Which Is the Best Surface for Bread Baking? Steel, Iron, Stone, Aluminium Compared

Baking bread on a solid hot surface can really help it rise and get a nicely browned and crispy crust on the bottom.

Commercial bread ovens have thick stone floors on which bread is baked on. The pre-heated solid stone retains and radiates heat extremely well. Placing dough on such a surface transfers high heat to it right away making the loaf rise sooner and get better oven spring while the bottom becomes beautifully browned and crispy.

Most domestic ovens do not have such a feature. They normally have metal racks which can hold cookie sheets or roasting trays which are not great at retaining or transferring heat.

When dough is placed on a thin piece of metal it cools it down significantly and that prevents the browning of the crust and the potential of great oven spring.

Of course, not having a solid surface to bake on is not the end of the world. People have been baking bread at home without it for a long time with no issues. And for the most part it is not totally necessary. If you are making burger buns or baking cheese straws, then you could easily do it without a solid surface.

But if you want to bake free-standing boules, batards, ciabattas, pizzas, or baguettes, then a solid hot surface would help a lot.

What are the options for home bakers?

There are a couple good pieces of equipment that are versatile, work well, and are a great investment which will last a lifetime.

A cast iron pot with a lid also known as a combo cooker is a great option. It is solid and heavy which makes it retain and radiate heat extremely well. It has a lid which traps steam inside that helps the bread rise even better. And it is so durable that it will most likely outlive you. The only issue with it is its size and shape which limits the number of breads that can be baked in it.

Another option is a baking steel. Like the cast iron pot, it is extremely heavy and holds the heat well and it is practically indestructible too. What I like most about it is that it can just be left in the oven and used as the oven ‘floor’. You can find one that fits perfectly in your oven. The advantage of it is that it can accommodate a lot more breads at any one time.

Baking stone is similar to a baking steel. It is placed in the oven and used as a surface for baking. It can be found in different shapes and sizes to fit your oven. Sometimes referred to as a pizza stone because it is commonly used for baking pizza at home.

A baking stone can be made of various types of stone. The most effective and efficient would be one that is dense and heavy which would make it work just like the baking steel.

The one I own is light a porous making it extremely inefficient. It loses heat very fast and placing something cool on it would most certainly cool it down right away. Another disadvantage of a porous stone is that it absorbs everything that drips on it. After just a few pizzas it will look stained and nasty and there is no way to clean it. And it can be broken accidentally unlike the steel.

The final option is one that most home bakers will have – a regular metal baking tray. These come in different materials, coatings, shapes, and sizes. What they all have in common is that they are thin and lightweight which prevents them from holding on to heat very well.

Trays like that are great for breads which are meant to be final proofed on a tray and then moved to the oven. Burger buns, dinner rolls, various pastries, and small loaves. They do not necessarily need a solid hot surface underneath them because they are light and small. Their features will allow them to heat up quickly without the help of a hot surface.

Larger loaves however may have a harder time when baked on a thin metal tray. They may not get great oven spring or good crust coloration on the bottom.

The two most useful pieces of equipment are the combo cooker and the baking steel.  The combo cooker is perfect for baking loaves or even small pizzas. The lid is a great feature which helps the dough rise. The baking steel acts the same way as cast iron, but it covers a greater surface area. I always keep mine in the oven and even when I use a thin metal tray to bake small rolls, I can place that tray on the steel which transfers the heat to the rolls.

The only downside is that it does not have a lid, but there are ways to steam your dough and I have made a video about it which you can find in the Principles of Baking playlist.

Watch the video here

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