Halfway through baking Preston Yancey’s white bread for the seventh time, I suddenly remembered that I needed to make bread for communion this week.
Now, you might think that one bread is as good as another, as far as that goes. But you would be wrong.
The bread I bake for communion doesn’t just have to be tasty and look pretty. It also has to tear apart fairly easily. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in church cringing as the pastor twists and pulls at my bread, even though it’s been pre-cut 3/4 of the way through.
The inner crumb is always easy to pull apart, but my communion bread needs a soft crust as well. Lucky for me, the difference between a crusty crust and a soft crust is all in the baking method.
This is like a choose your own adventure!
1. If you want a crusty crust
Prepare the dough you want to bake. A crusty crust works best with a dough that is mostly lean (meaning without a lot of fats like eggs, milk and butter).
After the first rise, shape your dough and move it to a floured couche or banneton. Let it sit in the fridge for an hour while you preheat your oven.
This is the same for both crusty and soft bread: put a dutch oven in the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees F. Score your dough and put it in the dutch oven with the lid on. Bake for 15 minutes.
If you want crusty crust, keep the lid on the dutch oven but bump the temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake an additional 15 minutes.
After 30 total baking minutes have elapsed with the lid on, remove the lid and bake a final 10-15 minutes until the crust is hard if you tap it with your finger.
2. If you want a soft crust:
The key to a soft crust is to soften it with an egg wash before it goes into the oven, and bake at a low temperature after the initial oven spring is done.
Once again, prepare the dough you want to bake. After the first rise, shape it into a boule and place it on a piece of parchment paper. Cover it with a bowl and let rise one hour while you preheat the oven (with the dutch oven inside) to 450 degrees F.
When the oven is ready, brush the top of your boule with an egg wash and score it with a razor blade in a pretty pattern. Then move it to the oven and keep the lid on for the first 15 minutes.
Now, you will bump the temperature down to 350 degrees F and remove the lid. Why do this? If you keep the lid on, the temperature inside the dutch oven is going to stay at 450 degrees. If you remove the lid, the baking temperature is going to go down much faster.
Bake an additional 20 minutes with the lid off until the crust is hard when tapped (don’t worry, it’ll soften as it cools). Remove your dough and let it cool on a rack for at least two hours or overnight.
So there it is: the secret behind getting the crust you want. Literally any bread can be made with a crusty or a soft crust, as long as you know what to do.