Making a delicious, crusty bread recipe from scratch often calls for baking in a Dutch oven. But what if you don't have one, or want to make extra loaves? No worries - we have you covered with these easy Dutch oven substitutes!
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But if you don't have a Dutch oven, or if you want to bake more than one loaf at a time, never fear! We're about to walk you through three of our favorite easy ways to bake crispy, crusty bread without any special equipment.
Why bake in Dutch Ovens, anyway?
A Dutch Oven conducts heat evenly for consistent baking, and has a heavy lid that traps any steam released by the bread while it cooks.
And the key to crusty homemade bread? STEAM. (But not too much!)
Why Steam Matters for Crusty Bread
Steam is useful because it keeps the outside of your loaf from setting before the bread rises, drying out, or baking too quickly (you don't want to burn your crust while you wait for the center of the bread to cook!)
By slowing down crust formation, steam helps the bread rise rapidly without the constraint of a stiff crust when it hits the oven (known as "oven spring"), keeps the outer crust thin and crispy rather than tough and chewy, and lets bread develop a deep brown color without burning. (PS - Want to know more about how steam works in bread baking? There's a great article here!)
Professional bread ovens have steam injectors built right in. In a dutch oven covered with a lid, the bread essentially steams itself!
SO. When we talk about a Dutch oven alternative for bread, what we're really talking about is how to create steam inside your oven.
Steam is an important ingredient in crusty bread baking right up until the loaf has set and begun to brown. Once that happens, it's time to remove steam from the equation (too much steam can make your crust thick and tough!)
In our Easy Crusty Bread recipe, we accomplish this by removing the lid for the last 10-20 minutes of bake time. In the methods below, you'll either remove a lid, remove a dish of water, or control the amount of water you use so it evaporates in time to let the bread crisp up.
Alright. Let's look at a few substitutes to help you bake crusty bread without a Dutch Oven.
For reference, our favorite Easy Crusty French Bread recipe calls for baking bread in a Dutch oven at 460 degrees F for 30 minutes covered and an additional 10-20 minutes uncovered.
Please note: Do not substitute glass bakeware for any of the equipment discussed in this post as glass can shatter when exposed to extreme temperature changes. When using these techniques, please use the recommended equipment.
Option 1: A pair of cast iron skillets + Ice cubes
Preheat two cast iron skillets (we recommend one 8" to 12" skillet for the bread itself, and one 6" to 8" skillet to hold the ice cubes we'll use to create steam) in the oven while it heats before baking. Place the smaller skillet on a separate oven rack directly below the large skillet.
Note: If you're using a Dutch Oven Bread recipe like ours, the instructions will usually tell you to preheat the Dutch Oven. If you're using this method, just preheat the cast iron skillet instead!
When it's time to bake, grab 8-10 ice cubes from the freezer and have them ready to go (I like to put them in a small bowl for easy pouring later).
Use oven mitts to remove the large cast iron skillet from the oven. Gently set your bread down into the hot skillet (don't burn yourself!).
Put your oven mitts back on, then carefully place the hot skillet back into the oven.
As soon as the bread is in the oven, quickly (but carefully!) pour your ice cubes into the second hot skillet and close the oven door.
The ice will steam as it hits the hot pan, creating the steam you need for a crispy crust. The water from the ice cubes will completely evaporate after 20ish minutes, leaving your bread to finish baking in a steam-free oven for a perfect crispy crust.
Note: We do NOT recommend using this ice cube method with a glass or ceramic baking dish, as the extreme temperature difference can cause these materials to break.
Option 2: Use an oven-safe pot and a tight lid or sheet pan
Note: I always opt for a sheet pan here because most of my pot lids have drainage holes for easy straining. Great for draining pasta, but not great at keeping steam trapped inside the pot.
I recommend a stockpot instead of a regular baking dish because traditional casserole dishes are usually too short to successfully bake crusty bread in: the bread will either hit the baking sheet on top and flatten out into a sad blob, or it will rise so high that it lifts the cookie sheet up off the dish and lets out all the steam.
For best results, make sure you're using a pot or dish that's at least 4 inches deep in order to give the bread room to rise as it bakes. A 5 or 6 quart saucepan or stock pot will do a great job - just make sure it's oven-safe (like this one, which is safe up to 500 degrees F!)
If you're using a regular stainless steel pot, you can skip the preheating-your-pan step here.
A steel pot like this will heat up much more quickly than a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, and because it doesn't distribute heat as evenly it's more likely to burn the bottom of your bread if preheated.
Instead, when you're ready to bake, place your formed loaf directly into the cold pot, then set in your hot oven and immediately cover with your baking sheet.
Bake as directed by your recipe, and remove the baking sheet during the last 10-20 minutes of baking just like you would a Dutch oven lid.
Option 3: Use a baking steel or pizza stone and a dish of water
Last, but definitely not least - bake your bread on a good ol' pizza stone or baking steel. (We love our baking steel!) and use a dish of water to create steam. Like Dutch ovens, a baking steel conducts heat well and distributes it evenly for a uniform bake.
For best results, preheat your baking steel for 45 minutes to 1 hour before baking.
To create steam, fill a small baking dish with water (1 cup is usually plenty) and place it in the oven, on a rack directly under your baking stone or steel, 5-10 minutes before you place your bread in the oven.
When you're ready to bake, place your bread onto the baking steel (use a piece of parchment paper to make it easier to transfer bread to the oven if you like!) and bake as directed.
Carefully remove the dish of water from the oven for the last 10-20 minutes of baking (if you're following a Dutch oven bread recipe, pull the water dish out when it tells you to remove the Dutch oven's lid!)
Don't worry about trying to pour off the water while it's still hot (that's a good way to burn yourself!) - just set the baking dish on the stove or a trivet and let it cool.
PS - You can totally use a cast iron skillet and ice cubes to create steam with a baking steel or stone, or use a dish of water when baking with a cast iron skillet! We just wanted to illustrate both options for you - choose the steam method you like best!
Other ways to create steam in your oven:
This isn't an end-all, be-all list of all the ways to bake crusty bread without a Dutch oven! We've also tested and generally liked the following methods (and if you have another strategy you love, be sure to drop us a comment!)
- Fill a clean spray bottle with warm water. Spray several pumps of water right into the oven or onto the bread dough right when you place the bread onto a pizza stone, baking steel, or even a preheated sheet pan, and then again after 5-10 minutes in the oven. I've baked bread this way many times, and it works in a pinch, but it's probably my least favorite method. It just doesn't quiiiiiite give you the same crispy, crunchy crust as some of these other strategies!
- Place an oven-safe mixing bowl upside-down over bread that you bake on a pizza stone or baking steel. This method does a great job of creating steam and developing a crisp crust, but it's awfully annoying to try to lift a big bowl off of a flat surface while wearing oven mitts, not to mention a lot easier to accidentally burn yourself.
- Pour water into a hot cast iron skillet right when you put your bread onto a pizza stone or baking steel. Some bakers recommend pouring very hot water into a preheated cast iron pan to create steam, and some recommend pouring COLD water into a preheated pan, either from a bowl or a long funnel. Does it work? Sure. But again: ANNOYING. I find it much easier to use one of these other methods.
So. Do you need a Dutch Oven to make great homemade bread?
No. But if you bake bread often and can make the investment, it will certainly make the process a little bit easier. Of all the methods we've tried to make crusty bread at home, a Dutch oven is far and away our favorite.
If you're ready to pull the trigger on a Dutch oven, here are a few of our favorites:
Our favorite homemade bread recipes:
Ready to bake some bread? Check out our favorite (and most popular!) crusty bread recipes: