Bread and pots, comforting and enriching, come together to make an exciting baking experience using a bread cloche! A cloche is a covered container that traps steam from the dough while baking, resulting in a superb crust. If you’re already a bread baker and love a crusty country loaf, I highly recommend trying this technique with your favorite recipe. The cloche is a simple lidded form with a deep, pie-plate-shaped base and a domed lid. I use 3 pounds of clay for the base and 7½ pounds for the lid, throwing on a bat to support their wide forms.
Take the smaller ball of clay and throw a flat disk to make the base of the cloche. Throw the walls up and gently flared outward, leaving enough thickness to form a flange on the outside rim (1). I make the flange generously sized so that the lid seats easily when placed on the base. This will be especially important when handling a hot pot! I don’t trim the cloche base, so the bottom is thrown to about ¼ inch thick.
Measure the outside diameter of the cloche base at the flange (the corner where the vertical and horizontal parts of the flange meet) and make a note so you can throw a lid that will fit (2). Typically, the bases are thrown about 9½ inches wide, which shrinks to a bit over 8 inches when fired, a good size to bake a 2-pound loaf of bread. Wire cut the base off the bat.
On a new bat, use the larger ball of clay to throw a deep bowl form. The inside diameter of the rim should match the outside diameter of the flange on the base. Keep the rim of the lid flat (3), even, and sturdy. These pots are workhorses (hopefully!) that will go into hot ovens and be jostled around.
Allow the two parts of the cloche to dry evenly and together (4). Once they are leather hard, flip the lid over onto a foam bat to trim (5). Using bats to flip the form rather than grasping the lid itself helps keep it from deforming and assures a good fit on the base. My lids, once trimmed, are shaped like a flattened dome, slightly tucked in toward the base. Place the lid on the base and allow it to dry a bit so you can attach the handle without denting it (6).
A generous handle on the lid is essential for a secure grip when using padded oven mitts. I like to add a pulled strap handle to this form. Start by roughing out a slightly tapered handle shape. With the lid placed on the base, dampen a small area on the lid, and press the wider end of the handle into this spot. Take care that the handle is centered, then work it into the lid to secure the attachment (see 7). I leave a visible seam at the base of the handle to emphasize the difference in the texture of the trimmed lid and the pulled handle as an aesthetic choice. Once the handle feels securely attached, dampen it well and gently start to pull the handle up and away with both hands (7). As you pull, you can apply pressure with your thumbs to flatten or ridge the handle to add definition. Pull the handle longer than you need it to be; the extra length helps to form a secure attachment, and any excess can be removed. Be careful not to make the handle too thin. Both visually and functionally, it needs to stand up to the beefy proportions of the rest of the pot.
When the handle is shaped to your liking, place the tail end down on the lid, allowing a generous arc shape. Firmly attach the end of the handle to the lid; I like simple, bold thumb wipes (8).
Allow the piece to dry slowly and evenly with the lid in place. Wide flat bottoms tend to crack when dried too fast (9).
Making the Bread in the Cloche
An easy one-loaf recipe, Mark Bittman’s No Knead Bread, is an excellent place to start: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11376-no-knead-bread. For a deeper dive, two good books are Tartine by Chad Robertson and Bread Builders by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott.
I prefer to follow a process and make variations rather than to adhere stringently to specific recipes. This Robertson recipe, my current favorite, makes two loaves and can be varied in many ways. Consider adding coarse rye or spelt flours, sesame seeds or nuts, herbs, olives, or Parmesan cheese. A higher proportion of white flour results in a lighter loaf.
This recipe requires a starter or leaven. A starter is a thick wheat or rye flour batter inoculated with live yeast. Making a starter for bread is easy to do on your own, or get a baker friend to give you a small scoop to get you going!
- 750 g. (3 cups) water
- 200 g. (7/8 cup) active leaven (starter)
- 100 g. (¾ cup) rye flour
- 100 g. (¾ cup) whole wheat
- 800 g. (6 cups) white flour
- 20 g. (about 1 Tbsp) salt
- rice flour for dusting proofing containers
Essential tools include: a bench knife, large bowl, cloche or Dutch oven, spatula, proofing (or rising) containers, light kitchen towel or plastic sheet, heavy-duty oven mitts, and a digital scale. It’s more accurate to use a digital scale than to measure by volume. This should come naturally to potters (10).
Making the Dough
Feed the starter the day before baking. In a bowl, mix ¼ cup starter and about ⅓ cup each of flour and water. Cover and leave out at room temperature overnight. The next day your starter should be active and bubbly enough that it floats in water. If your starter is sluggish, try feeding it again and waiting another 24 hours to make the dough.
Weigh 700 grams of lukewarm water and stir in 200 grams of starter. (Feed the remaining starter and save in the fridge for the next bake. Excess starter also makes fine sourdough pancakes!) Add all the dry ingredients except for the salt and rice flour. Mix well.
Allow the mixture to rest for an hour, then add the 20 grams of salt mixed in the remaining 50 grams of water.
This dough is fairly wet (high hydration). It’s also too soft for traditional kneading. Gluten is formed by periodic stretching and folding of the dough about every 30 minutes or so. Dip your hands in water so the dough doesn’t stick to them. Resist using any more flour. Take an edge of the dough and stretch it gently away and up (11), and fold over the top of the ball (12). Rotate the bowl 90°. Stretch, fold and rotate again, repeating this pattern two more times so all the dough has been stretched carefully without tearing. Repeat this four-way stretching and folding process every 30 minutes until the dough has doubled in size.
The dough will become progressively lighter and airier as it rises until it has doubled in size. Resting the dough in a warm area shortens the rising time. Handle it gently, so you don’t deflate those beautiful gassy bubbles. You will learn to recognize the airy look of the dough when it’s ready to form loaves.
Forming the Loaves
This is probably the most challenging part of the process. Pour the dough out of the bowl onto a clean surface. Using as little flour as possible to avoid sticking, cut the dough in half. Use a bench knife to tuck each half of the dough all around and under itself, forming it into two tight balls (13). By tucking and tightening the strands of gluten, you’re giving it greater structure, encouraging an open crumb (holes in the bread), and spring (growth upward during the baking process). Allow the dough balls to rest covered under plastic or a kitchen towel for 10 minutes or so.
Take one dough ball, dust lightly with flour and flip it over. Gently stretch (14) and fold the dough over itself (15) about ⅔ of the way in all four directions. Flip the dough again and tuck around the base to form a tight loaf.
Using the bench knife, lift and invert the dough ball into a proofing container (a basket or bowl, sometimes lined with a linen cloth) liberally dusted with the rice flour. The dough is now resting on what will be the top of the loaf (16). Put aside and repeat this process with the second loaf. Cover and allow the loaves to rise again, for about two hours.
One hour before baking, preheat two bread cloches in the oven at 500°F. These containers must be generous in size to allow for the vertical spring of the loaves in the baking. Make sure to leave the cloches in the oven long enough to heat all the way through to prevent cracking.
When ready to bake, and while wearing heavy oven mitts, remove one cloche from the oven. It will be incredibly hot, so place it on a dry, heat resistant surface and remove the lid. Invert the dough from the proofing container into the cloche base. Using a knife, cut the surface (17). Slashing is an art form, which allows your loaf maximum spring and can be visually stunning. Cover with the cloche lid and return to the oven. Repeat with the second loaf.
Return the covered cloches to the oven and reduce the oven to 425°F. After 30 minutes remove the cloche lids, then close the oven. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes to brown the loaves to your taste. They’re done when the loaves sound hollow when tapped. They should be just over 200°F in the center. If desired, check with an instant-read thermometer.
Remove the loaves from the oven and from the cloche bases. Allow them to cool on a cooling rack before tearing into them! Allow to cool more before slicing (18). Mmmmm, so good!
Guillermo Cuellar has been making pots since the 1970s. He loves to cook and make pots for kitchen use. His studio is in the St. Croix River Valley of Minnesota, where he makes his living as a potter. Cuellar has been a host artist for the St. Croix Valley Potters Tour since 2009. To learn more about his work, visit www.guillermopottery.com.