March 19, 2012

Why You Need A Baking Stone

Two years ago, I got really into baking bread at home. Not a soft pumpkin loaf or the bread machine stuff, but genuine, crusty loaves.  I tried tons of recipes. Some of them were good, but most were subpar. Even with the good ones, I was never totally impressed with the results. The taste was usually fine, but the texture and the nice crunchy outside didn't turn out quite right.

Then everything changed when holidays rolled around. My mother gifted me a copy of "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day" by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François. My relationship with bread evolved into an all-out affair as soon as I cracked open that volume. Aside from having fantastic (and simple) recipes for great bread, it contained the single best advice I have ever gotten for making fabulous bread: get a baking stone.

Wonderfully grimy, isn't it? Just burned bits of cheese, sauce, etc.
I'd never heard of such a beast before. I looked them up and found so many kinds. The one I ultimately bought came from Williams-Sonoma (called a pizza stone). I chose this one because its square shape makes it large enough for baguettes, it's thick enough to avoid cracking, and it came with a lifetime guarantee. This stone was more expensive ($45) than most of the others, but it seemed likely to last me far longer than the cheaper alternatives.

Now, I don't just use the stone for crusty bread, because it is also great for pizzas, calzones, and flatbreads. I make pizzas at home all the time now, pizzas that are so much healthier than the delivery version. The baking stone is great for these things because it is what gives bread and pizza that thin, crispy outside, but chewy inside.

If you are going to get one, I definitely suggest getting a good one. Make sure it's made of a 1/2" thick stone or ceramic and think about what you're going to bake when choosing a size & shape. If you're only going to make pizzas, then you can certainly go with a round one. Also keep in mind that they are rather heavy and that if you drop it, it will probably break (or break your floor, depending).

For this reason, mine lives in the oven, on the lower rack. This is a totally acceptable, even encouraged, method of storage. If you're not taking it in and out, you're less likely to drop it and it saves you the trouble of finding a place to store it. There's also another bonus to leaving it in there while baking other things. I have an old gas range, so the temperature fluctuates inside quite a bit, leading to uneven cooking.

The stone helps negate that problem. The heat radiates from it at a more consistent rate than from the oven cycling on and off. I have noticed a dramatic improvement in how things cook since I bought the stone. You can also place cookie sheets and other pans directly on top of the stone. For baked goods, though, you should reduce the cooking time slightly. When I made cookies on top of the stone the first time, the last two minutes I used to bake them for was too much and the bottoms burned.

Another bonus is that the stone is easy to clean, and you can even be lazy about it, like I am (which you probably guessed from all the stains on mine). You just need to remember not to use soap. It is so porous that it'll suck up the soap and you'll get that flavor in food you bake on it. Ick. Just scrape the burnt bits off (I use the back of my dish scrubber) after it's cool and rinse it off with water. If you really want to clean it, use a little baking soda and rinse it off. Just remember- it's supposed to be ugly. It gives it character, and no one is going to see it if it lives in your oven, anyway.

I suddenly feel like making a nice boule. To the kitchen!

*Edit* Here's that boule!
It was delicious.

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