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I can’t remember the exact moment my husband and I became Serious Bread Bakers. It could have been the day I realized that we hadn’t bought bread from a store in more than three years. Or the time he insisted on going to the grocery store across town because his favorite bread flour (King Arthur) was on sale there. Or one of the many times we fell down the floury rabbit hole that is the bread-baking thread on Reddit (titled, appropriately enough, r/breadit). Or — and this was probably it — when I determined that our Le Creuset 7 ¼-quart Dutch oven and Lodge Combo Cooker that I’ve written about before are fine as bread pots, but not perfect as bread pots.
For one, the Combo Cooker is on the smaller side, and the one kilogram of flour called for in most recipes (including those in Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast and Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, two of the most oft-cited books in r/breadit) produces enough dough for two large boules, each of which are a bit too hefty to fit in the Combo Cooker. I also find the Combo Cooker a bit unwieldy to get in and out of the oven — its uneven sides mean an uneven grip, and the lack of clearance between the lid and the base’s handles makes getting the lid on and off a bit fiddly. Using our Le Creuset Dutch oven solves those problems, but presents new ones. Because it has higher sides, I’m always a little scared I’m going to burn my forearms getting the dough in and out. I’ve also had a couple of loaves stick to its ceramic-coated surface, which means I have to use parchment paper, and that feels wasteful (but also is one extra step too many, because I’m lazy).
Around the same time I realized we needed a dedicated, perfectly suited vessel for our bread baking, former Strategist senior editor Simone Kitchens asked if I wanted to try a new one she’d heard about, called the Challenger Bread Pan. (When you work with people as obsessive as you, word gets out about your passions.) What immediately struck me about the pan — which is now back in stock after selling out following its release last year — is how formidable it is. Its generous size can handle the large amounts of dough one whips up using recipes from Robertson’s and Forkish’s books. The bottom portion is flat, almost like a griddle, so it’s easy to plop that dough down for the first stage of baking. And removing the lid is easy, thanks to handles that are placed at an angle (those with spacious, Nancy Meyers–movie ovens could probably take the lid off without even pulling out the oven rack). The pan’s design — flat bottom, domed top — basically offers a far more efficient way of baking bread the way Tartine’s Chad Robertson does by flipping his Lodge Combo cooker upside down.
Since receiving my Challenger Bread Pan, I’ve used it to make the loaves we have in regular circulation — Forkish’s white bread with poolish and overnight 40 percent whole wheat loaf; Robertson’s country walnut sourdough; and my favorite, Jim Lahey’s carrot-walnut bread — and have been consistently impressed with the results. Because of its heavy cast-iron construction, the Challenger gets screaming hot, giving the loaves thicker, more evenly colored, and much more flavorful crusts than they could develop in the Le Creuset or even the cast-iron Lodge. (I should mention, too, that our oven is your standard-issue, “runs about ten degrees below what it says it is” apartment oven, so the Challenger is significantly multiplying its baking power.) The bread’s insides have been good, too — each with a nice, open crumb — but the crust is where the real difference lies, and with homemade bread (all bread?), the crust is really the most important part.
The worst part is the price, because $295 for a dedicated bread-baking pan isn’t cheap (I did not buy mine; it was sent to me by the brand). But as any Serious Bread Baker — or baker, or cook — knows, investing in quality cookware is never a bad thing, especially if it means a lifetime of seriously good loaves of bread to keep and give away as gifts (but mostly keep).
My other bread pots
The Lodge Combo Cooker.
And the Le Creuset Dutch oven. An important note: We put this stainless-steel knob on the lid because the plastic knob that it comes with will melt at the high temperatures needed for bread baking. The steel knob, which also comes in gold, would actually be a terrific gift for anyone who has a Le Creuset and cooks a lot, since it essentially makes the pot safe to use at any temperature.
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