Commercial bread ovens have a steam injection system. The steam keeps the surface of the dough supple so that dough can expand gracefully during baking. Jim Lahey’s popular no-knead bread recipe uses a dutch oven to emulate steam injection. The Dutch oven method seals in the moisture contained in the dough during the first half hour of baking. It works great and I cook all my bread this way.
That being said it can be tricky to plop a loaf of wet, sticky dough into a 475º F Dutch oven without either burning yourself or messing up the dough. I’ll note that even when I’ve screwed it up (like the loaf above) and the dough lands off center, the bread still turns out fine. It’s just an aesthetic issue.
You use it upside down, putting the dough in the skillet rather than dropping it down in the pot. Then you stick the pot on top. I imagine that the handle is handy.
Someone in a bread class I was teaching suggested using a bread baking stone and simply inverting a pot or large roasting lid over the stone. As long as the lid or pot seals properly, this should work too.
Other folks use parchment paper and don’t do the inversion at all. I’m a bit skeptical, but haven’t tried this technique myself.
You can also buy a clay cloche, but they’re on the expensive side.
There are other steaming methods. I used to throw a shot glass of water in the oven–it just doesn’t work as well and, I’ve been told, can damage some ovens. I’ve also tried preheating a roasting pan and then pouring water in it, but it doesn’t work as well as the Dutch oven. And I was really surprised to read about an elaborate steaming technique that involves a length of chain in a roasting pan described in the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. Too much work!
For now I’m going to stick with my Dutch oven. Most of the time I manage to get the loaf into the pot and our kitchen is so small that we don’t have room for more gadgets.
If I’ve left out any steaming techniques or you have an opinion, please leave a comment . . .