims that James Beard once said that the “La Cloche” product gave him bread that was “nothing short of phenomenal.”  “Beard on Bread” was the first bread cookbook I ever used–my wife brought it to our marriage, and then taught me to use it (click here and scroll down to meet Laura).

If James liked a product, I have to give it a try, though I should also say that readers have written me on Twitter (click to follow ArtisanBreadin5 there) to say that the Romertopf clay vessel works just as well, though I haven’t tried it myself.

Before using ”La Cloche,” rinse it in hot water to get rid of any ceramic powder left over from manufacturing, and let it dry overnight.  The first time you use it, apply a light coating of vegetable oil to the inside of the bottom piece (the bell-shaped top part doesn’t need it).  The ceramic is very fine-grained and won’t absorb a lot of oil so it didn’t smoke when I pre-heated this thing to 450 F.  You don’t need to cure the oil coating before you bake your first loaf.  You’re ready to bake.

There are two ways to use La Cloche:  the way that Sassafras officially endorses (putting a cool cloche into a preheated oven bearing raw dough that has rested/risen on cornmeal inside), or what I’ve found works better:  preheating the top and bottom pieces of La Cloche to full baking temperature for 30 minutes, and then transferring fully-rested loaves into it (carefully, as in Zoe’s post).  The crust result is fantastic; you can rest/rise in a banneton, then drop the dough into the hot bottom tray of the cloche, then cover (click here for my post on how to use a banneton).  Baking time is the usual as written in our recipes.  The other easy method is to rest/rise the loaf on parchment paper and just drop the loaf, with the paper, into the hot cloche.  Cover and bake.

You don’t need a baking stone, you don’t need to introduce water into the oven for steam, and you don’t need to dampen the cloche; all the moisture you need comes from the dough and is trapped inside.  One important point:  Open the lid for the last third of baking, or the bread will not brown.

This is a very romantic baking dish (is that possible?); using it makes you think you’re in a different century.  It’s heavy, and very tactile– here it is with an unbaked boule sitting in it (cool-cloche method):

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Here’s the banneton-risen bread after the lid was removed to finish baking open to oven air:

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There are two problems with the Sassafras-approved cool-cloche method:  first, baking time is longer than written in our recipes, because the clay vessel has a lot of heat to absorb before the interior is up to baking temperature.  Second, the crust just isn’t a crisp.  So, even though the Sassafras instructions say to use a cool cloche, I’m going with a hot one.  Keep in mind that this product doesn’t appear to be warranted against cracking, whether you follow their instructions or not.   One important care instruction:  never use soap on pottery baking vessels, just hot water and a clean scrub brush.

Ten years ago, Daniel Wing and Alan Scott wrote “The Bread Builders,” which was mainly about building your own wood-fired masonry and brick bread oven in your backyard (gotta do that someday).  But they also had lots to say about the “La Cloche” product, which they thought was almost as good as their wood-fired masonry ovens.  They interviewed the product’s inventor at Sassafras who told them that the fully-preheated method for using this product “…is fine.”

Good enough for me.  Look at this bread!

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106 thoughts on “Baking Bread in a Closed Clay Pot (“Cloche”)– the best crust yet!

  1. We usually do them on a stone if we want them to be crusty (also bake with steam per instructions in the book or on the website).

    As for hole size– try a longer resting time, maybe 90 minutes rather than 40. Jeff

  2. I know you are working on your new book. This weekend I decided to try some of the King Arthur European-Style Artisan Bread Flour I had bought before I started experimenting with your stuff. I used it on the standard Sullivan St Bakery loaf and the flavor and texture was unbelievable. It has some whole wheat in it and is really terrific. If it’s not too late for inclusion in the book, I beg you two to try your hand at something using this and let me know how it worked out.

  3. Love this bread! I’ve made mistakes in measuring and oven temp, and everything comes out fabulous with a great texture and crumb.
    I tried my new cloche today, and while the bread was wonderful, it was totally stuck to the bottom. I had oiled the bottom beforehand, and used what I thought was plenty of cornmeal. Am I missing something? Should I just try it using parchment paper?
    Thanks for any help,
    Hilary

  4. Can’t figure it out, I had no trouble with this. Try a little more seasoning of the clay (another coating of oil, then heat it). And I think you’ll stick less with the pre-heated clay method as above.

    Otherwise yes, parchment.

  5. I am having trouble getting a shiny crust on my basic artisan bread (no whole grain flour). Occasionally it comes out thin and shiny, but more often it is dull and looks floury, even though I don’t get any extra flour on it when shaping it. I let it rise uncovered. I hope you can help.
    Thanks.

  6. Just got your book from Amazon today. Read it through front to back. A couple of questions. 1. I have a lidded plastic dough bucket. Should I snap the lid on or just cover the bucket with the lid, not snapped, because you say not “air tight”.
    2. When you say to preheat the oven to 450 degrees 20 minutes before baking, do you mean to bring the oven up to that temperature or just to put the bread in after 20 minutes, no matter what the oven temp. is at that point? If that’s the case, why do I need an oven thermometer? It seems more accurate to preheat the oven to the correct temp. before putting the bread in. Please clarify.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Your bucket sounds just great, as long as it is 5 quarts. Just place the lid on the bucket, but don’t snap it shut. You want to allow the gases from the yeast to escape.

      You will get a better crust on your bread if you let the oven come to full temperature as read on an oven thermometer. This may take 20 minutes, but usually mine takes closer to 30+ to really achieve the right temperature. Every oven is different.

      Thank you and enjoy the bread!

      Zoë

  7. I just got the Healthy Bread book and am interested in getting either a La Cloche or Romentopf. I have a small kitchen, so storage is an issue. I see there are 2 sizes of the smaller Romertoph’s available. The model 110 is 12 x 8.2 x 6. The 111 is 14.5 x 9.x 6.8. Would the model 110 be big enough for a 1 lb loaf? I’ve also seen a brand called Schlemmertoph which is clay in various sizes but the bottom part is glazed. I assume that would not work as well?

    • 12 by 8 by 6 sounds just fine. I’m actually beginning to wonder if porosity of the surface really matters– cast-iron seems to work as well as a stone in our most recent experiments. So, even though my first choice might be glazed, if there are other reasons to choose glazed, I think it could be worth a try. Jeff

  8. Thanks. Until I order the pan, I found a very big & thick metal loaf pan (that a friend gave me … from France), that is 12 x 8 x 4. It has a glass lid. It looks like it might be anodized.5 aluminum, altho I ‘ve never seen a US material quite like this. I am wondering if I can bake bread in that (with the glass lid on, or invert it over a pizza stone until I place (and receive) my order. I have my first batch dough in the fridge that I made last night that I’m going to bake this evening. I guess all I can do is try, and it might not come out with the perfect crust.

  9. Andrea: any closed baking vessel will trap the steam and create a nice crust. Either of your suggestions should work, but sounds like the easiest would be to use the cover it came with.

    But… grease it very well, our wet dough sticks to non-stick surfaces. We even recommend greasing non-stick pans, so be careful. Jeff

  10. Jeff,
    I made the Whole Wheat/Seed/Oatmeal bread in a boule shape yesterday using an old glazed ceramic covered casserole which I bought at a Fort Mason art show in San Francisco years ago, and it came out fantastic. I let the dough rise on parchment paper, preheated the cassorole, dropped the dough and parchment paper into the casserole, baked covered for 15 minutes, and then baked the rest uncovered til the crust looked right. It was the best homemade bread I’ve ever made.

    For Christmas I ‘m going to try making a bigger oval loaf using the covered metal loaf pan.

    I’m inspired!! Thanks!

  11. Andrea,
    As far as I know all modern Romertopf pots have glazed bottoms. My grandma had one that wasn’t glazed, but she would have bought that 30-50 years ago. I have had a couple over the last 10 years and both were glazed (bottom only) which is far preferable especially if you use it for other dishes as well as it is easier to clean. It is fantastic for moist mouth-watering roasts.

    Jeff, would you recommend soaking the lid in water ebfore baking bread in it or relying solely on steam generated from the dough? I might have to try both versions and compare…
    So, who can I get to eat all this bread I want to try? Seems I am surrounded by people who love the plastic-bagged-supermarket-carboard-sandwich-bread variety *sigh*.

    • Hi Alex,

      I think you get away without soaking the lid, but the experiment will be an interesting one. Please do report back.

      Do you have an oven thermometer? If the flour is turning brown it could be that your oven is running a touch too hot or your baking above the center of the oven?

      None of your neighbors will take the bread? Mine are more than happy to take it off my hands!

  12. Zoe, I might have to ask them. Seems like these days people seem to think bread is evil. When my husband remarked to his parents how lovely it is to have fresh home-baked bread, his mother exclaimed “Oh but be careful, bread is so fattening” while devouring into a cheesecake… lol
    Alex

  13. Oh, and regarding the flour browning, I do have an oven thermometre. Assuming it is fairly accurate, my oven does not run hot. I might have to try baking on a lower rack. My oven is pretty old and not well insulated. A piece of junk, really. so I guess the heat is just very uneven. But a new one will have to wait…
    The end of my last post is meant to read: “while devouring a cheesecake”
    Alex

  14. My husband read Alan Scott’s book, and then he built a brick oven in our backyard! However you manage ot do it, fresh bread is the best–next to pizza!

  15. I have had your book for about a week, and we have already enjoyed a dozen loaves! I would really like to try some sandwich bread, but I don’t have a nonstick loaf pan (yet). Could I line a regular loaf pan with parchment and then grease it well? I also have a Pampered Chef stoneware loaf pan–how about that lined with parchment? Thanks!

    • Hi Melissa,

      This is exactly how my mom prepares her loaf pans and has had great success with it. I think either one will work with the parchment.

      So glad you are enjoying the book and all the bread! Zoë

  16. Re: the Romertopf – I have a 23 yr old convection wall oven which seems to be very/too hot, light is broken so reading thermometer requires opening the door (which is a big detriment to the process!), so I just experiment a lot. But also have an older unglazed Romertopf which saves the process, makes wonderful bread. I line the bottom with parchment, spray that with oil, throw in some cornmeal because I like it, and put the cold dough in that to rise. Then preheat the oven for 20 minutes with the lid inside (not soaked). Just before slashing the bread I spritz the top of the dough very well with water, then get an assistant to help with opening and closing the oven door while putting the hot Romertopf lid on the base and sliding it all back in. Then remove the lid for the last 15 minutes of baking. Hope that helps someone – I just recently discovered this website and it has been very helpful to me!

    • I had trouble letting my dough rise on the cloche base and putting it into a hot oven. It was a hand thrown pottery plate and dome so had been fired at very high temperatures. One day the plate just broke in the oven. The only thing I could come up with is thermal shock. Now I always start my cloche parts in a cold oven and preheat them along with it.

  17. I have an extra PC La Cloche for sale. They are retired pieces and hard to find.
    I have been using one for while and love it.
    Here’s cool tip to make soft crust loaves: wrap the loaf in a plastic grocery bag as soon as it comes out of the oven to cool. I do this for pumpernickel and marbled rye

  18. I’m so glad I found this page! I was given a cloche with very little instruction and was unsure about everything…so soak/not to soak, to preheat oven, but not cloche? Based on your advice, I preheated the oven and cloche to 450 F while the Ciabatta bread rose. I plopped it in with the help of my DH (Darling Husband) and left it for 30 minutes. (No soaking or spritzing here.) I rather forgot to remove the lid for the last bit (wasn’t sure just how long it would take anyway), but the crust turned out pleasantly tanned, delightfully crisp, but not too thick and the medium crumb was just the right amount of chewy. My DH & I are just thrilled with this first attempt. We’ll be having French Dips on grilled Ciabatta tomorrow! Thank you!

    • Christina: Interesting to hear that leaving it closed didn’t make much difference, that’s surprising. Maybe you had extra leeway because it was ciabatta?

  19. I bought a Romertopf clay baker at Goodwill and just baked a batch of bread, tweaking your wheat bread receipe and it came out magnificent. 450 oven with both bottom and top and let bread sit on parchment until ready to bake. Do not soak in water. Used top and bottom..20 minutes covered and 15 uncovered. Did not slice into dough before cooking and bread turned out so beautiful.

  20. I bought a long covered clay baker from King Arthur Flour and tried two recipes from their website using this baker. In both recipes the bread was proofed in the baker and placed in a cold oven set to 425. I love both of these breads, and I like the fact that you don’t have to guess when to preheat the oven based on the timing of the bread’s rise.

    I have both your books and have made the basic recipe from each several times, using a bread pan to make more toaster-friendly shapes for my husband. We have loved these breads and I will be trying other recipes as well.

    Could your recipes be adapted to baking in this baker placed in a cold oven? I generally use longer proof times than recommended in your books, and the time can vary depending on time of year and kitchen temp. In the summer, when the air conditioning is working night and day, I bake as early in the day as possible and like to minimize the time the oven is on.

    • Hi Kate,

      I have been meaning to try this. Other readers have told us they are doing it with great success, but I have not tried it yet. If you do, please report back and let us know what you think!

      Thanks, Zoë

  21. Hi Jeff & Zoe,

    I put teh loaf on a rack closer to the top of the oven then I usually would. The shape of the loaf was great, but crust was very dark before the internal temp. hit 210 degrees. The loaf didn’t rise as much as it normally would and the top was too dark – close to burned. Does placing the loaf too close to the top of the oven bake to crust to fast and keep the rest of the lo from rising to it’s full size?

    • Hi Mary Ann,

      The top of the oven tends to be hotter than the floor, so it does make sense that your loaf darkened more than normal. I don’t think this would effect the ability to rise, unless the loaf developed a crust too quickly and prevented the loaf from being able to expand. If you are baking in a Cloche I doubt this would be the case.

      Thanks, Zoë

    • Hi Bette,

      What are you trying to clean off of the cloche? I generally just dust out the flour residue and leave it as is.

      Thanks, Zoë

      • Hi Bette,

        I would just keep doing that, unless you find there is something that requires more effort.

        Thanks, Zoë

    • If you mean the dough is stuck there, usually letting a stuck surface sit at room temperature for 10 minutes “steams” off the stuck bread.

  22. My first sourdough (S.F, cultured) loaf with closed clothe turned out great, but taste was only slightly sour and not that pleasing. Conversely, my Amish sugar/potato flake sourdough is quite good. I thought S.F. Was the best. What do you think happened?

    Roger

    • Roger: depends on what you used. Many store-bought SF-sourdough cultures are not to my taste either.

      You’ll get a more pronounced sourdough taste with our method if you use the dough later in the batch-life.

  23. Jeff:

    I bought from sourdough international and followed instructions to the letter. But, the finished bread only tasted sour. I am sorry, I do not know what you mean using the dough later in batch life? Once again, the potato/sugar sourdough was much better but I thought S.F. Was supposed to be the best!

    Roger

    • Our doughs are meant to be stored and used over five to fourteen days, depending on ingredients, and they develop sourdough character during that time. Details in the books…

  24. Thank you Jeff and Zoe
    Thank you for the time you spend answering questions. I absolutely love your book Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I have used it a lot with great results.
    I recently purchased a lidded clay bread baker from Clay Coyote and having always baked on a stone, I was wondering about using my new baker for recipes from your book. I believe I have found the answers here. So, am excited to try it now. Will be trying both cold start and hot start.
    Again, Thank You
    Laura

  25. Hello,
    I’m reading your NEW book edition and thinking it’s time to by a proper pan for baking bread.
    I currently bake bread on a baking stone with a second one on the upper rack, but the crust is just fine.
    I’d like to improve my baked results.
    I’m looking at
    1)Emile Henry Flame 4 qt Dutch oven
    2)Emile Henry bread cloche
    3)the bread Dome by Sassafras
    Could you give any advice thanks of your experience and knowledge?!
    Thank you

  26. I haven’t bought bread in a year since getting your book as a gift from my son. It’s the best.
    The crusts on most of the breads look beautiful but makes slicing sometimes very difficult. Is the crust thickness due to the amount of steam and perhaps my oven traps too much? I have a 4 year old Kitchen Aid double convection oven
    Thanks for your help
    Sara

    • No, it’s not that–maybe cover the loaves with plastic before resting (remove before baking). The crusts may be drying out before they go in. Also– which recipe is this, some develop thicker crusts than others. Also, your comments needed to be approved, which now should be permanent.

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