by Anna Theoktisto
A cast-iron dutch oven is the perfect vessel for baking bread at home.
Remember the bread machine craze of the 1990s?
That little “modern marvel” did all the work for you, yielding predictable, symmetrical loaves. And while the bread was always good, I believe that the true romance of baking comes from getting your hands dirty.
That’s why I adore this recipe for Dutch Oven Bread. For beginners, it’s the perfect stepping stone into the world of yeast baking. If you’ve been baking for years, it’s a step back in time to when bread was rustic and purposely imperfect.
There are many layers of flavor hidden within this recipe’s four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. But the real magic comes from the cast-iron Dutch oven, the perfect vessel for baking bread. It acts like an oven-within-the-oven, maintaining a high and steady heat that transforms this sticky dough into a gorgeous round loaf with a crisp crust and excellent crumb structure.
The basic process is simple. To start, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl with your hands (or a wooden spoon, if you prefer) until a dough forms. At this point, wash your hands, tear off a piece of plastic wrap, and cover the dough. The dough will sit at room temperature overnight; in a sense, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of recipe. The next day, generously cover your work surface and hands with flour. (This is important because the dough is very sticky.) Punch the risen dough down, and scoop it out onto the floured work surface. Sprinkle the dough with flour, and pat it into a large flat disk shape. Fold four edges in toward the center, and flip the dough over so the creased side is now face down. Sprinkle the top with more flour, cover with plastic wrap or a linen, and let the dough rise until nearly doubled in size.
At this point, place your Dutch oven in the oven, preheat it to 500°, and get your oven mitts ready. Now for the tricky part. As beautiful as this loaf is, there’s no graceful way to get this free-form dough from your work surface into the hot Dutch oven. I’ve found that sliding a flat cookie sheet under half of the dough while using your other hand to hold the other half of the dough is an effective way to transport it to the oven. Before attempting the move, make sure your oven is open and the rack is positioned to allow unhindered access for the Dutch oven. Then, just drop the dough into the pan. If your dough doesn’t quite make it to the bottom of the Dutch oven, use a wooden spoon to nudge it off the sides. Don’t worry—everything will work out. Cover with a lid, close the oven, and let the baking magic begin.
After baking, carefully remove the loaf from the Dutch oven, let your beautiful bread cool on a wire rack, and pat yourself on the back. You’re a baker with a recipe worthy of being passed down to the generations to come.
Anna’s Baking Tips:
- It doesn’t matter if you use an enamel-coated cast-iron Dutch oven or a traditional black cast-iron Dutch oven. As long as you have a lid to cover it, the bread comes out perfectly every time. I found that using a 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven yields the perfect round shape.
- Fight the urge to grease your Dutch oven. Because of the high temperature, the fat will burn off almost immediately, giving your bread a charred taste.
- Splurge for high-quality ingredients—especially flour. Stay away from store brands if you can help it. The better the flour, the tastier your bread will be.
- Make these recipes your own! You can easily substitute different cheeses, herbs, dried fruits, and nuts to create your own signature loaves.