Over the years I have gone through various bread-baking phases, trying out everything from sourdough to brioche. Much of the time I struggled to bake a loaf as good as that from a proper baker. Then, within a week the same solution was handed to me by two completely different people; Darina Allen and Paul Hollywood. The way to successfully bake a really great loaf, better than anything you will find in most supermarket bakeries is:
A cast iron casserole, a Le Creuset or Dutch Oven, as it is called in the States.
First, having completed a wine-tasting session at Ballymaloe Cookery School, I sneaked into the back of a class on fermentation, given by Darina Allen and Emer FitzGerald. It was a fascinating talk, and I wish I hadn’t been obliged to race off back to Wicklow. For me the most interesting part was the sourdough bread, which did not require any kneading and was baked in a cast iron casserole preheated in a very hot oven. The idea came from Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco.
Three days later, watching Paul Hollywood on the Food Network channel, he introduced a New York baker who produced a fail-safe no-knead bread baked in the same vessel. See http://www.foodnetwork.co.uk/video/no-need-to-kneed-this-bread-dough.html for the same video.
In both cases, you fold rather than knead the bread, and in both cases, you preheat the casserole, bake the bread for 20 minutes with the lid on, and then a further 15-25 minutes without the lid, allowing the crust to crisp up. I tried both out. I baked my sourdough at a very high temperature, which shattered my Le Creuset handle, and the loaf stuck a little to the bottom of the casserole. I now unscrew the handle and sprinkle a little wholemeal or rye flour on the casserole before adding the bread. It works a treat. I can now cook really good bread, both sourdough and standard, to a very high standard. I usually mix strong white flour with a proportion of whole meal, rye or granary. It may not look quite as artisanal as real bakery bread, but the crumb and moisture is good, the crust nice and crunchy, and the flavour excellent.