Baking in a cold Dutch oven: artisan bread starts low and slow

Customer feedback is highly regarded at King Arthur Flour — really, it is. Suggestions aren’t brushed to the wayside but taken seriously. When new questions are posed, we put our baking brains to work finding the answer. So when readers began asking about bread baking in a cold Dutch oven, we started plotting. This topic deserves a full-on investigation!

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

In our initial exploration of bread baking in a Dutch oven, we investigated using a preheated pot to bake no-knead bread. The results of this method were impressive — loaves baked to crisp, crusty, golden-brown perfection.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

Here are loaves made in a preheated pot (right) with those baked on a sheet pan (left). The side-by-side comparison is stark.

So if you’ve got a bread baking crock that can be preheated empty (like this Bread and Potato Pot), it’s certainly worth trying this method. But what about all the other Dutch ovens that can’t be preheated empty, for fear of damage?

This is when you might want to consider baking in a cold Dutch oven — the oven isn’t cold the entire time, of course, but just at the start. Putting the pot into a cold oven allows it to warm slowly as the oven heats up. It prevents any sort of thermal damage that might occur to the pot if it’s heated empty.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

No oven mitts are needed here — the oven, pot, and dough inside are all room temperature.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven: how it works

Some of our bread recipes call for baking in a cold Dutch oven, but you can use this approach to bake almost any crusty bread. There are just a few tricks to achieving fantastic results: You’ve got to know your oven and watch your dough closely as it rises.

Start by preparing your dough as instructed in the recipe. (We like the No-Knead Crusty White Bread recipe for its ease and quintessential crusty bread texture.)

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

This Dutch oven made by Emile Henry is perfect for baking bread using a cold-oven start, but you can use almost any Dutch oven like this — though you’d definitely want to check the manufacturer’s instructions about preheating.

Let the dough rise once at room temperature and then shape into a boule, or whatever shape you like. Place the shaped dough into a lightly greased or parchment-lined Dutch oven, and let it rise for the second time.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

When the dough is almost finished rising, cover the pot with a lid. When you poke the dough with your finger, the indent should fill in slowly — this is how you’ll know it’s ready to go into the oven.

Place the pot with the almost-fully-risen dough into a cold oven. Set the oven to the baking temperature called for in the recipe, and let it go! Your goal is to have the dough finish rising when the oven and pot reach the full temperature.

Once everything is fully preheated, start the baking time (usually about 25 to 35 minutes). If you want a nicely caramelized loaf, remove the lid when there are about 5 to 10 minutes left in the bake time to let the top brown.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

The result? A decent loaf of homemade bread!

How baking in a cold Dutch oven compares

Baking in a cold Dutch oven doesn’t only protect the integrity of your pots, it also helps capture steam. Steam is essential to baking crispy loaves of bread — you can see the wonders it does in this post by my fellow blogger and bread baker, Barb.

But just how much steam does the cold-start method capture? Is it as effective as putting your risen dough right into a hot pot?

There’s only one way to find out!

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

The loaf that’s started in a cold oven looks pretty on its own. It has a nicely browned crust and the slashes open while it bakes, giving the loaf an artisan look.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

But when it’s placed next to a loaf made in a preheated pot, it doesn’t look quite as glamorous or lofty. The dough made in the preheated pot has more oven spring, meaning it rose taller while it baked.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

The loaf on the left was started in a cold oven, while the loaf on the right was baked in a preheated Bread and Potato Pot.

Even though the loaves look a bit different, the insides reveal a remarkably similar crumb structure. Both would make fantastic toast, I promise.

Cold start vs. preheated Dutch oven baking

I stand back, admiring my handiwork, when a member of our merchandising team, Rosie, enters the test kitchen. She has a keen eye for details when it comes to baking pans and other kitchen tools, and she wonders if the difference between the two loaves could be a result of the different shape of the pots.

The Bread and Potato Pot has a smaller, more spherical bottom. In comparison, the Dutch oven has a wider, flatter bottom, which allows the dough to spread and flatten slightly.

Determined to give the cold-start method a fair chance, I repeat the experiment making both loaves in the Bread and Potato Pot — baking one in a preheated pot and starting the other in a cold oven.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

On the left is the loaf started in a cold oven, and on the right the loaf baked in a preheated pot.

And look what happens!

Both loaves are almost exactly the same height. I’m stunned when I lift the lid of the pot started in a cold oven, assuming the intensity of the preheated pot will have boosted the loaf to an unmatched height.

Lessons learned:

  1. Baking in a cold Dutch oven can produce loaves that are just as impressive looking as the preheated method.
  2. Dutch ovens with a smaller base are best when trying to make tall, lofty loaves.
  3. Always have a set of fresh eyes look over your results — thanks, Rosie!

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

Baking in a cold Dutch oven turns bread dough from cold to gold(en). Click To Tweet

Choosing your method

As my fellow blogger PJ likes to say, “There’s no baking police.” Neither method — starting in a cold oven, or starting in a preheated pot — is right or wrong, nor is one decidedly “better” than the other. We encourage you to use the approach that works best with your equipment and taste preferences.

Baking in a cold Dutch oven via @kingarthurflour

Time to choose your bread-baking crock, and set the oven. You’ll soon be rewarded with alluring loaves of homemade bread. There’s nothing better than that!

What’s your favorite bread-baking method? Are there other techniques you’d like to see us explore? Let us know in comments, below.

Thanks to fellow employee-owner Seann Cram for taking the photos for this blog post.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Engagement Team.

comments

  1. Judith Oppenheim

    My dough stuck big time to the Dutch Oven. It appears that the bottom crust burned. Reading the above, it could be that my recipe which called for an additional 20 minutes without the top was too long and I would have been better off going with your 5-10 minutes. Or, I needed more time during the preheat (as soon as both the oven and empty Dutch Oven was up to temperature, I transferred the dough). Ashley, what do you think?

    Thanks, Judith

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi again Judith, we just saw your comment about your dough sticking to your Dutch oven on our other bread baking in a Dutch oven post, and we’ve offered some tips to help prevent this from happening again in the future. It makes more sense now that we know you baked your bread for an additional 20 minutes at this high temperature. We’ve found that it takes most recipes another 5-10 minutes to brown nicely at 425*F when the lid is off. Next time check for doneness early to catch the bread right as it turns perfectly golden brown. Baking the bread for about 20-25 minutes once the pot and oven come to temperature usually is a good place to start for most doughs. We hope this helps! Kye@KAF

  2. Mary

    I made my first sourdough! I’ve been feeding and tending to “Audrey” for the past week, and started the dough last night. I made 2 loaves from the same sour dough recipe. I baked one starting in a cold Dutch oven and cold oven, then baked the 2nd one after the first one was done, in the preheated pan and oven. Both were cooked 20 min with the lid on (starting when the oven came up to temp for the cold start); and both were baked the remaining time with the lid off until the center reached 200-205 degrees. Interestingly, the cold oven start loaf turned out with a much browner and crispier crust, although both were terrific. Thanks for writing this post, I think I’ll do all my loaves this way from now on.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s our pleasure to help, Ashley. We had the chance to share your baking experience with a few of our seasoned bread bakers to see if we had any additional thoughts or suggestions to offer you. One baker who knows both the cold start and pre-heated oven method well pointed out that achieving distinctive slashes and high-rising ears can be more difficult using the cold start method. Not only do you have to judge how much longer the bread will rise before the oven comes to temperature, but also how deep to make the cuts and when to remove the lid to create just the right amount of steam. You might want to consider simply putting your dough into a fully pre-heated oven to reduce some of the guesswork here. Plus, the sudden blast of heat will also encourage more oven spring and thereby open up the slashes even more. She suggested that if you give this a try, err on the side of under-proofing your dough. That way the dough will have enough energy to split the scores and make a distinctively beautiful ear. We hope this helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  3. ashleyinjp

    This is such a great suggestion! Like so many commenters, I dislike handling an awkward hot dutch oven. I tried this method last week, and while the loaf tasted wonderful, it had one aesthetic quirk I have a question about:

    I used the Jim Lahey no-knead sourdough recipe, which I’ve used a few times previously. In the past, I proofed the dough in a banneton, then flipped it into the heated dutch oven, at which point I’d slash it quickly with a lame, give it a quick spray of water, pop the top back on the dutch oven, and put it in the oven.
    The bread would not retain the banneton marks quite as well as the Extra Tangy Sourdough does, but otherwise it would look similar.

    With the cold start, I cross slashed the dough with a lame, then & re-cut the slashes even deeper with a knife, expecting that the slashes made before the final proof might “mend” more than slashes made right before baking. I also didn’t spray any extra water on it.

    The final product had no “valleys” to the slashes at all– the cross slash had filled in, and looked it looked like the dough had only superficial scratches. The dough had absolutely ballooned, and the top was perfectly rounded, with the cross mark looking like it had only been etched on the surface.

    Have you had this happen? When you use the cold-oven start, do you slash the dough at the beginning?

    Thanks for the help!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Ashley, it sounds like you’re in the pursuit of perfect homemade bread, which we love to hear! If your slashes are filling in to the degree you’ve described, it likely means that your dough wasn’t proofed properly. (Depending on whether you’re using a cold start or pre-heated method, it may need to be proofed for a shorter amount of time.) Try adjusting the final proof next time and use this same method again; we think you’ll see a marked improvement in how prominent the slashes turn out to be. Good luck, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

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