Straight to the Point
Le Creuset recently launched a fancy, enameled cast-iron, “bread oven”—a pot specifically designed for baking crisp, crusty loaves of bread. I tested it out to find out whether it's worth the nearly $300 sticker price. But, first, some background.
By now, most people who make bread at home already know that baking a rustic loaf is best done in a heavy, covered Dutch oven-style pot. Baking “under a cloche” is as old as the hills, but it was popularized in recent years by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman’s 2006 New York Times no-knead bread recipe and Chad Robertson’s 2010 book, Tartine Bread.
For those unfamiliar with the baking method, here’s why it works so well: Lean breads—meaning those without a large amount of fat from eggs, butter, or oil in them—need to be surrounded by steam for the first half or so of the bake for best results. The steam serves to promote good oven spring for a tall, open-crumbed loaf, and to produce a thin-shelled and shiny crust. After a while, the steam is removed in order to let the crust brown and crisp up.
Professional bakers use specialized ovens that rapidly fill the oven with steam on demand, and vent it away just as quickly when it’s no longer needed. Home bakers have devised all sorts of techniques for steaming their ovens—pouring boiling water onto superheated lava rocks is one of the best I’ve found—but no matter how good, these tricks all fall short, for two reasons. One, it is hard to generate enough steam to fill the relatively large space of a typical home oven. And two, home ovens are vented by design, so they do not retain enough steam to have the desired effect. (Electric ovens are better than gas in this regard, but neither is great.)
Enter the Dutch oven. Instead of baking the bread in the “open,” you preheat the empty pot and lid in the oven, add the loaf, cover it, and return it to the oven. After half an hour or so, you remove the lid and continue baking the bread until it is sufficiently browned.
But what about the steam, you ask? Ah, but it comes from the bread itself! Bread baked in an enclosed container “self-steams,” because some of the water in the dough evaporates as the loaf heats up, filling the surrounding space with water vapor. Baking bread in a Dutch oven produces results that rival breads made in fancy, steam-injected bread ovens. It’s something of a miracle of science that such a simple and common device could be so effective, especially with so little effort required.
Which brings me to the subject of this review: If a simple, humble, and versatile Dutch oven is such an effective tool for bread, do you really need to spend $290 on a “bread oven” that does the same thing? That’s what I wanted to find out.
Before I get into my testing, I need to point out the main difference between the Le Creuset Bread Oven and a bog-standard, enameled cast iron Dutch oven, like the round 7-quart Le Creuset one I have owned for more than 20 years: it’s upside down! Instead of a large, deep base and a flat-ish lid, the bread oven features a shallow, skillet-like base and a tall, bell-shaped lid. This design is identical to other bread-specific baking vessels—ceramic or cast-iron—known as cloches. (“Cloche” is French for bell.)
The main advantage to having the bottom half of the device be shallow is that once the lid is removed, the loaf is nearly fully exposed to the heat of the oven, allowing it to brown quickly and evenly. And it makes loading and unloading the loaf easier, since you don't have to navigate the high (and scorching hot) sides of a deep pot. (Another possible advantage is that the "lid" in this case weighs more than the base—2,350 grams, or 32.5% heftier than the 1,774-gram lid of my seven-quart Dutch oven—which might allow it to hold the steam in better, thanks to gravity.)
The main disadvantage? You can only use the Le Creuset Bread Oven to do one thing: bake bread. (You can't really even use the base as a skillet, despite outward appearances. I'll explain why a little later.) Meanwhile, you can use a Dutch oven to…bake bread, make chili, cook pasta, make beef stew, and the list goes on. All of which means that, for the average home cook, the Le Creuset Bread Oven has better be vastly superior to a Dutch oven, or it will hardly be worth the storage space and steep sticker price.
To evaluate the Bread Oven, I baked a dozen crusty, rustic loaves—sourdough and yeasted, white and whole grain—in one, and compared them to the same loaves baked in my Dutch oven. The good news? They were all excellent, as good as any I’d baked in any other well-made vessel, with a crackly-crisp crust and a nice open crumb! The bad news? They were mostly identical to those I’d baked in any other well-made vessel!
There were a few differences, none of which I'd consider selling points, alas:
Yes, the loaves did brown more quickly in the Bread Oven and its shallower base. Those that I baked in my Dutch oven took an average of five extra minutes to brown to the same degree. But there was no noticeable difference in the quality of either crust once fully baked. And sure, it was easier to load and unload the shallower Bread Oven, but with a good pair of oven mitts, using a Dutch oven without mishaps is no big deal either.
The bottom of the Bread Oven loaves got a little darker than I’d like in a few instances. The inside of the Bread Oven is coated in black enamel, unlike most Dutch ovens (including mine), which have a lighter-toned enamel coating. Dark-colored materials absorb and transmit heat more readily than lighter ones, which explains the extra browning. In this case, it is not a fatal flaw, since you can drop the oven temperature slightly—25°F less, in my testing—to avoid it.
But what isn't avoidable, unfortunately, are the impressions that the Bread Oven leaves on the underside of the loaf, thanks to the circular, two-millimeter high ridges and mirror-image “Le Creuset” logo located on the inside of the base. In its marketing materials, Le Creuset claims the ridges are there "for even browning,” though it's not clear if they are supposed to lift the loaf up a little higher in the oven or to allow a little air circulation beneath the loaf.
They also state that they are there to mark "the loaf with the Le Creuset three rings." And, as the accompanying photo makes clear, the inverted name is meant to imprint itself (unmirrored, of course) onto the underside of the loaf too. This is just plain silly to me. Why would I want to brand my loaves with the Le Creuset emblem at all, much less on the never-visible underside? (Oh, and, by the way, the Le Creuset name ends up more of an amorphous cypher than a crisp letterpress unless you use a very wet dough, something I almost never do.) More importantly: The rings and logo only leave a mark when you set the raw dough directly onto the base, rather than placing it first on a sheet of parchment that you use as a “sling” to load the loaf. The latter approach is a far safer way to make sure the loaf ends up perfectly placed; it’s too easy to miss the mark when you invert the loaf directly into the scorching hot pot.
Why would I want to brand my loaves with the Le Creuset emblem at all, much less on the never-visible underside?
Maybe this is a selling point for some people, but not for me. Fortunately, the marks are purely aesthetic, and not visible unless you turn the loaf upside down. Moreover, as I hinted at earlier, the raised ridges on the base make it less useful as a skillet, since they impede smooth stirring of the pan’s contents. (And because the ridges don’t cover the base of the pan completely, you also can’t use it as a grill pan.)
As I mentioned already, the Le Creuset Bread Oven works exactly as advertised: It is an easy-to-use and thoroughly effective bread baking tool, capable of cranking out perfectly baked rustic loaves with a delicate, crisp crust and a holey interior. As well it should be, since it is made with the usual quality and care as other Le Creuset products. And it is a beautiful, if unusual-looking, device, available in a wide variety of Le Creuset’s colorful finishes.
But is it worth the $290 sticker price? The answer is: it depends. Do you have the extra scratch to spend and room to spare in your kitchen cabinets to house one? Then sure, by all means, the Bread Oven won’t disappoint. But if you are short on funds and/or kitchen real estate, then I’d say you are better off getting a far-more-versatile and possibly much less expensive—at least if you opt for brands other than Le Creuset—cast iron Dutch oven instead (or using the one you might already have).
How do you clean the Le Creuset Bread Oven?
The Le Creuset Bread Oven is dishwasher-safe, however hand-washing is recommended.
How do you make bread in a Dutch oven?
You can find the Serious Eats recipe and instructions for no-knead bread that's baked in a Dutch oven here.
What's the best Dutch oven?
Our favorite Dutch ovens include the Le Creuset 5.5-Quart Dutch Oven and Cuisinart 5-Quart Chef's Classic Enameled Dutch Oven. You can read our full review here.