All my breads, no matter if they are made freeform or in a pan, are baked either on a pizza stone or a baking steel.
Because for freeform bakes immediate bottom heat is super important. The bottom of the bread/roll is the one place where the crust should develop immediately. That way a soft dough can’t spread out too far, it has to pull upwards and form a beautiful, rounded loaf/roll instead of a pancake.
When I bake in pans, the added bottom heat takes care of a more evenly baked bread. Otherwise the top would be brown while the part that’s inside the pan needs more time. You’d run the risk of burning the tops. And the steel or pizza stone keeps the heat in the oven whenever you open the door. Pre-heating your oven doesn’t make much sense if all the heat escapes while you’re trying to get your bread(s) into the oven. Adding cold things (like 4 filled loaf pans) cools the inside of the oven significantly down and you need a lot of energy and time to get the oven back up to temperature. That’s where a thick piece of clay or metal helps immensely.
The only thing of mine that’s not placed directly on the hot steel is my Pampered Chef Mini Loaf Pan. That one sits on a rack a few centimeters (about an inch or two) above the baking steel. The difference in temperature would shatter it otherwise. So, if you’re baking in glass, ceramic or stoneware pans, or use a pizza stone, don’t place your pans directly on the surface, leave a little bit of space.
Let me show you the things I use. They all have advantages and disadvantages. That way you can choose for yourself what’s fitting for your kitchen, your needs, and your budget.
- it’s huge (enough space for a 35cm / 14 inch pizza or a 4 pound loaf of austrian farmer’s bread) but still fits my tiny oven when the handles are tucked into the corners
- it seems indestructible and will probably survive the next generations
- it comes pre-seasoned
- it’s practically non-stick
- it heats up super fast
- handles! makes it easy to carry and/or arrange
- thanks to the small rim you can use it for all kinds of things from bread and pizza over one pan dinners to frying burgers on the gas stove or grill without risking a grease fire
- the rim needs a bit of getting used to when you use a peel for the bread/pizza
- it’s super heavy, so clean-up can be difficult if you have wrist issues
- it’s round, not exactly ideal to fit many bread pans
- the price. I got mine (it’s a Lodge) for about 70€ ages ago, you’d have to invest about 100€ by now. There are other brands though that might be a bit cheaper
- baking steels are available in many different sizes and can be custom made to perfectly fit your oven
- they heat up super fast
- it’s indestructible
- fairly cheap if you get yours from a steelworking place and not from a specialty shop for baking equipment. I paid less than 30€ for mine about 5 years ago. It’s about 30x40cm and 6mm thick, corners are rounded, edges deburred.
- no handles, it involves a lot of fiddling to get it off the oven rack, esp. when it’s still hot
- it’s heavy
- most baking steels come unseasoned, so if you live somewhere with high humidity, you might want to take care of that. I never bothered to season mine, no problems so far.
I already mentioned the Brovn in the steam baking tidbit, it’s a steel plate with a fitting glass lid, kind of a see-through, reverse dutch oven.
- it heats up quickly
- it’s a bit lighter than my baking steel or any proper pizza stone
- it’s fun to watch your breads bake
- the plate comes pre-seasoned and is kinda non-stick
- you can use it upside down without the glass dome for pizza or bigger breads (up to 32 cm / about 13 inches)
- no rim, makes using a pizza peel easy peasy
- it’s smaller than it looks and fits only small(ish) breads. if you want to use it with the glass dome, you have to hit that inner circle, which is barely 25cm (10 inches) in diameter, dead center with your bread
- no handles, it’s just as fiddly to get off the oven rack as the baking steel
- the price. you pay 169€ for the base package which includes the steel plate, glass dome and a pair of gloves. The bundle also has a (beautiful!) pizza peel and a bread pan and goes for 215€.
I had to get a new pizza stone and decided to get one that fits my grill as well. It’s a bit thinner than my old one but comes with a steel frame AND HANDLES❤ for easy transport. Even if it cracks, it should still be useable in its little frame.
- pizza stones are available in round and rectangular and many different sizes and thicknesses
- they’re super budget friendly. you can get them from about 10-30€ depending on size and thickness
- the surface makes a nice crust
- they take ages to heat up properly, esp. when they’re fairly thick
- they’re fragile and break easily when there’s a sudden change in temperature or you ding the hot stone with a tool or a baking pan. The one above is my 4th.
- you need a 2nd rack for your oven so your baking pans can hover slightly above the pizza stone
So, that’s what I use to ensure my breads get immediate bottom heat. A cast iron griddle would be another possibility, if it has a flat surface on one side.
I hope that this random tidbit could help you in any way. Happy baking!