Baking Bread in a Closed Clay Pot (“Cloche”)– the best crust yet!

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So many people have asked about baking dough inside a closed cast-iron pan (see a post on that). The cast-iron pan method is based on a much older method, where bread is baked inside a closed clay pot (or “cloche,” meaning “bell” in French).  Both methods depend on trapped steam from the dough to create a perfect crust, but the clay pot has the added benefit of being porous, so moisture is trapped, but also conducted away from the surface as the bread bakes.  I tested the Sassafras brand “La Cloche” product, and I’m very impressed with the crust I’m getting –take a look at the picture above; this crust is thin and shatters when broken (the burned bits are perfect in artisan loaves; that’s how you know you’ve baked long enough).  Keep in mind that these crust results are hard to re-create with loaves very high in whole wheat (because of oils in the wheat’s germ).  The bread above is about 15% whole grains– it’s a light version of the Peasant Loaf on page 46 of the book.  Whole grain breads perform beautifully in “La Cloche,” but the crust tends to be softer and thicker.

For crust aficionados, I think the “La Cloche” results are a little better than what I get inside closed cast-iron.  I didn’t put these two methods in our first book, because we wanted to keep things as simple as possible.  But with results like these, they’re going into he second one (publication date is 10/13/09)!

Sassafras claims that James Beard once said that the “La Cloche” product gave him bread that was “nothing short of phenomenal.”  “Beard on Bread” was the first bread cookbook I ever used–my wife brought it to our marriage, and then taught me to use it (click here and scroll down to meet Laura).

If James liked a product, I have to give it a try, though I should also say that readers have written me on Twitter (click to follow ArtisanBreadin5 there) to say that the Romertopf clay vessel works just as well, though I haven’t tried it myself.

Before using “La Cloche,” rinse it in hot water to get rid of any ceramic powder left over from manufacturing, and let it dry overnight.  The first time you use it, apply a light coating of vegetable oil to the inside of the bottom piece (the bell-shaped top part doesn’t need it).  The ceramic is very fine-grained and won’t absorb a lot of oil so it didn’t smoke when I pre-heated this thing to 450 F.  You don’t need to cure the oil coating before you bake your first loaf.  You’re ready to bake.

There are two ways to use La Cloche:  the way that Sassafras officially endorses (putting a cool cloche into a preheated oven bearing raw dough that has rested/risen on cornmeal inside), or what I’ve found works better:  preheating the top and bottom pieces of La Cloche to full baking temperature for 30 minutes, and then transferring fully-rested loaves into it (carefully, as in Zoe’s post).  The crust result is fantastic; you can rest/rise in a banneton, then drop the dough into the hot bottom tray of the cloche, then cover (click here for my post on how to use a banneton).  Baking time is the usual as written in our recipes.  The other easy method is to rest/rise the loaf on parchment paper and just drop the loaf, with the paper, into the hot cloche.  Cover and bake.

You don’t need a baking stone, you don’t need to introduce water into the oven for steam, and you don’t need to dampen the cloche; all the moisture you need comes from the dough and is trapped inside.  One important point:  Open the lid for the last third of baking, or the bread will not brown.

This is a very romantic baking dish (is that possible?); using it makes you think you’re in a different century.  It’s heavy, and very tactile– here it is with an unbaked boule sitting in it (cool-cloche method):

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Here’s the banneton-risen bread after the lid was removed to finish baking open to oven air:

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There are two problems with the Sassafras-approved cool-cloche method:  first, baking time is longer than written in our recipes, because the clay vessel has a lot of heat to absorb before the interior is up to baking temperature.  Second, the crust just isn’t a crisp.  So, even though the Sassafras instructions say to use a cool cloche, I’m going with a hot one.  Keep in mind that this product doesn’t appear to be warranted against cracking, whether you follow their instructions or not.   One important care instruction:  never use soap on pottery baking vessels, just hot water and a clean scrub brush.

Ten years ago, Daniel Wing and Alan Scott wrote “The Bread Builders,” which was mainly about building your own wood-fired masonry and brick bread oven in your backyard (gotta do that someday).  But they also had lots to say about the “La Cloche” product, which they thought was almost as good as their wood-fired masonry ovens.  They interviewed the product’s inventor at Sassafras who told them that the fully-preheated method for using this product “…is fine.”

Good enough for me.  Look at this bread!

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156 thoughts to “Baking Bread in a Closed Clay Pot (“Cloche”)– the best crust yet!”

  1. I bought one of these several years ago. It worked well for several loaves, then the bottom cracked. A vertical crack down the side, and then a crack which followed the marriage of the base and side. Since then I’ve been using the bell (the top) with a pizza stone. Problem with this is the base of the cloche gave an extra couple inches of loaf height. So, I really like the idea, and still use the top, but am disappointed with Sassafras’ implementation of the base. I remember, at the time, I read numerous reviews and other people had the same problem I ended up with, and Sassafras does not have any kind of warranty on their products.

    1. Same exact thing happened to me – I have tried and tried to find a bottom (ONLY) but alas…….No luck. I still have the top.

  2. Jeff, the problem with that is that your lose 1.5-2 inches of height. Depending on your loaf size, you may need to make a smaller loaf to keep the “bell” from touching the loaf as your loaf is hitting its oven spring.

    1. I do this all the time, with a baking stone as the bottom section. You could also use a very large cast iron pan. It’d actually work with a cookie sheet/baking sheet under there.

  3. Hello! I’m so glad to have found you! When using my unglazed clay baker for cooking, I soak it in water for 10 minutes before use. When baking bread, do I also soak it in water? Also, clay cookware generally goes into a cold oven. Please advise how to use the clay baker for making bread! Thank you! Much appreciated.

  4. Hello! I re-read your post — No additional moisture needed with my clay pot, thank you! There was so much to read that I missed it the first time. I do have another question though, is the Bread Rising Banneton advised to use if I’m making bread with the rapid rise instant yeast. Thank you again for your thoughts! Best regards,

    1. Using the banneton isn’t related to the type of yeast you use. It just helps the boule-shaped (round) loaves hold their shapes while proofing, and they create this nice visual pattern on the top crust. Any kind of yeast works in my recipes.

      I have a number of bannetons, and after a while, I found that I wasn’t using them–wasn’t that important to me and it’s just one more thing to keep clean (and not easy to do so). It’s just a matter of personal preference.

  5. Good evening, I have been baking your “master loaf” for many years using my pizza stone to bake it. I recently purchased an unglazed Romertopf and am dying to try baking the master loaf in there. I read the article above and at least 20 others concerning pre heating the clay pot. Some say cold oven and others say to preheat. On the Romertopf website it states not to preheat as it could crack.shatter. Thoughts?

    I look forward to your response.

    1. Yikes, I didn’t know that about the Romertopf! If they say it might crack, they’re probably right, and I wouldn’t risk it. Personally, I think the result is better with a preheat, but I have had a cracking problem with the pan that comes with the Sassafras product, but not with the Emile Henry. You get a decent result without preheating…

      1. Thanks for the reply! I am going to try it tonight. BTW, the unglazed Romertopf’s are made in Mexico. We are living in mexico now and I purchased mine at a yard sale. I will use parchement paper so it does not stick!

  6. I bake sourdough in either my Emile Henry long clay baker or Emerson creek unglazed long clay baker. I often chill my sourdough in the fridge. I bake starting in a cold oven with room temperature baker. At 450 F it usually takes 60-65 minutes in my oven for the dough to reach 205 F. I leave the lid on and it browns without burnt edges. The shock of going in a hot oven is hard on clay pots if they are coolish when placed in the oven. The long bakers make a nice loaf for sandwiches and toast.

    1. Yeah, they tend not to be lifetime durable. Your approach is interesting, glad it is working for you. I always preheat the clay pot, so there isn’t shock, but I think both methods will work

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