The Secret Steps To Getting A Crusty Top On Bread


How to get a crusty crust. I find homemade bread with a strong, tearing crust very satisfying. In fact I think a great crust makes the bread. It’s a true stamp of quality that says

“this bread rocks.”

A lot of home bakers get stuck with replicating the crispy crust that is found on professional baked bread. Crusty bread actually has a thin crust in comparison the soft topped bread.

Why is crusty bread so hard when making bread at home 

Many home bakers create steam in the oven when baking or use a dutch oven to get a fairly decent crust. I often hear of bakers who were doing fine but after a change of seasons struggle to replicate the crispy crust they had before. Maybe this is you? Or maybe you are trying to get the crust just a little bit better or can't make a crispy crust at all?

I'll try and answer all of your problems about crust formation with this bread crust guide...

What makes bread crusty?

For the crust to have a crunchy texture not only do we need to develop a thin, crunchy crust but also a light and airy crumb. The contrast of a light crumb exaggerates the crust to make the bread more appealing and "crusty".

As moisture escapes from the breads centre during baking and cooling the starches on the outside of the bread retain water. These starch particles are a bit greedy and continue to retain water until they explode. 

When the starch explodes they release a natural oil which adds a clear sheen that you may have noticed on crusty bread. These natural oils create a firm coating around the outside of the bread which gives the bread an strong, crusty top layer.

Let’s find out what goes into making bread with a great crust and how you can get the perfect crusty crust every time.

 These tips work for yeast leavened bread, and sourdough bread.

How to get the perfect crusty crust

Though it might seem an impossible challenge to make crusty bread at home with a couple of tweaks to your bread making it is perfectly possible.

The first point to consider is the quality of the dough. A well fermented dough is the foundations for a good crust and well any type of bread that you make.

For more information on dough fermentation I have a deep dive article on the dough fermentation process which tells you everything you need to know.

Following on from that there are more tips on how to get a professional quality crust on your bread.

How a good dough is vital for the perfect crust

The most important component of the crust is the quality of the dough. There are many other factors that go into the crust but number 1 is always the dough. A good crust starts with a good dough. 

For the perfect crust we want to be looking for the following characteristics:

  • Check that the flour is well hydrated with water, it can't be overly dry
  • Long amount of slow mixing, typically 7-10 minutes or do an autolyse
  • A generous development time or the use of prefermented flour

All three of those points are relative to hydrating the protein in the flour slowly and properly and creating organic acids. The reason for this is a little scientific, basically they make the gluten in the dough become stronger and longer and the mature the dough.

At the end of bulk fermentation, the perfect dough will have a strong, stretchy gluten structure and pass the windowpane test. I have an article if you would like to know more on what is the windowpane test. This supports a good crumb structure and a strong crust.

For yeast made breads a long mixing time with a good dough mixer or hand kneading technique should be used. With sourdough and some artisan breads a long bulk fermentation is preferred so kneading time is reduced as the dough develops naturally.

Shaping

Preshaping

After bulk fermentation the dough should be preshaped and then final shaped. The preshape stage is really important for the crust as it removes the air from the dough, forcing the gluten to rebuild into a fresh structure. An experienced baker will create tension in the outside of the dough during preshaping.

Final shaping 

A strong outside layer makes it easier for the dough to be final shaped with tension which means the dough has a strong outer boundary protecting and holding the inner areas of the dough together.

Firm shaping helps the dough hold it shape during proofing and creates a strong outer layer which will form the crust in the oven.

Preparing the bread for the oven

Getting the optimum proof

For the best crust the dough should be tested with the poke test before baking. This test involves touching the dough with your finger tightly to make a small indent. If the indent bounces straight back the dough should be proofed for longer. Once it takes 3 seconds to return it is ready.

If it takes over 3 seconds for the dent to return it's slightly over proofed, this shouldn't matter too much but is not going to make bread with a perfect crust.

Cutting the bread

Once you have decided the bread is ready to bake the next stage is to cut the surface before it goes into the oven. For optimum, no fuss crusty bread a simple one cut at a 20 degree angle is preferred.

The cut should be fairly deep, around 5-7mm and a sharp blade or lame is preferred.

Here is the one that I recommend if you don't have one already:

(This is an affiliate link)

One firm cut is best, going over it only if you really need to tidy or deepen it. The cutting technique may be daunting at first but a bit of practice really does make perfect.

Adding intricate designs to your bread looks really pretty but they can cause to much gas to escape in the oven. If this happens the oven spring will be reduced which can make your bread crumb less light and airy.

Adding too many cuts will also weaken the tension in the perimeter layer of the bread which weakens the formation of the crust.

How the oven set up helps the bread

For the best crusty bread we need a proper home baking oven set up. For this we don't need to be too fancy.

 There are two key components to a bread oven. 

  1. Add steam to the oven to create moisture at the start of baking
  2. Use a baking stone to conduct the heat

Adding steam when the bread goes in the oven stops the crust from setting immediately and allows the remaining yeast in the dough to raise the dough.

This rise in the oven is known as oven spring.

Adding steam

The use of steam in the oven is crucial to getting crusty bread. Without a moist environment dough will not be able to expand which creates a thick crust. The thick crust reduces the release of moisture from the dough making it the bread dense and as the starches on the outside perimeter of the bread have no moisture to absorb they do not release the natural oils that make the crust crunchy.

There's a detailed guide on how to add steam to an oven for bread which I wrote. Take a dive through if you want to know the best way to do it.

For those using a dutch oven to bake sourdough bread there is no requirement to add steam as the lid retains moisture that escapes from the dough during baking.

Using a baking stone

Without buying a professional bakers deck oven you’ll need to use a baking stone. One of these stones will power your oven into a bread baking machine!

If you don't already have a baking stone, I recommend this one from Amazon:

(This is an affiliate link)

It's made from Firebrick which is the same as the one I use but the cost is a lot lower than what I paid for mine - I wish I saw this first!!

To use a baking stone, preheat the oven with it on a low to mid shelf and place a baking sheet on the shelf below. After the oven has preheated for around an hour the dough can be dropped directly on the stone using a peel or a sheet of baking paper can be used. Pour some boiling water in the baking sheet below it and shut the door as quickly as you can. 

Steam and the baking stone combine to make awesome oven spring!

The preheated baking stone retains the heat from the oven and disperses this into the bread. As the stone is in contact with the bottom of the bread it rapidly warms the dough which forces the oven spring to rise quickly before the crust sets. This creates a light crumb and a crusty crust.

Oh, and the base of the bread will bake more evenly when baked on a baking stone!

The quality of the oven matters

High quality ovens have a more even heat distribution, are better sealed and are more powerful. These features are important when making bread.

Since I've been trialling a cheap oven which is fitted with just a standard plug I have noticed a slight drop in crust quality. Once the bread goes in, the oven struggles to regain temperature and I am often baking at 200C (390F) for most of the bake. A more powerful oven that can get back to temp fast will make better bread.

If you are on a budget or really can't be bothered to change your oven for the sake of bread there are a few hacks you can use to get the most from your oven.

Changing worn oven seals are a simple and cost effective solution that will help retain heat and moisture. As is using multiple baking stones, firebricks or lava rocks to retain heat after the bread goes in.

The best oven temperature to bake crusty bread

For a typical large sized 800g loaf bread an oven temperature of 220 - 230C (430 - 450F) is best. Any higher than this and the crust will darken quickly which forces the baking time to shorten. A soft crust is created as more moisture is retained in the crumb which doesn't reach the starches on the outside of the crust.

Fast baking creates a soft crumb and soft crust, perfect for Neapolitan pizza, but not for bread.

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