Why Use Cast Iron To Bake Sourdough
Budding baker Candice Powell is on a quest for the perfect loaf...
Candice Powell doesn’t bake bread—she makes sourdough—and any one of the million people who tried their hand at the Instagrammable loaves this year knows that there’s a difference.
“When I started out, I didn’t realize sourdough was one of the hardest things to make,” she says with a laugh from her home in Tennessee. “I’m still learning.”
Full disclosure: Candice is our sister—a work horse as determined, and stubborn (work mule?) as we are—who in the 90’s assisted at Maryland cooking school, L’Academie de Cuisine. She’s the first to admit that bread was never her specialty, but she decided to start baking sourdough, much like the rest of us, as a sort of challenge to pass the time during quarantine this past winter.
Despite its simple, three-ingredient recipe—flour, salt, and a naturally occurring leavening agent, aka wild yeast, aka a starter—sourdough is anything but easy, as much a science as it is an art. It’s not about fancy, foolproof tricks learned in a French kitchen, or even on YouTube, but rather the time and test batches and industrious resolve that one puts into perfecting their own method. Eventually, it becomes a sort of muscle memory, down to the literal feel of the dough in your fingertips.
“Sourdough is not exact, where you just find a recipe and follow it,” says Candice. “You have to get your fingers and hands in it.”
And since early March, Candice has had her hands in a lot of dough. Sticky, wet, hole-y ones. Sad, flat, deflated ones. At times, she overfed her starter, until it nearly filled two quart jars, which luckily just inspired her to keep baking.
“I’m pushing myself,” she says, recently leaving a dough in the fridge awhile longer to experiment with its cold fermentation. “There are a lot of things you can still do with the failures, like make bread pudding. But I’m going for the picture-perfect crust.”
For that, she enlists the help of our Homer, using the pot’s flat bottom, 10-inch diameter, and 4.5-quart depth to help mold the loaves into their moon-like shapes, plus a Heather skillet as the lid.
“I ferment the dough on the counter for a day, then the fridge for a day, then pre-shape for 30 minutes, then final shape it, and before that, I preheat the pot and pan for an hour at 500 degrees,” she says. “It’s a process.”
Compared to steel baking sheets or even enameled Dutch ovens—common cooking vessels for sourdough—an enclosed cast-iron environment is ideal for two reasons: heat and hydration, which can be hard to achieve at the right levels in a conventional oven, both of which are key to creating the bread’s iconic texture.
Cast iron is able to reach high heats and maintain constant temperatures, creating a Maillard reaction on the bread’s exterior—aka a seemingly simple but rather complicated set of chemical reactions that take place as food is cooked, affecting both color and the complexity of flavor. It’s similar to searing a steak, but in this instance, the browned surface is that quintessential crackly crust, often marked by its baker’s artisanal scores.
With the help of a lid, that constant heat also enables the efficient production of steam, as well as the ability to trap and control the moisture, yielding that plump, al dente interior.
At this point, Candice is feeling her way through, yet trusting, the process.
“I’m still trying to achieve the small air bubbles on the surface of the crust and a higher ‘spring’ in the oven,” she says, baking multiple loaves every week. “Picture-perfect will be soon. I rarely give up, so I’ll finish this quest. Probably 10 pounds heavier.”