How to make crusty bread: your recipes (and tips) for success

Is crusty bread your idea of heaven?

If so – the devil is in the details!

Many of us equate the words “crusty” and “artisan,” assuming that there’s only one path to great crusty bread: that followed by the professional baker. These bread masters lovingly tend long-rising doughs, carefully shape each loaf by hand, then bake bread to perfection in a wood-fired oven.

The result? Beautiful golden-brown loaves, richly flavored, perfectly shaped, and – of course – wonderfully crusty.

But you know what? Artisan bakers aren’t the only ones who can make delicious crusty bread. You, the home baker with average (or even startup) skills can make crusty bread simply by following these five simple tips – and then applying them to their accompanying recipes.

Ready? Let’s make crusty bread.

How to make crusty bread-2A

1. To make crusty bread, choose the right recipe.

On the left, soft, butter-and-milk enriched pull-apart dinner rolls. On the right, a crusty Italian loaf. Soft dinner rolls aren’t meant to be crusty; don’t force them beyond their comfort zone, because therein lies disappointment.

Crusty breads are usually the simplest ones: flour, water, yeast, and salt, with no eggs, butter, sour cream, sugar, mashed potatoes, or anything else that might turn them into softies. Sure, you might see a crusty bread recipe calling for a teaspoon of sugar, or a tablespoon of dried milk powder; these small amounts of softening agents may keep the loaf’s interior tender, but won’t affect the crispness of the crust.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

Italian Sesame Bread

You know those Italian breads in the supermarket, the ones in crisp white paper bags printed with the name of the local Italian bakery?

If you’re a Boston-area native you’ll recognize this as scali bread. Its light, crisp crust flakes off in tiny shards as you rip off a hunk, creating a blizzard of seeds and crumbs: rich evidence that someone’s been into the bread box.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

2. Shape the dough with more rather than less surface area.

A big, fat, round or oval loaf – a boule – doesn’t have as much opportunity to shine in the crisp crust department as does a thin baguette, or individual rolls. While you can certainly make a big loaf with crisp crust (you’ll see a couple of examples below), the ratio of crunchy to tender will be much smaller.

So if you’re a real fan of crust (as opposed to soft interior), opt for smaller, skinnier, or flatter loaves or rolls.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

Crusty European-Style Hard Rolls

These rolls have a delicious crackly/crunchy crust due to their simple ingredients, and as a result of allowing them to proof in the refrigerator. Their texture is light and airy, rather than substantial, which makes them a wonderful mini-sandwich or dinner roll.

Serve these rolls with spaghetti, to sop up the sauce. Or use them for French dip sliders: rolls packed with hot roast beef, then dipped in the beef’s savory, aromatic juice.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

3. To make crusty bread, create steam in the oven.

Remember the artisan bakers I mentioned at the beginning, those masters of the perfect crusty crust? They have a professional secret: the steam-injected oven. Nothing offers the baker quite as nice a crust as an oven filled with steam for the first part of the baking process.

While you most likely don’t have access to such an oven, you can try to replicate steam’s role in creating crisp crust by making your own homemade steamy oven. Some bakers like to place a sturdy pan (cast iron preferred) on the bottom shelf of the oven as it preheats, then pour 1/2 cup or so hot water into the pan as they’re loading the loaves. The result? Billows of steam trapped in the oven.

Another, easier way to re-create steam’s work is to simply spray or brush risen loaves with warm water before placing them into the hot oven. A third way: the French cloche (pictured above), a stoneware pan with lid that traps moisture from the baking bread, converting it to steam within its little bell-like cave.

And how, exactly, does steam create a crisp crust? Simply put, it has to do with the starch in flour. As bread bakes, its outer layer (crust) eventually reaches 180°F. At that point, the starches on the surface burst, become gel-like, and then harden in the oven’s heat to a crackly consistency. Steam hitting the bread’s surface facilitates this process.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

No-Knead Crusty White Bread

The easy stir-together dough for this ridiculously easy crusty loaf rests in your refrigerator, developing flavor all the time, until you’re ready to bake. About 90 minutes before you want to serve bread, grab a handful of dough, shape it, let it rise, then bake for 30 minutes – on a pan or stone, with steam in the oven; or in a cloche.

The result? Incredible, crusty artisan-style bread. If you’re a first-time bread-baker, you’ll never believe this bread came out of your own oven. If you’re a seasoned yeastie, you’ll love this recipe’s simplicity. And, of course, its crust.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

4. Bake on a pizza stone or steel.

Many bakers find they can create a decent crisp top crust, but struggle to make their bread’s bottom crusty, as well.

The best way to brown and crisp your bread’s bottom crust – as well as enhance its rise – is to bake it on a preheated pizza stone or baking steel. The stone or steel, super-hot from your oven’s heat, delivers a jolt of that heat to the loaf, causing it to rise quickly. At the same time, the bread’s bottom, without the shield of a metal pan – which takes awhile to absorb and then transmit heat – bakes super-quickly, becoming brown and crisp.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

Stirato

Crunchy and chewy, with great “bite,” each long, skinny loaf of this Italian bread is filled with the large, irregular holes all of us home bread bakers strive for in our baguettes and country breads. And the crust: well, suffice it to say it’s the perfect combination of crunch and chew.

Baguettes, which stirato resembles, are made from a dough that’s soft and supple, but firm enough to shape easily. Stirato, on the other hand, is made from an extremely slack (wet) dough, which not only produces its large holes, but helps make that same “crispy starch” created by oven steam.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

5. To keep bread crusty, cool baked loaves in the oven.

This may sound like an oxymoron – cool bread in the oven? – but it works. Once the bread is baked, turn off the oven. Transfer the bread from pan (or stone) to a middle oven rack. Crack the oven door open a couple of inches (a folded potholder works well here), and let it cool right in the cooling oven.

How does this help keep bread crusty? As bread cools, any leftover moisture in its interior migrates to the surface. If that moisture reaches the surface and hits cool air – e.g., typical room temperature – it condenses on the loaf’s surface, making it soggy. If it hits warm air (your still-warm oven), it evaporates – leaving the crust crisp.

How to make crusty bread via @kingarthurflour

Classic Baguettes

And here they are, the sine qua non of crusty bread: baguettes. While it’s a challenge to make “real” baguettes at home, this version is probably as close to an artisan bakery version as you’re going to find.

This isn’t a quick and easy recipe; the starter rests overnight, and the dough itself has two fairly long rises. But the effort is fairly minimal, and the result is well worth the time spent: each loaf sports a thin, light crust that shatters when you slice it. The rasp of a knife sawing through a fresh baguette is one of the most tempting sounds a crust-lover will ever hear.

Finally –

One thing I didn’t explore here is toppings or glazes. Prior to baking, do you brush your bread with a beaten egg white? How about a cornstarch/water slurry, 10 minutes before the bread is done? Fodder for a future post – stay tuned!

What’s your favorite crusty bread? And do you have any tips for attaining the ultimate crust? Please share your thoughts in comments, below.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Jan

    My problem is that I can’t get the dough to rise. I admit to having a cool house so have tried using a warm oven and the microwave after boiling water in it but nothing seems to work. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You might want to try a proof box- and to test your yeast to be sure it is still active! Happy baking-Laurie@KAF

  2. Mary Lou Musselman

    I have baked our family’s bread for more than fifty years. On a few occasions, I have held mini classes to teach others the art of making yeast bread. Today, I read your tutorial on baking crusty loaves. I can’t tell you how good it makes this old dog feel to discover it’s not too late to learn a few new tricks. I especially appreciate knowing why those tricks work. Thank you; Thank you.
    those tricks work

    Reply
  3. haha

    Any “tricks” to keep the top crust from separating from the rest of the loaf? That’s too much of a “hole”!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Check that the bread is properly covered with plastic of in a moist proof box for the final rise. When the top crust is dry before it goes int the oven, it can separate. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

  4. Catherine Donaldson

    Around 6/3 I received my shipment with the sour dough crock pot and starter. I noticed the date on the starter was the same day as I got the shipment so I called right away and asked if it would still work with it being the expired date. I was told that it should be no problem. I made it per directions, it rose beautifully and I have been feeding it each time I pull some out for baking or at least once a week. I don’t make a lot of bread, one to two loaves a week and rolls thrown in, because there are only two of us. Each time I make a loaf or rolls, it still has just a faint hint of sour dough. What should I do or is it the starter is not strong enough?
    I even added it to the No-knead recipe of which I also have questions. I was not sure how much starter to exchange for water, so I added 1 1/2 cups starter and the rest of the water 1 1/2 cups. Way to hard to even mix so I added another cup of water, still terribly hard to mix so wet my hand and kept trying to work in water. I did not want to handle it too much but it just would not mix in the flour. I used the 6 1/2 cups of flour dip method. It rose pretty well but no way to pull off a ball, so I cut off a chunk and rolled into a long roll and baked. The sour dough taste was still mild. It was tasty but tough. I cut in 4th and by the second and 3 loaf, it still did not pick up a sour dough flavor. We are talking about 2 weeks gone by at this point.
    My questions are how much starter should I use for the no-knead recipe or any type of bread and when it is not a true sour dough recipe and is my sour dough ok. How do I make it have a flavor of sour dough. I don’t like strong sour dough flavor but want to tell a difference from white bread.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      A rough guide would be about 25% of the recipe could be starter. To use the starter, one cup of starter is made of 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces (one cup) of flour. Subtract those amounts from the flour and liquid listed in the recipe. It’s a reasonable starting point. Our new blog post deals with many of your questions: bit.ly/1PiAtdU Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

    2. Elizabeth

      Hi Catherine!
      I have a few thoughts on your sourdough bread questions. I have never bought an already made starter, but have started my own several times. Are you keeping it in the fridge or on the counter? I have tried keeping mine in the fridge before, but it is never as sour and strong as when it lives on the counter, so I leave mine out all the time unless I go away for a while. Is it bubbly and sour smelling? It should be…..if not, then it probably is not really active. If your starter is good and sour then your bread will be, too. I feed mine a half cup each of flour and water every day, and my bread is very nice and sour. I would recommend trying that. The bread I usually make uses 4 cups of starter and makes two loaves. I started with using a recipe, but have kind of changed it over the years and now just make it by memory and intuition, adding whatever I like. 🙂 Sometimes I want a sweeter bread, like oatmeal molasses or something, so I just add a cup or so of starter to a basic dough with oatmeal, molasses, and some butter. It works just fine! To us, bread made with no sourdough tastes pretty bland. I put it in our waffles, pancakes, biscuits, etc. as well. 🙂 Try following your intuition with bread making instead of a recipe. If you have down the basics of yeast, water, flour, salt ratios, and you know how a bread dough should feel, you can pretty much ad lib and turn out lovely, unique breads tailored to your taste! It is so much fun and more relaxing to me, than trying to follow a recipe to the letter. I love to read recipes to glean ideas and tips, and then apply them to my baking. Just ideas. I hope maybe one of them will help you! Best of wishes with your starter. If all else fails, just start your own. It couldn’t be easier or more fun!

    3. PJ Hamel, post author

      Elizabeth, thanks for summing up so much that’s creative and just plain fun about baking – especially baking with sourdough. Baking is as much art as science; you DO have to nail some of the science before you can “let your inner artist shine,” and a lot of that knowledge comes through practice and experience – and you clearly have that in spades. We appreciate you sharing here. PJH

    4. Jo-Ann

      I made my first (and only) sourdough starter two summers ago, and I’m still using it. It took 10 or so days to get it to the point where it was really bubbly and active, plus there is some effort involved with monitoring it, throwing starter out, adding fresh flour and water, etc. etc., but once it got going, holy cow, I couldn’t kill it with an axe. I keep mine in the fridge because if I don’t, it will explode out of its container. Also, my husband doesn’t like a very ‘sour’ dough, so I adjust it to his taste. If I wanted a more sour taste, I’d take what I wanted out of the starter and leave that portion out for a day or so before using it. As it is, I use it directly out of the fridge, replacing what I use with a 50% flour and water ratio, by weight.. For example, I’d replace a 2 cups of starter weighing roughly 700 gms with 350 gms of flour and 350 gms, of water. This is where the metric system is so great – 350 mls of water weights 350 gms.

      I digress. I use a variation of the ‘no knead’ recipe to make whole grain sandwich loaves. These turn out with a nice tight grain like you would see in a sandwich bread versus an artisan bread. I use loaf pans to bake them. The trick is getting the feel of how wet your dough needs to be (before you let it rise overnight). For sandwich loaves, you don’t want quite as wet a dough as you would with the ‘boule’ shaped loaves you bake in a covered dish. What has worked for me is to use 4 cups of whole grain bread flour (per loaf), 1/2 cup sourdough starter, 1/4 tsp yeast, proofed in about 1/2 cup of warmish water, 1 1/2 tsp of salt, and optionally some cooked whole grains, flax seed, honey (all of which are not necessary, but nice). Then take your 4 cup pyrex measuring cup, add your proofed yeast (in water), your 1/2 cup starter, cooked grains, honey, whatever, then make up the difference to get to about 2 1/2 cups of liquid. Mix your two cups of flour and salt, then add the liquid. You’ll have a really really wet dough, almost like a batter. I use my Kitchenaid with a regular cake beater thing for this, but you could do this by hand. Beat it for about 30 seconds, then add your last two cups of flour and beat until blended. Depending on humidity, it might be too much flour, too little flour or just perfect, but you can tweak it with a bit of water or additional flour. You want a dough that is kind of wet, maybe a BIT sticky but not glue-like.

      I put this mix in a 4 litre ice cream pail closed up with the fitted lid. Leave it overnight on the counter (the 18 hour rule is good here). It will grow. Next day, gently scrape the dough out of it’s container and dump on to a dampened countertop. ‘Stretch and Fold’ a couple of times (look this technique up – it is brilliant), let rest a couple of minutes, then shape into loaves, place in loaf pans and Bob’s your uncle. I bake mine for 10 minutes at 425, then reduce to 375 for 30 minutes or so. Internal temperature of the bread should be about 190-200 degrees F. This is so easy and if you use your bread for sandwiches, toast, whatever, you end up with the right shape. Also, if you don’t have time to make the bread the next day, just stick in in the fridge. I’ve left the dough several days before baking, just make sure to take it out well ahead of when you plan to bake so it has time to warm up to room temp.

      Long winded, but I hope it helps1

  5. jtee4short

    Oh how I love edible science! And you ended on a cliffhanger! I can’t wait to find out about this “cornstarch/water slurry”!

    Reply
  6. Kate

    How long would you let baguettes cool in the oven? Wouldn’t they still cook quite a bit, especially in an oven with a hot baking stone in it. Maybe cook for a shorter time before doing this, or just leave it in the cooling oven for maybe 10 minutes to avoid overcooking?

    Thanks,

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Pretty much until they are cool to the touch, Kate. You will want to keep your oven door open and move the loaves off of the stone. They should not over bake using this method. Jon@KAF

  7. Jeannie

    I have tried your baguette recipe twice, following the directions exactly (I think!!) but neither time has the interior of the bread turned out with the airy pockets that make it so good. It looks more like regular bread with a more tight density. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Baguettes are one of the harder breads to perfect. Make sure your dough is slack and minimize the amount of kneading time for the dough. Patience and practice will eventually result in lovely holes. Jon@KAF

  8. Roiy

    I just read this email and by the time I was finished my mouth was watering for crusty bread. I spent a week trying to develop a sour dough starter and tried making a couple of loaves which were pretty much a disaster. So I think I will try this “crusty” route and pray for the best. You supplied a lot of great tips which I hope my old mind will remember as I venture into this crusty world… wish me luck. I will try to give you a follow up; hopefully positive. Thank you KA.

    Reply
    1. MegaFoodSci

      Find someone near you with a reliable sourdough starter and ask for some of theirs; sourdoughers are notoriously evangelical about their little pet and it would probably make their week to get you all set up with some starter and advice!

  9. Helen

    I notice you mentioned a “homemade peel”. How do you make that? These look really good. Anxious to give it a try.

    Reply

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