Baking stones, Part 1
What are they and why should I use them?
Since I put this page together, a number of people have asked me if I sell any of the merchandise mentioned on this page. Sorry, no. All I am selling at this time is my cookbooks in Mike's Bread Shoppe. We used to sell other items, but we wouldn't have sold baking stones - the shipping on baking stones would have been crazy high.
There are many advantages to baking in a masonry oven or an earth oven, the sorts that were used for millenia around the world. Where our current home ovens bake largely by radiated heat and convected heat, a masonry oven also retains heat in its mass and bakes by conduction as well.
The result is an incredible crumb, great tasting bread, more impressive crusts, and wonderful crust colors. Alan Scott and Dan Wing's "The Bread Builders" details how to build a masonry oven, and Kiko Denzer's "Build Your Own Earth Oven" does the same for the simpler earth ovens, but it's really more than most bakers will want to do, or be able to do.
I know of three ways to achieve similar results at home, short of building a masonry oven. You can get a "Cloche", which is a small ceramic mini-oven that you use inside your oven. Like many potteries, it's fragile. Also, it will only accommodate one loaf at a time, and it's big enough that having more than one in the oven could be a problem. Still, the people who use them love them. Some people have made their own "poor man's cloche" by using a large flower pot and base. They affix a handle to the bottom of the flower pot (which acts as the top of the cloche) to make it easier to handle. If you use a cloche, or a poor man's cloche, be careful because you will handle hot, heavy pottery. Make sure you know where you are going to set the cloche down before you pick it up.
Several years ago, I saw an advertisement for a ceramic insert that fits into most ovens, making it much like a ceramic oven. However, the price was fairly high, and it didn't appeal to a large range of people. It was called the Hearthkit, and if you have any hands-on experience with it, I'd love to hear from you. The vendor's home page has since gone away. In recent months (this is being written on February 14, 2010), the Hearthkit picture has lost some focus. Web sites that have carried it in the past have notes that the product is presently unavailable. Some say that they don't know when the product will again be available. The Hearthkitchen site has said there are changes coming "soon" for some time, and they aren't selling their products directly to the public. Sadly, not even eBay has them on offer any longer. It seemed like a great idea, but at a price point that was ahead of its time.
Still, many of us would prefer a cheaper alternative, or one from a vendor more likely to be in it for the long haul. And there are three workable, and similar, solutions. The easiest one is to get a "pizza stone". They run about 18.00, and you'll need two of them to cover both racks in your oven. Put one on the top and one on the bottom shelf in your oven. You'll see an immediate improvement in the crust, texture, and color of your breads. Just allow a few extra minutes for your pizza stones to warm up when you preheat the oven.
I suggest two pizza stones so you can bake more bread at a time than a single stone would allow. I frequently bake for our church's dinners, and one pizza stone would not allow me to bake enough bread at a time.
A more up-scale answer is the Fibrament pizza stone. Where a typical pizza stone is about 1/4 inch thick, the Fibrament stones are about 3/4 inch thick. They are very durable, well warranted, and a chef friend swears by them. However, they are at least double the cost of a cheaper pizza stone. Still, they are available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.
Some people have trouble with pizza stones. All too often, they are round, and they take up enough space that you can't put more than one on an oven shelf. So, you can't cover your whole oven shelf with them, and if you could, it would run close to $72.00. Also, pizza stones tend to break, and then you have to replace the whole thing. A cheaper alternative is to go to a store that carries tile floor coverings and ask for unglazed quarry tiles.
The "unglazed" part is very important. Many glazes are made from lead, and you don't want lead in contact with your bread. Unglazed tiles are generally regarded as safe. After a recent round of discussion upon this matter, I bought a lead test kit from a local hardware store and tested my unglazed quarry tiles. They have no lead in them. While I would assume that other unglazed quarry tiles also do not have lead in them, I cannot guarantee that. If you are worried, I suggest you either buy tiles guaranteed to be lead free or test your tiles with a lead test kit.
Before you go to the floor covering store, measure your oven's shelves so you'll know how much area you are covering. Buy a few extra tiles, in case you break some. Chances are, you can cover both shelves for less than $10.00. Before you put the tiles in the oven, you need to clean them. I suggest you not use soap or detergent, as they can impart off tastes. Instead wash them with a baking soda solution. Scrub and rinse well.
I have found it helps to leave about a 2 inch border between the tiles and the walls of the oven on the left and right sides of the bottom shelf. This lets the heat rise around the tiles - if you don't do this, the bottom shelf will get much too hot, and the top shelf will stay much too cold. Also, expect the tiles to smoke the first time you heat them. It's normal. The tiles in the picture above have been in use about two years. They have some burnt on stains, but work very well.
Once you have the tiles in place, and have heated them, you'll notice a major improvement in your breads, and you will have saved buckets of money over buying pizza stones.
I have been asked, "doesn't dough slide in between the tiles?" The answer here is, no, it doesn't. Even a very liquid dough will harden all but instantly when it hits a 450F tile. There is a slight pattern on the bottom of the tiles, visible in the picture to the right. This loaf was baked on parchment, which reduces the pattern somewhat. I'll replace this picture with a picture of a loaf that was baked using corn meal sooner or later.
Speaking of parchment and corn meal, I used to recommend using corn meal to lubricate bread so it would slide off the peel and onto the oven tiles cleanly. Lately, I have begun to use baker's parchment instead. Corn meal will stay in your oven, where it will burn. It needs to be cleaned out from time to time. Some people suggest other grains, but they will burn also. Parchment leaves no residue, which minimizes oven cleaning. Parchment has a higher kindling point than paper, so even when I am baking at 550F, the parchment does not catch on fire. Parchment does become brittle when it's used - especially when baking at 450F or higher - but it can usually be re-used.
Parchment is available on rolls in your grocery store, cooking specialty stores, and available in sheets in bakery supply houses. We often let free-form loaves rise on the parchment, which eliminates the danger of a fragile over-proofed loaf collapsing when it is transferred to the peel. However, be careful with parchment - it is more slippery than corn meal, and we have had the bread start sliding much sooner than we thought it would. We've learned not to tilt the peel until we mean it!
Some people are reluctant to tile their ovens because they see it as a hassle to put the tiles in the oven to bake, and then remove them. My answer here is pretty simple. I just leave them in the oven. They do no harm with other foods I cook. So, the tiles just live in the oven. About the only time we remove the tiles is for the rare food that is supposed to baked starting in a cold oven. Then the tiles come out. However, removing them only takes seconds.
We'll talk about this a bit more in the next part of our Baking Stones Series.