when i eventually buy my own house, an in-house brick oven is at the top of my wish list. i’d also love an outdoor earth oven (susan has been building one over at wild yeast ; i’m jealous). while in the meantime (and realistically, forever), i’m not going to have one at my fingertips, there’s no reason i can’t simulate a hearth oven in my own kitchen using baking stones.
what’s the point of baking on a hot stone? stones retain heat much better than metal baking sheets, giving your bread a better crust (like putting a good steak on an extremely hot cast iron pan). waiting for cold sheet pan to heat up can cause the bread to bake unevenly. the stones work best when you heat them up as you preheat the oven. i usually heat the stones up about 100 degrees hotter than the recipe temperature, then turn it down to the appropriate temp just before putting in the bread, making up for some of the heat lost when you open the oven door.
i used to have a pizza stone (an awesome gift!) that worked very well for about a year. however, some kind of oil must have seeped into the stone because it began dripping and smoking profusely whenever i turned on the oven. more than once the apartment filled with smoke and eventually i had to trash it. the problem with pizza stones is that they can be incredibly expensive ($40-$100!) to replace.
i decided to do a little research and found a great alternative in unglazed quarry tiles. you can find them at any hardware/home store (my dad and i hit up home depot). these are 6″ x 6″ and about 1/2″-3/4″ thick, though 1″ thick is probably ideal. the best part? 12 of them cost me less than $5, so it’s definitely not just for die-hard bakers. since i started baking on these tiles, my bread has looked and tasted better than ever – and the crust is incomparable to older loaves. i have them arranged on a middle rack as in the above picture. a few quick tips:
- make sure they are unglazed! glazed tiles can contain harmful chemicals and metals like lead in them. if you aren’t sure, ask someone at the store or contact the manufacturer. liquid should be absorbed by the tiles, not roll off of them.
- cleaning: when you first bring the tiles home, wipe them with a solution of water and baking soda. you can do this if they get pieces of crust stuck on them as well. do not use soap, as it will seep into the stones and then get into any food you put on them.
- transferring bread to the tiles: you might be asking, “if i’m not using a baking sheet, how do i get my dough onto a 500 degree stone without burning off my fingertips?” with smaller loaves, you can pull out the shelf a little bit and literally toss the bread onto the tiles. with anything larger, a cornmeal covered pizza peel is your friend. i recently invested in one (less than $10) and it’s made getting the bread into the oven a cinch.
- care: these tiles require very little care. they may darken from use, but should be fine. you can also leave them in the oven even if you aren’t baking on them. if i need to bake on a sheet, i just move one of the empty shelves above the one with the stones. it won’t hurt them to heat up over and over. if your tiles ever do break from use, you can replace them for mere pennies!