All of the Tools You Need to Make Really Great Baguettes at Home

We rounded up all of the essential tools you need to make great baguettes at home (including products that have won our equipment reviews).

Loaves on a baking stone in an oven
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

As I’ve said elsewhere, making baguettes that rival the best that bakeries have to offer is challenging, but it’s a fun challenge to attempt, and even less-than-perfect results will be better than anything you can get at a supermarket. Some of the challenges are overcome by memorizing and perfecting the many steps involved, which takes time and practice. Others involve simply investing in all the many tools baguettes require. While you can make an excellent boule-shaped loaf of bread using little more than a colander, a clean kitchen towel, a sharp knife, and a cast iron Dutch oven, all of which most cooks have on hand already, baguettes require speciality tools to pull off successfully. Fortunately, none are terribly expensive, and most are useful for making other sorts of breads too (and a few are things you might already have on hand). Here’s an inventory of everything you need to make baguettes at home.

A digital scale (or two!)

Baguettes, like other bread and baking recipes, require precise measuring of ingredients, which means you’ll want an accurate digital scale to make these. Most people can get by with a standard tabletop scale that reads in grams and weighs quantities up to 11 pounds. But serious bread bakers might also want to invest in an inexpensive pocket jeweler's scale, since those are far more accurate when measuring sub-5-gram amounts of things, like yeast, salt, and diastatic malt powder. 

A 13- by 9-inch rectangular cake pan

It's important that the dough you use to make baguettes starts out in a more-or-less rectangular shape. When professional bakers make them, they begin by dividing a massive amount of dough into many rectangular baguette-sized portions, a relatively easy thing to do when working with a huge mass of dough. To achieve a similar effect at home, I like to cold-proof my dough in a rectangular 13- by 9-inch cake pan. The dough spreads out into a rectangle as it sits in the fridge, making it easy to divide into four fairly uniform pieces when it is turned out of the pan and onto a floured countertop later on. (You can also use any similarly-sized container, if you have one, like a rectangular snap-top plastic storage container.)

Dough separated into four sections, two in a pan, two on a floured surface
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

A bench scraper

To divide the dough into portions and to move the dough pieces around gently enough to avoid marring their shape, you want to use a metal bench scraper. (Bench scrapers are also useful for, well, scraping benches, something you’ll have to do once all the baguettes are in the oven.)

A couche

“Artisan“-style breads are usually proofed upside-down, in containers that help them hold their final shape (without the container, doughs will spread out as they proof and go blobby). Baguettes are usually proofed in the folds of a floured linen cloth known in French as a couche. Coarse, heavy linen is the fabric of choice for couches because it has enough heft to stay upright when pleated, and the right sort of texture to wick moisture away from the dough without also attaching itself to it. 

Couches come in a variety of lengths and widths, but it is important to find one sized appropriately.  The ideal dimensions of a home-scale couche are 17 inches wide and at least 20 inches long. I prefer the 18-inch wide couches from the San Francisco Baking Institute, because they are sized to fit a half-sheet. You could make your own couche if you can find a bolt of the right grade of linen, but pre-cut ones with hemmed edges that won’t fray aren’t all that more expensive than DIY versions.

Dough placed into couche
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

A clean, plastic garbage bag

To keep doughs and shaped loaves from drying out as they rest or proof, bakeries keep them on rolling racks, covered with plastic. At home, you can use a clean plastic garbage bag instead. I keep a couple of them rolled up with my baking tools and reuse them over and over again. (The bag never touches the loaves directly, so there's no need for concern about food safety or to clean them afterwards.)

Transfer peel

Proofed baguettes ready to bake are too floppy and fragile to move to a baking peel. Instead, you need to use a thin, stiff, beveled-edge wooden board known as a transfer peel (or a "flipper board," as they are sometimes called). Again, a transfer peel is definitely something a handy person could fashion themselves, but commercial ones are inexpensive. They are a specialty item you’ll most likely need to order online.

Curved-blade lame

Bakers use an ultra-thin, ultra-sharp razor blade on a handle known as a lame (pronounced lahm) to score breads. For baguettes, you ideally want to use a curved-blade lame rather than a straight one, because the former is easier to orient at an extreme angle to the dough, which in turn helps to cut a "flap" of dough that will form a dramatic ear once the loaf is baked. (That said, a straight-bladed lame can work here too.) Most lames use replaceable, disposable double-edged shaving razor blades, which you can find at any drugstore. Be sure to start with a brand-new razor blade for maximum sharpness because razor blades dull far more quickly than you'd think; replace the blade regularly too. Lames are available at baking specialty stores or online.

A baguette shaped handle attached to thin metal rod that holds a razor blade for scoring bread dough.
Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

Baking stone

In order to achieve an open, tender crumb and a crisp crust, baguettes need to bake quickly. For this reason, they are usually baked at a high temperature (500˚F) on a preheated baking stone, which pumps heat into the core of the loaf to encourage rapid oven spring (loaf expansion). If you don't have either of these yet, you’ll need to get one before you begin.

I don’t really recommend using a baking steel for baguettes. Steels are great baking tools because they are more conductive than stone and push heat more rapidly into the loaf. But with fast-cooking baguettes, this can be a liability, since they can burn before they are fully baked. If it is all you have, then you might want to set a baking sheet below the baguettes to insulate them, especially after you’ve removed the foil pan at the tail end of the bake.

Disposable turkey roasting pan and aluminum foil

Professional baguette bakers use steam-injected bread ovens to keep the exterior of the loaves moist at the start of the bake, for maximum oven spring and to produce the baguette's signature crisp, crumb-scattering crust. Steaming round or long-but-compact loaves in a home oven is easy to do by baking them inside of a Dutch oven or a dedicated bread pot—the container corrals moisture that evaporates from the dough, enveloping the loaf with steam—but there are no similar options that can comfortably hold a 14ish-inch long baguette. My workaround is to instead bake the baguettes underneath an upside-down disposable 17- by 13-inch turkey roasting pan wrapped tightly with aluminum foil. (After the baguettes have expanded fully and the crust has begun to set, the pan is removed to let the loaves finish browning and crisp up.)

A pair of thongs lifting pan to allow steam to escape
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Pizza peel

You'll also need a wide, flat pizza peel to load and unload the baguettes to and from the oven. While just about any sort will do, as long as it is at least 12 inches wide and long, I prefer a thin-bladed aluminum one myself, since it is lightweight and thin enough to slip under breads easily. In a pinch, a rimless cookie sheet can work quite well, though it obviously lacks the handle you get with a dedicated peel. 

Diastatic malt powder

While baguettes can be made with flours, salt, and instant yeast that you can find in most supermarkets, and water from the tap, there is one optional specialty ingredient you might want to get your hands on: diastatic malt powder. Not to be confused with malt sugar, non-diastatic malt powder, malt syrup, or malted milk powder (all of which are sugars), diastatic malt powder, is an enzyme made from malted barley or wheat that breaks down starches into simple sugars. In flour, diastatic malt serves to provide a steady supply of sugar, to drive fermentation during proofing and caramelization in the heat of the oven. 

Diastatic malt is usually added to commercial flours in the mill—it's often listed as “malted barley” or “barley flour" in the ingredients—in order to ensure a uniform, consistent amount from bag to bag. Adding a little extra diastatic malt to long-fermented doughs like this baguette ensures that there will always be enough sugar around to achieve dramatic and rapid browning during baking. 

A little bit of diastatic malt goes a long way, so buy it in small quantities if you can. And it loses enzymatic activity over time, especially when exposed to moisture or heat, so store it in a sealable container like a mason jar in a cool spot (or even in the freezer). 

FAQs

How do you make baguettes at home?

We have a step-by-step recipe for homemade baguettes that can be found here.

Do you need a baking stone or steel for baguettes?

For baking baguettes, we recommend getting a baking stone, not a steel. A baking steel will push too much heat into a baguette, which will cause it to burn before it bakes through.

Khorovats (Armenian Shish Kebabs)

Grilled skewers of lamb or beef, marinated in onion, red wine, and tomato paste, are a classic Armenian staple.

Overhead view of shish kebabs on pita on a plate
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Armenians are extremely serious about grilled meats. As long as outside temperatures are above freezing and there’s a gathering of more than a handful of them happening, kebabs are pretty much guaranteed to be on the menu. (Many Armenians refer to their barbecue collectively as khorovats—or “grilled”—but in my family we just call them kebabs.) 

Case in point: Growing up, each household in my extended family had "their particular holiday feast" at which all of the other members were guests; my parents’ was Easter. Now Easter can come early or late, depending upon the mysteries of the liturgical calendar; ditto for the warmer days of Spring, thanks to the mysteries of mother nature. But it mattered not which season Easter happened to fall in from year to year—snowy or sunny, frigid or fair—that grill was getting set up. (The extended family also had a communal, 5-foot long party-sized grill, one that got shuttled around from household to household depending upon who was doing the hosting.) 

Andrew Janjigian's dad manning the Easter grill.
My dad manning the Easter grill.Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

In my Armenian family, as in many others, kebabs come in two flavors, made and served side-by-side most of the time: shish kebabs—marinated hunks of beef or lamb on skewers (the word “shish” is the English rendering of the Turkish word şiş, which means sword or skewer)—and losh kebabs, seasoned ground meat patties, grilled without skewers. I talk about and have a recipe for losh kebabs here; for the rest of this post, I’ll focus on shish kebab.

Selecting the Meat

While shish kebab can be made from either lamb or beef, in my family it was always made from leg of lamb. The day before Easter, my father would cover our dining room table with an old tablecloth and a butcher-block cutting board (or two, if one of us kids had volunteered to assist) and break down whole, boneless legs of lamb into skewerable pieces about an inch square each. The process was a time-consuming one, and not simply because of the large quantity of meat involved (our average Easter guest list was about 40 people, which called for four to five legs of lamb). Shish kebab is cooked hot and fast, so the meat needs to be tender before it hits the grill, which meant all bits of sinew and silverskin have to be removed, along with any large pieces of external fat. Since lamb legs are a jumbled assembly of variously-shaped muscles, the process of taking them apart and cleaning them is a somewhat painstaking affair. 

While many Armenians prefer lamb for its flavor, beef shish kebab, which can be made from already-clean and easily-butchered flap meat (a.k.a. “steak tips”), is definitely the faster option. The good news is that neither is too arduous to butcher unless you are cooking for 40, and both are delicious.

Making the Marinade

Once my father had cleaned and cut up the meat—the too-small-to-skewer bits having been minced by hand and added to the losh kebab mixture—he’d toss it with a marinade of chopped onions, tomato paste, red wine, salt, and pepper, and set it in the fridge overnight. The flavor of shish kebab is mainly meat plus fire, so he used a simple marinade, intended mainly to season the meat throughout and add sugars to promote caramelization on the grill. And while four hours is ample time to marinate small cubes of meat through and through, doing the butchering and prep the day before spreads out the workload a little. The marinade I give below is a clone of his, except I like to process the onions on a box grater rather than with a knife, since it pulls more of their flavorful juices into it.

Overhead view of marinade mixture
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Assembling the Skewers

My dad has a large collection of long metal skewers with wooden handles, which work great when you have an oversized grill with a rimless grate. For smaller grills, you’ll either want to use shorter 12-inch metal skewers (with metal handles) or 10-inch wooden ones. 

He packs the skewers closely, but not tightly. The idea is to expose the cubes of meat on four sides to the fire evenly, while protecting their insides from the heat, so that they don’t overcook. You want to slide them snugly together on the skewer, but without packing them so tightly that they are compressed, which hides their exteriors from the fire.  

Grilling the Shish Kebabs

I mentioned that my extended family had a party-sized grill to make kebabs; it is a five-foot by two-foot steel grill on four legs, with an identically-sized stainless-steel grate that can be lowered or raised as needed. Not only does this grill provide the real estate necessary to cook for large numbers of people, it also lets you get the meat just inches from the fire to cook it quickly, so it chars thoroughly without also overcooking on the inside. 

While you can certainly make a more-than-respectable shish kebab on a gas grill (my dad always uses one when making shish kebab for small gatherings), an intense, concentrated charcoal fire is definitely superior in terms of the flavor and rapid charring it produces. But you don’t need a table-sized grill to pull this off—a standard kettle works just fine, especially if you use a couple of rows of bricks to corral the coals and suspend the skewers directly above them. This is a technique that Sasha Marx uses to recreate Japanese yakitori-style grills, and it works equally well for shish kebabs. I’ll let you read up on the details over on Sasha’s post, but here’s the gist:

Overhead view of skewers on bricks in a charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

You wrap four bricks with foil and then set them in the bottom of the grill in two rows of two, just wide enough to let the skewers straddle them. Once the charcoal is hot and covered with ash, you spread it evenly along the channel between the bricks. You then suspend the skewers over the coals, their exposed ends supported by the rows of bricks. Finally, you let them cook, turning them regularly to even out the cooking on all sides, and moving them around as necessary to avoid flare-ups.

To get the best possible results on a gas grill, you’ll need to preheat it for at least 15 minutes with the lid closed to superheat the grates. Otherwise, the method is identical, minus the slightly longer cooking time (eight to twelve minutes for gas vs. six to nine minutes over charcoal). 

The Shish Chef's Secret

Like many Armenian families, mine is a pretty traditional one, which means that the grill tends to be the purview of the menfolk, who stand around it, bourbon in hand, arguing over whether the meat is cooked enough (or too much). While this has mostly to do with the men being less skilled in all other forms of cooking, there’s another reason they choose to be this close to the fire—because that’s where shish kebab is at its peak. There’s nothing quite like the joy of a cube of meat seconds off the skewer, sprinkled with salt, wrapped in a shroud of pita bread.

It’s even better when that pita has been sitting on the bottom of a vessel, soaking up the juices shed by the meat. My dad always sets a large pot next to the grill, lined with a few pitas, as a landing place for the cooked kebabs. (He also uses a pita as an “edible oven mitt,” protecting his hand from the searing hot meat as he pushes it off the skewer and into the pot.) The bread is meant to soak up the juices so that the meat doesn’t sit in a pool of it and sog out, but it also creates a treat for the cook and his many advisers to enjoy while the remainder of the skewers cook. 

Overhead view of finished shish kebabs on pita with salads and roasted vegetables
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The good news is that when you are making shish kebab for a handful of guests and not forty, everyone gets to join in on the fun. 

Grate onion on the large holes of a box grater into a large bowl. Add oil, tomato paste, red wine, salt, and pepper, and whisk until evenly combined. Transfer marinade, along with meat, to a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Press out air, seal bag, and turn to coat meat in marinade. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

Two image collage of marinade mixture in a metal bowl and then added to meat in a plastic bag
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Thread meat tightly onto skewers without compressing the individual pieces, leaving no parts of the skewer exposed except for a 2-inch handle at the bottom, and the pointy tip at the top. Line a shallow serving bowl with 1 or 2 pita breads and set aside.

Overhead view of meat on skewers on a baking sheet
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Set up grill for skewers, making sure to adjust distance between bricks to the length of your skewers. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly in the channel between the bricks. Alternatively set burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 15 minutes. Clean and oil cooking grate.

Overhead view of a charcoal grill setup for skewers
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Place skewers on grill (directly over coals if using charcoal, balancing them on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you, and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks). Cook (covered if using gas), turning frequently, until meat is lightly charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the thickest piece registers between 135°F and 145°F (57 to 60°C), 6 to 9 minutes for charcoal and 8 to 12 minutes for gas; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers around as needed to avoid scorching.

Two Image collage of skewers before and after cooking on the charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using tongs or a pita as an “edible oven mitt”, slide meat off of skewers into prepared serving bowl, season to taste with salt, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 2 minutes. Serve immediately, passing remaining pita on side, and alongside rice pilaf and grill-roasted onions, peppers, and tomatoes.

Two image collage of using a pita to remove meat on skewers and overhead view of meat in pot
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Grill (charcoal or gas), 4 (12-inch) metal skewers or 6 (10-inch) wooden skewers

Notes

This dish is either made with leg of lamb or beef. Flap meat is identical to sirloin steak tips, but in larger pieces. If available, purchase in one piece to cut down yourself. If lamb leg is unavailable, use lamb shoulder instead.

The pita used to line the serving platter soaks up juices from the cooked meat and is meant to serve as a tasty treat for the grill cook or anyone else, wrapped around pieces of meat.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Shish kebab is best enjoyed immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container and reheated gently, or sliced and served cold in sandwiches.

Losh Kebabs (Armenian Grilled Meat Patties)

Zingy, grilled lamb or beef patties seasoned with onion, red bell pepper, parsley, tomato paste, allspice, and biber salçasi.

Overhead view of losh kebabs on pita on a white plate on a nicely textured, striped fabric
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

While Armenian grilled meats—or khorovats, which just means “grilled” in Armenian—are most associated with the skewered chunks of meats called shish kebab, Armenians are equally enamored with ground or minced meat patties on the grill. Whether at church bazaars and picnics, or my own family’s backyard gatherings, you never really see one without the other. 

These grilled, spiced ground meat kebabs go by a few different names, depending upon how they are formed and grilled (the meat mixture and seasonings are essentially the same, whatever the shape). Lula or lule kebabs—lule means “rolled”—are formed into sausage-shaped logs (skewered or freeform) or into long, flat patties by pressing them onto special flat, sword-like skewers. But in New England, where I grew up, Armenians instead make losh kebab, which are round, freeform patties exactly like hamburgers, except with more zing to them. 

Side angle view of losh kebabs
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Where shish kebab gets marinated and coated in a flavorful elixir made from onion, red wine, tomato paste, salt, and pepper, losh kebabs are seasoned (similarly) from the inside. Recipes of course vary from region to region and household to household; my own is based upon one from the family grill chief, my dad. (He’s considered such a local authority on Armenian grilled meats that he’s long been the foreman of our church’s event kebab-making crew, even though he should have been allowed to retire from that position years ago.) My losh kebab making technique differs from my dad’s here and there, but the flavor and texture of the kebabs is 100% identical to his, since they are unrivaled.

The Meat

Losh kebabs can be made from beef or lamb; the choice is up to you, depending upon your preference. (Armenians love lamb, but they make losh kebab out of beef as often as lamb.) Though almost no home cooks do so nowadays, the traditional approach for making losh and lule kebabs was to painstakingly mince the meat with a knife, which divides it finely and evenly without bashing it to a paste. This creates the ideal texture in a ground-meat kebab. That said, the quality of the meat and the consistency of the grind make a difference in the result. So use the freshest, best-quality meat you can get here. And while it is not essential, if you can, get it freshly ground from your butcher, especially because that means it will be slightly coarser and closer to the ideal texture than most prepackaged ground meats. 

The Seasonings

Losh kebabs are almost always seasoned with onion, red bell pepper, parsley, tomato paste, salt, and pepper. My only additions to this lineup are a touch of allspice, a warm spice commonly used with Armenian meat dishes, and mild red pepper paste, which combines the depth of tomato paste with the fruity flavor of red chiles, often used in ground meat patties too. Red pepper paste can be found at Middle Eastern grocery stores or online and is often labeled ‘biber salçasi’, since most brands come from Turkey. 

Some people simply mince or dice the onion and bell pepper and combine them with the meat, but, like my dad, I prefer to first process them to a paste and then drain the paste of excess water in a sieve, which seasons the meat throughout while also ensuring they don’t make the mixture overly soft. 

Making Losh Kebabs

There are three ways in which my losh kebab recipe diverges from that of my dad and most others. I’ve been a recipe developer for many years now, and I’ve created numerous grilled ground meat patties and burgers during that time, so I have a bunch of tricks up my sleeve to make them as good as they can be. The first two are textural, while the third is purely a matter of aesthetics. 

Losh kebabs, like other ground meat kebabs, are cooked until they are nicely charred on the exterior and fully-cooked within (meaning to a food-safe internal temperature of 160˚F or above). Because they are not left rare at the core, like burgers often are, they can sometimes dry out. To prevent this, I like to add two common pantry items to the meat mixture: powdered gelatin and panko breadcrumbs. Both function similarly, by absorbing and retaining moisture both before and during cooking, but they work better when used in tandem rather than singly. The breadcrumbs add a touch of bulk to the mixture, which helps keep the patties loose-textured rather than dense; the gelatin gets sticky once moist, which binds the mixture together while also upping juiciness. A one hour or longer rest before grilling the losh kebabs gives both ingredients time to activate for maximum effect. 

Dimpled ground meat mixture before grilling
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

To my losh kebabs resembling burgers, flat on the top and bottom, I dimple them slightly during shaping so that they don’t inflate into footballs when grilled. Ground meat patties expand as they cook, since their fibers shrink when heated, which causes their lateral exterior to cinch up like a belt. Making a depression in the top of the patty before cooking ensures they end up flat, despite this effect.

Unlike shish kebabs, which require an intense, close-set fire for rapid charring without overcooking, losh kebabs can be cooked over any standard hot grill setup, like other burgers and meat patties. Flare-ups can be a problem, so be sure to move them around the grill if they occur, to avoid scorching. 

Like shish kebabs, I recommend lining the vessel you place the cooked losh kebabs in with a pita or two, which will soak up the juices they shed as they rest before serving. Not only will that keep the exterior of the meat from softening, the breads make for an enhanced sort of wrapper for the patties, a treat for whomever gets dibs on them.

In the bowl of the food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine onion and bell pepper and process until a smooth paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Transfer mixture to a fine mesh strainer set over a medium bowl and allow to drain, about 15 minutes, pressing on solids with a rubber spatula to remove as much liquid as possible. Transfer onion-red pepper mixture to a large bowl, discarding any liquid.

Four image collage of peppers and onions before and after in a food processor, mixture straining, and mixture with liquid removed in a metal bowl
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Add parsley, red pepper paste, tomato paste, salt, allspice, pepper, and gelatin to bowl and stir until uniform. Add ground meat and breadcrumbs and knead with your hands until mixture is thoroughly combined and feels slightly sticky, about 2 minutes. 

Tomato mixture and meat mixed together
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Divide mixture into 8 equal portions (about 5 ounces; 140g each) and place on a parchment- or foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Gently shape each one into a patty about 3 1/2 inches wide and approximately 3/4 inch thick. Using three or four fingers, create a dimple by pushing down in the center of each patty. The dimple should be about 1/4 inch deep and 2 inches wide. Cover baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Two image collage showing the before and after shaping of the los kebabs on a parchment lined baking tray
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively set burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 15 minutes. Clean and oil cooking grate.

Overhead view of charcoal in a grilled lit to one side
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Line a shallow serving bowl with one or two pita breads and set aside. Place patties on grill (directly over coals if using charcoal). Cook (covered if using gas) until patties are browned on the bottom and release easily from the grill, 4 to 7 minutes. Flip and continue to cook until browned on second side and meat registers 160˚F (71˚C), about 6 minutes longer. (If flare-ups occur, move patties around grill to avoid scorching.) Transfer patties to serving bowl, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 2 minutes. Serve, passing remaining pita on the side.

Four image collage showing raw losh kebabs places on the grilled, losh kebabs cooking on the grill, losh kebabs tented with aluminum, finished losh kebabs on a plate with pita
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Grill (charcoal or gas)

Notes

Biber salçasi can be found in Middle Eastern grocery stores or online. If unavailable, increase tomato paste to 2 tablespoons and add 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or 1 teaspoon sweet paprika.

Freshly-ground beef or lamb from your butcher, with a loose, coarse texture, works best here.

The pita used to line the serving platter soaks up juices from the cooked meat and is meant to serve as a tasty treat for the grill cook or anyone else, wrapped around pieces of meat.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Losh kebab is best enjoyed immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container and reheated gently, or sliced and served cold in sandwiches.

Baking Steels vs. Stones: Which One Should You Buy?

We breakdown the pros and cons of baking stones and steels (spoiler: they both work great), to help you decide which one is right for your pizzas and breads.

A hand with an oven mitt pulling a baking stone with a pizza on it out of the oven
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

There are few breads that don’t benefit from being set on some sort of heat-conducting baking surface. In the oven, breads rise (or “spring”, as bakers like to call it) when heat penetrates into the core of the dough, causing two things to happen. First, the yeast has one last blast of fermentation before meeting its ultimate demise, going out in a frantic blaze of carbon dioxide production. And second, some of the water in the dough turns into steam. Both of these processes cause the bubbles—or, more accurately, “alveoli”—in the dough to inflate like miniature balloons, opening up the interior crumb and expanding the overall dimensions of the loaf. But this process is a race against time, since that same heat causes the crust to firm up, locking down the shape of the loaf once and for all. 

When baked directly on an oven rack (in or on a pan), heat penetrates into the loaf more or less evenly from all directions. But when you set the loaf on a heavy, preheated baking surface (in a pan or freeform), energy flows much more quickly into the core of the loaf, bumping up the rate of oven spring significantly and evening out the race between crust and crumb formation. (The only breads that don’t need a baking surface for success are enriched ones containing lots of fat—brioche or soft sandwich loaves, for example—since the fat keeps the crust soft, allowing the crumb to expand far longer than it otherwise can. But many bakers use baking surfaces for these too, since you can still get better oven spring on one.) 

Flatbreads like pizza and foccacia are breads too, of course. And they also benefit from the use of a baking surface, but in this case the goal is the inverse of that for loaf breads: to cook the bottom crust as quickly as possible, so as not to overcook the interior crumb and/or the exposed crust and toppings. Oven spring is important in flatbreads, but it tends to happen automatically. More important is achieving a crisp bottom crust. Moisture in a pizza gets trapped between the bottom crust and a pan, slowing down crisping and browning. Setting the bread on a preheated surface (again, in a pan or freeform) helps that moisture boil away so that the crust can cook as quickly as possible. 

There are two main kinds of baking surfaces: stones or steels. Baking “stones'' are a misnomer; most are formed from either terracotta clay or a mineral compound known as corderite, fired at high temperatures like pottery to make them solid and heat-resistant. While some people use cheap terracotta tiles for baking with success, the best stones are those made from corderite, since it is more heat stable and resistant to thermal shock—cracking or shattering when subjected to rapid heating or cooling—than terracotta (the shelves in most pottery kilns are made of corderite for this reason). A few stones are made from another mineral called mullite, which is similar to corderite, if purportedly more conductive (more on conductivity below). Baking steels are just that: thick sheets of raw steel cut to size, polished to remove sharp edges, and seasoned and sealed with oil to prevent rusting. 

So which should the new baker buy: a stone or a steel? The answer is (as is often the case): It depends. Both stones and steels work great, so you cannot go wrong with either, though there are pros and cons to each, and which is best for you depends upon both your particular needs and budget.  

Size Considerations

The Original Baking Steel being pulled out of the oven with a cooked pizza on it by a person wearing oven mitts
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

Both baking stones and steels come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. While the shape and exterior dimensions of the slabs do matter, most people are best served by one that is a) rectangular or square, and b) slightly smaller than the average oven rack. Rectangles and squares are better than round ones, because both give you a bigger, more forgiving target for the bread or pizza. (If you miss the mark with a round one, there’s a risk of it hanging off of the side, which is less than ideal, especially when there is molten cheese in the mix.) Plus, they provide enough room to bake long breads that would overhang a round surface, like baguettes.

And you generally want something generously-sized, while still leaving plenty of room for proper air circulation around the edges of the surface, to let the bread cook evenly both inside and out. For the average oven, this means something that is 15 to 16 inches in one direction and at least 12 inches in the other. 

As far as thickness goes, that depends upon the material in question. All else being equal, the thicker the surface, the heavier the item. And the heavier the item, the more brawn it requires to move from storage to the oven and back again. Stones range from 1/2-inch to a little more than 1-inch thick, and from about eight pounds up to 13 pounds. The thinnest baking steels are 1/4-inch thick and weigh upwards of 16 pounds, already double the weight of the average stone. And only slightly thicker 3/8-inch steels can weigh as much as 27 pounds!

Price Matters, Too

All else being equal, baking stones are lighter on the wallet than steels, too. The price for a good 15-inch by 12-inch-ish stone is between $32 and $80, while the price of most 1/4-inch steels of similar dimensions start around $80. And 3/8-inch thick ones can cost $170. 

Conductivity

A hand using an infrared thermometer to take the temperature of a baking steel in the oven
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

Price and weight aside, the biggest difference between stones and steels is in their relative conductivity. Conductive materials absorb and release energy (heat, in this case) more quickly than less-conductive ones, and steel is far more conductive than corderite or mullite. This allows steels to pump heat into the bread far more quickly than stones do. It also means that steels absorb heat more quickly than stones, cutting down on preheating time; stones usually need a good hour of preheating before use, while steels are ready to go in as little as 30 minutes.

With pizza and other flatbreads, this is unequivocally a good thing, since the faster these breads cook, the better. But with loaf breads, this can be a recipe for disaster, since the bottom of the loaf can burn before the rest of the crust or the interior has cooked sufficiently. In my experience, steel is often just too conductive for loaf breads; while there are plenty of people who use baking steels for loaf breads successfully, it is something I generally do not recommend. You don’t have to take my word for it, though: Baking Steel, the original baking steel company, sells special heatproof silicone rings meant to shield loaf breads from the intensity of the steel, to help mitigate this effect.

Thermal Mass

A cooked pizza on a baking stone
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

What baking stones lack in conductivity they make up for in thermal mass, or the ability of a material to absorb and store energy and release it gradually. So while a steel acts like its own heating element once hot, pushing heat into the bread or flatbread in a flash, a stone is more like a battery, providing a long-lasting reserve of heat. This is especially helpful when baking multiple batches of bread or pizza in succession, since the stone won't need to be “recharged” between batches.

Cleanup and Care

Stones and steels are pretty low maintenance tools, no matter what they’re made of. If cheese or something like it gets onto the surface, just scrape or scrub off whatever remains once it cools down. Don’t use soap, since that can get absorbed by a stone and might remove the seasoning from the steel; it’s not necessary anyway, since any embedded residue will burn off the next time you heat it up. Other than cleaning, stones don’t need any other maintenance. Baking steels need occasional reseasoning, which is as simple as coating them lightly with vegetable oil before heating once every few months or so (or if you notice rust beginning to form). 

The Bottom Line: Should You Buying a Baking Stone or a Baking Steel?

Two baked pizzas on two baking stones
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

My usual advice to someone who doesn’t yet own a baking surface is this: If you don’t have a lot of money to spend and/or don’t want to have to heft nearly 20 pounds of steel around, just get a good baking stone. They work wonderfully for both pizza and loaf breads, and while they are a little slower than steels for flatbreads, they still do a way better job than no surface at all. And if you are mostly interested in baking loaf breads, a stone is by far the superior choice, for its more tempered conductivity. In my experience, stones don’t need to be terribly thick or heavy to do a good job, so look for a square or rectangular one that is 15 by at least 12 inches in outside dimensions and half an inch or so thick, like this one.

On the other hand, if you are a pizza or flatbread person, can handle both the extra dollars and pounds, and don’t bake loaf breads often, get a steel; its superior conductivity will definitely take your pies to the next level. And you can always stick a sheet pan or two under your occasional loaf bread bakes to keep them from burning. I recommend going with a 1/4-inch thick steel, to keep the already heavy and costly device as light and affordable as possible. The o.g. Baking Steel and NerdChef steels are an excellent choices, but just-as-excellent but more affordable steels can also be found on places like Etsy. (Steel is steel is steel—as long as it is sealed well to avoid rust, they all work identically).

FAQs

Is a baking stone or a baking steel more durable? 

Stones can crack, though the best ones shouldn’t; steels are pretty much indestructible, except when they lose their seasoning and start to rust.

Do you need to use parchment paper on a baking stone? 

You do not need to use parchment on a stone or a steel, but sometimes it is useful to, such as if the bread in question is very wet and maybe prone to sticking, if it makes transferring the bread(s) to the surface easier, or if the bread or flatbread contains ingredients or toppings that might melt and run onto the surface. In the case of pizzas and many other flatbreads, a sheet of parchment can inhibit good browning and crisping, because it traps steam and insulates the bread from the heat.

Do baking stones need to be greased?

No! Don’t add oil or any other fat to a stone, or to a steel, other than the occasional light coating of seasoning oil. It’ll just smoke up your kitchen something awful.

Puntarelle Alla Romana (Puntarelle Salad With Anchovy and Garlic Dressing)

In this classic Roman dish, crisp, juicy shreds of puntarelle, the mild-mannered bitter green, are tossed with a potent anchovy- and garlic-heavy dressing.

Overhead view of puntarelle salad on a colorful stripped background
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

For someone that is as obsessed with Italian cuisine as I am (by which I mean: a lot), I have only been to Italy but one time, for a mere 10 days one November awhile ago. But I packed a lot of eating into that one short trip, including tasting and falling in love with puntarelle alla Romana for the first time, then proceeding to order it daily the rest of the time I was in Rome. (Late autumn is the beginning of puntarelle season in Italy, which runs from October to April.) 

Puntarelle salad is made by tossing crisp, juicy shreds of the mostly mild-mannered bitter green with a potent anchovy- and garlic-heavy dressing. The flavor of the salad is intense, no doubt, but, paradoxically, the texture and flavor of the puntarelle sands most of the edge off the garlic and anchovies, making it potent, but entirely pleasant. Case in point: My Midwest-raised wife does not care for salty, intense things like anchovies, olives, or capers, and yet even she loves this salad. It might seem like a strange dish to obsess over, but I love it madly, and I know I’m not the only one.

Puntarelle on a blue cutting board
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

From a distance, heads of puntarelle look a lot like other members of the chicory family they belong to, with a crown of long, slender, serrated leaves, with pale white ribs and deep green dandelion-like fringes, not unlike escarole. But these outer leaves conceal a bizarre surprise within: a gnarled cluster of pale green asparagus-like shoots, oftentimes knotted around one another like a freaky, many-fingered fist. (The shoots’ vague resemblance to asparagus explains why another name for puntarelle in Italian is cicoria asparago, or “asparagus chicory.”) 

While the heart of puntarelle is sometimes braised, it is most commonly served raw, either as individual spears on an antipasto platter, or in the aforementioned salad. For the salad, the shoots are sliced into fine, long shreds with a knife, or, better yet, using a dedicated puntarelle cutter made from a series of gridded metal wires strung tautly across a wooden frame, which makes quick work of it. The shreds are then placed in a bowl of ice water for an hour or two, after which they form elegant, spiraled curlicues. (Produce stands and supermarkets in Italy sell pre-shredded and pre-curled puntarelle, eliminating the work entirely.) After that, the curls are tossed with a dressing made from olive oil, red wine vinegar, loads of pounded garlic and anchovies, herbs, and other salty, cured things like chopped olives or capers. 

Using a contraception to cut puntarelle
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

When I came home from Italy, I looked high and low in my local farmer’s markets and specialty stores, but it seemed that nobody here in the Boston area grew puntarelle. Nor was it the sort of thing that showed up as an import from elsewhere, so my brief, passionate love affair came to an abrupt and well, bitter, end. (Puntarelle does show up in bigger markets like New York City and Los Angeles, so those of you living in places like that are fortunate enough to sustain an ongoing relationship with the vegetable.) 

Until I decided I could live with a stand-in for the puntarelle, that is. While it doesn’t really resemble the vegetable, at least in its native form, its fellow chicory-cousin endive actually does make a pretty great substitute. Not only does it have a similar crisp-juicy texture and a mild-but-piquant bitterness, but—as I discovered after experimenting with it a bit—it also curls nicely when cut into shreds and iced down for awhile! It’s not the same, by any means: Its texture is a bit more starchy-fibrous than that of puntarelle, and it doesn’t curl quite as dramatically. But it scratches the same itch for me, and I make it all the time.

A bowl of cut endives
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The method is the same as described above, with a few differences owing to the substitution. For starters, I like to use a mixture of white (Belgian) endive and red endive, which resembles white endive in form and flavor, except streaked red like the treviso—another chicory that has red-and-white variegated leaves like radicchio—it has been crossed with. (My local Trader Joe’s sells a mix of white and red in small packages.) To prep it, you quarter the heads without removing the core. You then slice each quarter lengthwise through the core into 1/4-inch-wide pieces. Leaving the core attached lets the pieces form frilly florets that curl chaotically when placed in ice water, giving them a bit more of a puntarelle-like appearance. 

Puntarelle salad
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

If you can get your hands on actual puntarelle, by all means swap it out for the imposter here. Once in a blue moon, I’ve been able to procure the real deal myself, and it was as good as I remembered when made with this recipe. Either way, it'll do until the day we can both get back to Rome again.

Pluck the outer leaves off the heads of puntarelle, tear or cut into bite-sized pieces, and set aside. Remove the shoots from the heads and, if present, trim and discard the woody bottom end of each. Cut shoots into 1/4-inch-thick strips (you may need to halve or quarter them lengthwise first). If there’s a fatter core, trim off the tougher base, cut it in half lengthwise, and then cut the halves into strips.

Four image collage showing how to prepare puntarelle
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian
Gif showing how to further break down puntarelle
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Alternatively, if using endive, quarter endive lengthwise without removing cores. Slice each quarter into 1/8-inch strips lengthwise, at an angle through core, so leaves remain attached.

Four image collage of endives being prepared
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer prepared puntarelle or endive to a bowl and cover fully with cold water and a handful of ice cubes. Cover with a small plate or other similar object to keep pieces submerged. Refrigerate until curled, at least 2 hours (they may remain submerged for up to 18 hours). 

Punterelle in a glass bowl with ice
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Drain puntarelle or endive and dry in a salad spinner. Refrigerate until needed.

Punterelle in a salad spiner
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, place anchovies, garlic, and salt on a cutting board and mash with the back of a fork until a coarse paste forms. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add vinegar and whisk until uniform. Add oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly, until emulsified.

Four image collage of dressing being made for Punterelle salad with anchovies, salt, and garlic on a blue cutting board, mashed with a knife, oil being whisked into a the mixture and finished dressing.
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Add puntarelle or endive, parsley, and half of the capers to bowl and toss to coat with dressing. Season with pepper and salt to taste. Transfer to a serving platter, top with remaining capers, and serve.

Puntarelle topped with dressing and capers
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

salad spinner

Notes

Some supermarkets sell heads of red endive, which is actually a cross between endive and treviso. (Trader Joe’s sells them in mixed packs.) Use a mix of both if you can find them for a splash of color.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Once soaked, drained, and spun dry, endive or puntarelle will keep for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.

We Reviewed 3 Cast Iron Bread Ovens and Recommend All of Them

We tested three popular cast iron bread ovens and cloches (dedicated bread bakers)—evaluating their performance and usability.

A round bread loaf in a parchment paper sling sitting in the shallow base of a cast iron combo cooker
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on the $300 Le Creuset Bread Oven, a dedicated vessel for bread baking. I'll let you read the full review for the nitty gritty details, but my bottom line was that the bread oven was aesthetically beautiful, but ultimately not worth the sticker price—especially since standard cast-iron Dutch ovens are just as effective for baking bread, and useful for countless other tasks.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the Le Creuest oven, you might be surprised to know that I actually bake my breads in similar dedicated bread-baking vessels all the time, and recommend them to just about anyone within shouting distance. Regular old cast-iron Dutch ovens work pretty darn great for baking bread, but I still prefer using a vessel designed specifically and only for the task, for a bunch of reasons I will get into below. But first, a brief primer on why you'd want to bake bread in a pot in the first place, from that earlier article of mine:

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.


So, Dutch ovens are great for baking bread, and I think that if you are new to the practice or only bake once in a while, they are the ideal choice, especially since you might already have one on hand. And even if you don't, there are numerous reasonably-priced and well-made options. But you might find yourself eventually wanting something more out of a bread-baking vessel, especially if, like me, you bake on a regular basis. That’s because there are a few limitations to how you can bake bread in a Dutch oven (some that are gotten around with effort, one not so much). 

What Are the Limitations to Baking Bread in a Dutch Oven? 

A Dutch oven is a pot (obviously), which means you bake the loaf inside of a deep cavity. This is problematic in two ways. For starters, there's always a risk of burning hands or wrists on the rim of the blazing hot pot as you load the loaf; using oven gloves and/or a long parchment sling can help avoid this. More crucially, once the lid comes off and it comes time for the loaf to brown, the sides of the pot shield it from the oven's heat, which produces uneven browning and a potentially too-long bake (which can result in a too-thick crust). You can take the loaf out of the pot at this stage and bake it "naked”, though I have found it helpful to set it on a small baking stone or pan to shield it from the lower oven element and prevent burning.

But, a Dutch oven is also round. This is fine if you are happy making round loaves for the rest of your days, but it's a serious bummer when you want to branch out shape-wise, or if you are like me and prefer a long, rectangular loaf, aka a bâtard. (I like my slices more-or-less identically-sized, sue me!) You can make long loaves in a round pot if you scale them down to fit, but not if you want a full-size loaf. Large, long ones crammed into a round pot will inevitably conform to the shape of the pot, ending up as a blob midway between round and oblong (bloblong?). I can live with the occasional singed wrist, but I need my bâtards, which is why I prefer a dedicated bread-baking pot.

Aside from the Le Creuset, there are currently two main options for bread-specific, cast iron vessels: the Challenger Breadware Bread Pan and the Fourneau Bread Oven. And there’s a third if you count the Lodge Double Dutch Oven, which is not a dedicated pot, but can be used like one. And the great news is that all three options work wonderfully, since they have plenty of heat-retaining mass for good oven spring and are sufficiently airtight to jacket the loaf with steam when it's needed. That said, each of these has advantages and disadvantages worth considering before you decide to invest in one. 

The Challenger Bread Pan

The $299 seasoned cast iron Challenger Bread Pan looks and functions a whole lot like a larger, rectangular Lodge Double Dutch Oven. At five times the price, it’s way more of an investment, but if you are serious about bread baking, it's likely money well spent. (Full disclosure: of the three pots I cover here, the Challenger is one I have the most experience with, having owned and used one regularly for more than two years now.) The inner dimensions of the base are 11 1/4- by 8 3/4-inches at their widest, which leaves plenty of room for the sorts of hefty, 1-kilogram-ish loaves I bake all the time, whether it's a long bâtard or rotund boule. And though it's shorter than the Lodge on the inside (a little over five inches, top to bottom), it's still plenty tall enough to accommodate any loaf you set in it.

A loaf of bread in the Challenger bread oven
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

While the fact that I can make loaves of any shape and size (aside from a baguette, that is) is excuse enough for me to splurge on a Challenger pan, there is another reason I like the extra space it offers: there's room to pull off the "ice cube” trick. Allow me to explain.

While it is true that Dutch-oven-baked loaves contain enough moisture to steam themselves during the start of the bake, it turns out you can improve the texture of the crust further with an extra burst of steam early on. I’m not sure who first figured it out, but the best way to do this in a Challenger is to drop a small ice cube or two into the open corners of the pan right before you set the lid on it. The heat stored up in the base will quickly melt the cubes and fill the cavity of the oven with steam. Loaves steamed this way will spring tall and proud with a beautiful gloss. (The one downside to adding ice and water to the base is that you’ll need to re-season the pan a bit more often than you otherwise might.)

The extra real estate of the Challenger comes at a cost, though, and not just on your wallet. The two halves of the Challenger weigh a combined 21 pounds, 13 3/8 ounces. I like to think I’m a pretty strong person, and even I find the Challenger a, well, challenge to move around, especially when it's ripping hot. It's doable, but it requires hand protection that gives you a solid grip on the pot—Challenger sells heatproof gloves that work nicely—as well as your full concentration in the moment. (It also helps to have oven racks that slide in and out easily, something mine definitely do not do.) 

I love my Challenger pan, but there is no getting around its weight. Before investing in one, I’d practice loading and unloading your oven with another item of similar heft (like a Dutch oven filled with water) to be sure it's something you’d want to do each and every time you bake.

There is one other flaw in the Challenger I need to mention. Because the base is heavy cast iron (and dark in color), it pumps heat rapidly into the loaf. This is a good thing when it comes to the initial oven spring, but it can be a problem later on in the bake, since the underside of the loaf can burn before the top and sides are sufficiently browned. If you find this to be the case, one solution is to move the loaf to a small baking sheet or cake pan and finish it outside of the Challenger entirely. (Pro tip: doing so lets you bake multiple loaves in a staggered way, steaming the next loaf while the first one browns.) 

Price at time of publish: $299.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Cast iron
  • Weight: 21 pounds, 13 3/8 ounces
  • Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
  • Care instructions: Season with oil lightly before or after each use
The Challenger bread oven on a wooden surface
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The Fourneau Bread Oven

Or maybe consider the $325 Fourneau Bread Oven instead, which, while nearly as hefty as the Challenger (the Fourneau's about 20 pounds), does not need to be moved around during use, since it stays in the oven the entire time. Unlike Dutch oven-style bread pots, the Fourneau is more like an oven-oven in design. It consists of an ovoid cast iron dome, open on one end, a cast iron door that fits snugly over the opening, and a grooved corderite (ceramic) base into which the dome sits. 

The Fourneau ships with three additional essential parts: an aluminum tray that fits inside the oven (with an angled lip along its front edge), a silicone mat that sits between the loaf and the tray, and a notched steel bar that fits into a slot along the front edge of the tray as a handle. Loading works like you’d expect: you invert the loaf onto the mat-lined tray, score it, use the bar to grab the tray and slide it into the oven, then set the door in place. 

A hand placing a loaf of bread into a bread vessel in the oven
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

You still need a hot mitt or oven glove to protect your hands as you grip the oven door, but at about three pounds, it’s much easier to manipulate than the Challenger Pan is. And because the Fourneau doesn’t need to be moved around during use, it can stand to be much roomier than a bread pot: the tray is 11 3/4 by 8 3/4 inches at its narrowest and the dome is about 5 1/2 inches tall. (It is still too short to fit a 14-inch-long demi-baguette, but you can make very respectable semi-demi-baguettes in one.)

a hand using a gooseneck kettle to pour water into the front channel of a bread oven
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Because the baking tray fills the oven cavity nearly completely, you can’t perform the ice cube trick in a Fourneau oven, but you don’t need to. That's because it’s got another trick up its sleeve: a second groove that runs around the inside of the corderite stone, into which you can pour water that turns to steam once it comes to a boil. You’ll need a gooseneck kettle or the $15 pitcher that Fourneau sells as an add-on to get the water into the groove, but it works just as well as ice cubes in the Challenger.

Unlike either the Challenger or the Lodge Double Dutch, you can’t uncover the loaf completely for the latter half of the bake in a Fourneau. Though they suggest just taking the door off, you definitely get faster and more even browning by moving the loaf out of the oven and setting it (on its tray) on the bare oven rack alongside it. (If you order a second baking tray and mat or transfer the loaf to another pan, you can do staggered baking this way too.) 

The primary drawback to the Fourneau is the space it occupies when not in use. The Challenger is heavy, but it’s no bigger than any other large pot you might own, while the Fourneau—at 15 by 12 by seven inches in size, about the size of a large roasting pan—requires a lot of storage real estate. If I had a double wall oven (alas, I do not), I’d just leave it in the lower one the whole time, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Price at time of publish: $325.

Key Specs

  • Materials: Cast iron, corderite, aluminum
  • Weight: 19 pounds, 6 ounces
  • Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
  • Care instructions: Season cast iron cloche with grape seed oil 2-3 times per year.
A loaf of bread in a bread oven that's positioned on an oven rack
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The Lodge Double Dutch Oven

At $60, the 5-quart Lodge Double Dutch Oven is the least expensive of the three options, by a long stretch. While it is a Dutch oven, where it differs from most others is that its lid also doubles as a skillet, allowing the pot to be used in either orientation, lid up or down. Which means you can load and unload the bread without fear of burning, and the bread is exposed to the heat of the oven fully once the steaming phase is complete, so you can just remove the “pot” and carry on baking. It is not enamel-coated, but it is pre-seasoned, so there's no fear of sticking if you bake the loaf directly on the pot. (I tend to use a parchment “sling” to load and unload my breads, so this isn't an issue either way.) And the heavy-gauge cast iron provides plenty of mass for rapid oven spring and good browning. Even so—at 14 pounds, 7 ounces—it’s reasonably lightweight enough to move in and out of the oven without too much effort or brawn.

But in many ways you get what you pay for, at least if you are looking for a bread pot with some versatility to it. For starters, as should already be obvious, the Double Dutch Oven is round. And—with a 7-inch-wide base (on the inside)—it is also a little on the snug side. (Width-wise, that is; with more than six inches of headroom top to bottom, the Double Dutch is plenty tall enough for most breads.) Which means that those of us who dig long loaves are out of luck. Still, given the price point, the Lodge Double Dutch Oven is a great starter Dutch oven/bread pot for those who don’t have either yet, especially since you also get a nice cast iron skillet out of the deal.

Price at time of publish: $50. 

Key Specs

  • Materials: Cast iron
  • Weight: 14 pounds, 7 ounces
  • Oven-safe temperature: 500°F
  • Care instructions: Season with oil before or after each use
A Lodge combo cooker with its lid on and placed on a wooden surface
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The Bottom Line

As I’ve already said, all three of these devices can be used to make excellent crusty, crispy, and tall rustic loaves, especially once you understand how to use each of them best. The Lodge Double Dutch is the one I’d recommend to beginners or those with limited budgets, so long as round loaves are your thing. The Challenger is for those who want to bake longer loaves, don’t have a lot of storage space, and do have enough brawn to move the heavy pot around. And the Fourneau is my recommendation for long-loafers who have plenty of storage space—or a second oven to leave it in permanently.

FAQs

three cast iron bread baking vessels on a wooden surface
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

What's the best bread oven?

If you're looking for a dedicated bread baker, we recommend all three of the models we tested for this review: the Lodge Double Dutch, Challenger, and Fourneau. They're each best suited for different kinds of bread bakers, but all will produce beautiful loaves.

What's the best vessel to bake sourdough bread?

For baking sourdough bread, you can use a bread cloche, bread oven, or Dutch oven. You should consider the shape you want to make (round, long, oblong), which will also determine which type of baking vessel is right for you.

Can you use a Dutch oven instead of a cloche?

Yes, you can use a Dutch oven instead of a cloche. There are some disadvantages to using a Dutch oven though (like it being harder to load and unload loaves and lack of airflow during the later baking stages), which we go into more above.

Balmuda: Our Review of the Pretty, Steam-Powered Toaster

We tested the Balmuda Toaster—using it to bake and reheat breads and pastries—to evaluate how well the steam-powered countertop oven works.

A Balmuda Toaster oven on a wooden countertop
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

At $300, the Balmuda toaster (or, more accurately, Balmuda the Toaster, as the Japanese company refers to it) costs far more than the majority of un-smart toaster ovens, even though it has—at 600 cubic inches—less than half of the capacity of most of them. It's just roomy enough to hold two modest slices of bread. And while the Balmuda does have three simple temperature-specific heating modes (350°F to 450°F), it's really meant to do one thing well: heat, brown, and crisp bread products—toast, pastries, and pizzas. Which makes it a very expensive one-trick-pony. 

I’m a bread baker and baking instructor who works entirely from home, so I eat a lot of toast. And I’ve been using a Balmuda pretty much daily for the last six months now, so I have a good sense of how well the toaster works. Whether or not it’s worth the sticker price, I cannot say—that depends entirely on the contents of your bank account and your willingness to part with that much of it. Does it make amazing toast, even out of bread that surely would be long past the point of no return under any other circumstances? Does it ever.

How the Balmuda Toaster Works

A hand using a tiny mug to add water to a slot at the top of the Balmuda Toaster
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

How does the Balmuda transform rock-hard bread into perfect toast and return days-old croissants and limp, stale pizza slices to whatever greatness they began life with? The secret is steam. Hidden on the top of the oven and revealed when the door is pulled down is a slot into which you pour 5cc (1 teaspoon) of water before adding the bread and turning it on. (The toaster comes with a cute miniature plastic coffee mug for precise water measurement.) The water flows into a metal channel inside the oven cavity, above an electric element that heats it to a boil at the beginning of the toast cycle, filling the oven with steam. The steam softens the exterior of the bread before boiling off completely, while the top and bottom oven elements cycle on and off to gently heat the bread inside and out without overcooking the exterior. Finally, in the last 30 seconds or so, the elements heat up continuously in order to brown and crisp the toast.

Retro Retrogradation

a piece of toast in the center of the Balmuda's oven rack
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Why a jacket of steam at the start of toasting helps restore bread to its former glory has to do with how bread stales in the first place. Hard, stale bread might seem dry, but—unless it has been deliberately dried or allowed to sit at room temperature in a dry environment for a long time—it actually contains loads of water. The problem is that the water isn't where we want it to be.

To back up a bit: when bread bakes, the starches in the flour and the water in the dough heat up and combine to form something known as a gel. Gelled starches are soft and flexible, which is why fresh bread products are tender. Staling—or retrogradation, as it's also known—is the reverse of this process: over time, the starches naturally expel the water they contain and crystallize, leaving them hard and brittle. (Starch retrogradation also accounts for what happens to a container of takeout rice left in the fridge a few hours: the rice grains become gritty, even though they haven't lost any of the water they contained.) 

The gelling-retrogradation cycle is infinitely reversible, at least in theory, since the expelled water surrounds the crystallized starches. This is why you can pop that rice into the microwave for a few minutes and turn it from gritty to soft again. And it is why the interior of a slice of bread tenderizes when it's toasted. In practice, however, some of the water that gets booted from the starches also evaporates, never to join forces again. This happens both slowly as a loaf of bread sits on the counter, and rapidly when a slice toasts in a “regular” toaster. In the latter case, the heat of the oven causes the water in the outer layers of the slice to boil off, turning the bread hard, rather than crisp; the older the slice, the thicker this hard outer layer. (“Crispness" is what you get when that outer layer of hard starches is kept to little more than a thin shell.)

The Balmuda solves this problem by saturating the oven atmosphere with moisture. With all that extra water hanging around, the water inside the bread isn't as tempted to boil off as it heats up, keeping that outer layer of crispness as thin as possible. And, in the case of breads that have sat around awhile before being toasted, it restores much of the exterior moisture that was lost. It’s a simple trick, but extremely effective. 

Toast à la Mode

A closeup of the Balmuda's control knob that shows both illustrations and temperature
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

There are two knobs on the front of the Balmuda. The dial on the left selects the oven mode: sandwich bread, artisan bread, pizza, pastry, and three steam-free, temperature-specific options for cooking or reheating other foods, from 350°F to 450°F. The knob on the right houses the power button and a dial for setting the cook time, from one to 15 minutes, in 30-second intervals up to the first five minutes and 60-second intervals beyond that.

A closeup of the time control knob and power button on the Balmuda
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The “bread” modes are tuned to the product being toasted, and vary in the orientation and intensity of the heat during the cycle: 

  • The “sandwich bread” mode works as described above: steam with oscillating heat, followed by even, continuous heat from both above and below. It’s meant to be used on soft-by-nature, thinly-sliced sandwich breads and English muffins. 
  • The “artisan bread” mode is identical, except it runs at a higher temperature, to help the oven handle thicker, crustier slices of bread, like sourdoughs. 
  • The “pizza” mode—used for slices of pizza set on the mini sheet pan included with the oven—heats the top element more than the lower one, to ensure rapid and sufficient melting and crisping of the cheese. And it is meant to be used to toast bagels, which want toasting on their cut faces only. (This mode can also be used to make kissaten, aka “pizza toast”, in which you top slices of bread with sauce, grated cheese, and whatever else you like. Or to just make cheesy toast.)
  • The “pastry” mode eliminates the final blast of heat of the three other modes, since things like croissants and donuts want softening and heating through, but not toasting. (They still crisp up, because the steam boils away before the cycle is complete.) 

But Does the Balmuda Actually Toast Well?

A piece of toast in the Balmuda toaster with the toaster oven's door open
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

In my testing, all of the modes worked as described, on both fresh and not-at-all-fresh breads, pizza, and pastries. While the Balmuda never failed to amaze, no matter what I threw at it, perhaps its most impressive trick was restoring many-days-old, dried-out, and hollow-sounding croissants to tender, crisp, and buttery delights. (The Balmuda is no miracle worker, of course. What you get when the timer bell dings is only going to be as good as that thing was on the day it was born; it cannot transform frozen-dough crescent rolls into les croissants Française.)

The trick to using the Balmuda effectively is knowing how long to set the cook time, and this is something that only comes with practice. The "sweet spot" for most products is between three and five minutes—less for thinner, less bulky items, more for thicker ones. (You can also use the Balmuda to toast or reheat frozen bread, pastries, or pizza. In this case you need to add a few extra minutes to give the item time to thaw fully before toasting.) If you overshoot and the bread gets too dark, there is obviously no way to course correct; if you undershoot, however, you can run the cycle again (without adding water for steam) for a minute or two until the bread is toasted enough. 

The three “temperature” modes work as described, too, though I didn't use them very often, since the oven and its accompanying mini baking sheet are only big enough to hold a small amount of food. But it’s nice to have in a pinch, especially when I’d rather not fire up my oven-oven just to reheat some leftover roasted potatoes or whatnot.

The Bottom Line: Should You Buy the Balmuda Toaster?

The Balmuda is not perfect (though maybe with a $300 sticker price it ought to be). The one place I think it could be improved is in the evenness of the toast from top to bottom; in my experience, the top of the slice comes out consistently a few shades darker than the bottom does. This is easily overcome by flipping the slice and giving it another minute or two, but it would be better if you didn't have to do this, of course.

Despite this minor annoyance, having a Balmuda has completely transformed my relationship to toast. If you're looking for a compact toaster oven, live in a household with one to two people, value aesthetics, and are really only planning on using the oven for toasting, you'll likely love the Balmuda, too.

FAQs

What's the best way to clean the Balmuda toaster?

Balmuda has clear instructions that can be found here for cleaning the toaster. The instructions are broken down by toaster oven part, too.

What's special about the Balmuda toaster?

The Balmuda uses steam and temperature controls to toast bread and reheat pastries and pizza. During our testing, we found this steam-powered technology worked exceptionally well for toasting and reheating.

Fake ‘Nduja

If you can’t get the real thing, this version comes close, thanks to Genoa salami, pancetta, buttermilk powder, and a trio of red peppers.

Overhead view of Fake nudja
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Like many, I’m a big fan of ‘njuda, the funky, spicy and tangy spreadable salume that comes from the southern Italian region of Calabria. I keep a container of it in my fridge constantly, to use in pasta sauces, as a topping for pizza, or simply to spread on a hunk of crusty bread as a snack. Not that long ago, ‘njuda was not known to many here in North America (myself included) and hard to come by in stores. But nowadays, many people are familiar with the joys of the stuff (perhaps thanks in part to Elazar Sontag’s excellent Serious Eats Guide to ‘Nduja, which you should read right now if you haven’t already). And the sausage is more and more available in stores, though it still seems to be limited to specialty stores and isn’t available in most supermarkets, even those in big cities like mine. 

Which is why I wondered if it might be possible to make a sort of faux ‘njuda, or ‘fauxduja’ as I like to call it, using other cured Italian pork products, some seasonings to give it the proper heat, appearance, and tang, and a food processor to give it the proper spreadable consistency. Spoiler alert: It is! 

Side angle view of fake Nduja
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Here’s how I landed on my formula. I looked for a mild-flavored, all-pork, cured salume that was already on the softer side. I didn’t want one that already had a lot of flavor of its own, since, unlike with other salami, spices like fennel or oregano are never used in ‘nduja. And in any case, I’d be adding the flavor separately. And I wanted a softer one to begin with, so it wouldn’t require the addition of too much extra liquid and/or too much processing to achieve the right consistency. In the end, I went with Genoa salami, one that had some give to it when squeezed. Because ‘nduja is generally a coarse-textured sausage (in part because it is made from several pork cuts of varying textures and fat content), I combined the salami with a smaller amount of firmer pancetta, which didn’t break down as quickly as the salami.

To give the fauxduja the right fiery-sweet chile heat and blazing red color, I used a combination of peppers: ground sweet paprika for sweetness, oil-cured Calabrian hot peppers (the same ones used in the real deal) for heat and color, and a single fresh red Fresno pepper, for another boost of color, flavor, and heat.

Unlike with most salami, which cure at low temperatures for weeks or months, ‘nduja is cured in a matter of hours and at high temperatures. The fermentation that takes place under these conditions gives the sausage a distinctive tang, mainly provided by lactic acid, the same acid produced in the fermentation of milk into yogurt, buttermilk, or sour cream. While I tried adding some of these soured milk products to mimic that flavor, they added more unwelcome moisture to the mix and not enough tang. Instead, I switched to dried buttermilk powder (used in baking when buttermilk itself is unavailable), a concentrated form of lactic acid with zero moisture. 

Finally, I used the food processor conservatively, in order to avoid overprocessing the mixture and ending up with a too-smooth paste. Once the texture got close, I adjusted the heat with more Calabrian peppers and the consistency with olive oil as needed and then stopped processing before the tiny bits of red pepper were too small to see. 

And that’s it. It comes together in a flash, and keeps for more than a week in the fridge (by which time it’s likely to be used up and in need of remaking anyway). Would my faux ‘nduja fool a Calabrian into thinking it is the real thing, or prevent their anger that anyone attempted to pull a fast one in the first place? Probably not. But it still gets close enough that it will work just fine when it is otherwise unavailable (and there are no Calabrians around). In fact, when I say I keep ‘njuda in the fridge at all times, it’s usually fauxduja in there.

Place salami, pancetta, buttermilk powder, paprika, Fresno pepper, 2 Calabrian peppers, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and process until a semi-smooth paste forms, 15 to 30 seconds, scraping down sides of processor as needed (paste should be even, but red pepper pieces should remain clearly visible.) Taste for heat and add additional Calabrian peppers if desired. If needed, add olive oil 1 teaspoon at a time and pulse until mixture reaches a just-spreadable consistency.

Overhead view of a food processor with ingredients for fake nudja before and after being blended
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer to a container and refrigerate until firm, at least two hours. Serve or use as desired.

Fake Nduja in a glass jar
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Food processor

Notes

Look for a Genoa salami with a soft consistency (you should be able to compress it easily with your fingertip). 

If Calabrian hot peppers are unavailable, add cayenne pepper, 1/8 teaspoon at a time, until the desired heat level is achieved.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Faux 'nduja can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 10 days.

Homemade French Baguettes

Everything you need to know to make perfect French baguettes at home.

Overhead view of 4 baguettes on a grey table runner
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

At some point in every amateur bread baker’s life comes the desire to tackle the baguette, and for good reason: Great baguettes are hard to come by outside of France. The name baguette means “wand” or “stick,” referring to its long, slender shape. The bread is a relatively modern invention, first arising in the late-nineteenth century and achieving its familiar form and character around 1920. Despite its relatively young age, it didn't take long for the baguette to become a significant symbol of French culture, which was recently recognized by UNESCO when it added the baguette ot its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

With a dull flavor, soft crust, and a cottony, dense interior, supermarket baguettes (laden with chemicals to prevent staling) are terrible, insulting facsimiles of "les vrais choses", or the real things. And even those baguettes made in top-notch bakeries—should you have one nearby—lose their magic within a few hours after baking, never to be recovered.

Close up view of inside and outside texture of baguettes
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

That’s because baguettes are inescapably ephemeral things. Unlike most other breads, they are more crust than crumb, and as such, exceedingly quick to stale. Other high-crust ratio breads like rolls contain fats or other ingredients to help stave off staling, but a real baguette should be made from nothing other than flour, water, yeast, and salt. A well-made one is at its peak minutes after it leaves the oven and begins to degrade soon thereafter. Which means that—unless you have a bakery nearby that bakes them regularly throughout the day—it makes more sense to bake them at home. 

Or it would, except for the fact that baguettes are also one of the hardest breads for the home baker to learn to make, mostly thanks to the many complicated shaping steps involved. Practice makes perfect in all things, especially when it comes to baguettes, and it's hard for a home baker to notch enough of them for the skill to become second nature. My best advice to anyone wanting to nail the baguette? Land a job at a bakery and make several hundred of them a week for a few years. Barring that, find a good recipe and just practice, practice, practice.

Three baguettes on a cloth
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

I speak from experience here: I've been trying to perfect my baguette for years now, and I continue to fail more often than I succeed. Nevertheless, I still think it's worth the effort, and I encourage you to give it a go. Your failures, like mine, will be mostly aesthetic in nature and delicious, despite outward imperfections. And if you are like me, you'll find the challenge a source of fun rather than frustration.

If all that hasn’t scared the idea of baguette-making out of you entirely, good news: I have a recipe for you to work with. It's one I’ve refined over many years and designed to be as simple as possible while still capable of making a superlative baguette.

The Hallmarks of a Great Baguette

  1. A thin, delicately crisp crust that shatters easily when cut or compressed, with a deep red-golden brown hue. Basically, if your baguette doesn't make a mess of your shirt front, send it back. 
  2. A tender internal crumb displaying a chaotic, irregular mixture of alveoli (another word for the bubbles or holes in a loaf of bread) of various sizes from tiny to large. Some bakers call this a “wild” crumb, and it is considered a sign of proper dough fermentation and a careful approach to dough handling. A baguette that is “bien alvéolé” (e.g., with an open, wild crumb) isn’t merely about aesthetics: Much of the flavor in this simple bread comes from fermentation, so you can’t really have one without the other.  
  3. Scores that opened dramatically during the bake to allow the loaf to expand fully and evenly along its length, displaying a variety of hues from buff on the insides to deeply caramelized on the outside edges. Good expansion on the exterior is more than mere aesthetics, since it also helps open up the internal structure to produce that coveted wild crumb.
  4. A symmetrical, pleasing outline. This can vary depending upon the number of cuts: A single slash down the center will create a near-perfect cylinder, while multiple overlapping cuts give a baguette that classic “beanpod” shape.
  5. A nutty, wheaty, buttery, and pleasantly fermented aroma and flavor, inside and out. 

While it is really only the final shaping steps in baguettes that are challenging to learn, there are a ton of moving parts to the entire process, and I think it makes sense to break it down element-by-element and step-by-step.

Two baguettes
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The Ingredients

Like I said, a real baguette contains nothing more than flour, water, yeast, and salt. Here’s what goes into my formula, and why:

High-protein all-purpose flour: Most French baguettes are made with a medium-protein flour (11 to 12%) for the proper crisp, yet tender texture. This percentage straddles the line between most American all-purpose flours and bread flours, but King Arthur all-purpose flour (the one in the red bag), with its higher-than-normal 11.7% protein, actually makes an excellent baguette flour. If you can't find that one for some reason, use bread flour instead.

Sifted whole wheat flour: In France, refined "white" flours contain more bran and germ than do American ones, which gives their loaves a golden-hued crumb and a wheatier, more complex flavor. Adding 5% whole wheat flour—sifted through a standard fine-mesh strainer to remove most of the larger particles of gluten-degrading bran it contains—to the all-purpose flour gives the baguette a similar flavor and appearance.

Diastatic malt powder: Not to be confused with malt sugar, non-diastatic malt powder, malt syrup, or malted milk powder (all of which are sugars), diastatic malt powder, also known as diastase, is an enzyme made from malted barley or wheat, that breaks down starches into simple sugars. It is naturally present in grains and used by the just-sprouted plant to access the energy stored up in its core. In flour, diastatic malt serves to provide a steady supply of sugar, to drive fermentation during proofing and caramelization in the heat of the oven. 

Diastatic malt is usually added to commercial flours in the mill—it's often listed as “malted barley” or “barley flour" in the ingredients—in order to ensure a uniform, consistent amount from bag to bag. Adding a little extra diastatic malt to long-fermented doughs like this baguette ensures that there will always be enough sugar around to achieve dramatic browning during baking. 

Diastatic malt powder is a specialty item only available at baking supply stores or online. If you don’t have any yet, I’ve made it optional in the formula so you can just leave it out for now, it won’t make or break your baguettes.

Water: Baguettes, with their tender and open internal crumb, require a relatively high hydration (a high ratio of water to flour by weight). My formula has a hydration of 73%  (this falls in line with other rustic breads like sourdough), which is as high as possible, yielding a dough that is not sticky or hard to handle. 

Yeast: Compared to other bread formulas, this recipe contains a relatively small amount of yeast. That's because it gets a long, cold fermentation in the fridge, rather than a quick room-temperature one. Dialing down the yeast and slowing down the proof encourages the production of more of the aromatic side-products of dough fermentation—acids, alcohols, esters, and other organic molecules—to develop complex flavor. 

Two baguettes
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The Equipment

Another way baguettes differ from most other breads is the sheer number of tools they require. A few of these are things you probably have on hand or can get easily; others are specialty items you'll need to seek out.

Rectangular cake pan: When professional bakers make baguettes, they begin by dividing a massive amount of dough into many rectangular baguette-sized portions, a relatively easy thing to do when working with a huge mass of dough (plus having  smaller portions makes it far easier to coax the dough into a uniform cylinder without overworking or degassing it). To achieve a similar effect at home, I cold-proof the dough in a rectangular 13- by 9-inch cake pan. The dough spreads out into a rectangle as it sits in the fridge, making it easy to divide into four more-or-less uniform pieces when it is turned out of the pan and onto a floured countertop later on.

Couche: To maintain their uniform cylindrical shape and to prevent them from touching one another, the shaped baguettes need to proof within the folds of a floured linen cloth known in French as a couche. Coarse, heavy linen is the fabric of choice for couches because it has enough heft to stay upright when pleated, and the right sort of texture to wick moisture away from the dough without also attaching itself to it. The ideal dimensions of a home-scale couche are 17 inches wide and at least 20 inches long. I prefer the 18-inch wide couches from the San Francisco Baking Institute, because they are sized to fit a half-sheet. You could make your own couche if you can find a bolt of the right grade of linen, but pre-cut ones with hemmed edges that won’t fray aren’t all that more expensive than DIY versions. If you don’t want to invest in a couche just yet, the next best option is a large linen tea towel.

Overhead view of an unfolded couche
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Clean plastic garbage bag: To keep the dough from drying out as they rest or proof, bakeries keep them inside covered rolling racks. At home, you can use clean plastic garbage bags instead. 

Transfer peel: Once the baguettes are proofed, they are too floppy and fragile to move to a baking peel. Instead, you want to use a thin, stiff, beveled-edge wooden board known as a transfer peel. To use one, you use the transfer peel to roll a baguette over on the couche, use the couche to roll the baguette onto the transfer peel, then roll the baguette off of the transfer peel onto a sheet of parchment and use the peel to fine-tune its position, if needed. At first, all the flipping and flopping might seem like overkill, but in truth it is the gentlest and most effective way to move a baguette from one place to another. (It’s also why a transfer peel is sometimes known as a “flipper board.”) Again, a transfer peel is definitely something a handy person could fashion themselves, but commercial ones are inexpensive. They are a specialty item you’ll most likely need to order online.

Curved-blade lame: Bakers use an ultra-thin, ultra-sharp razor blade on a handle known as a lame (pronounced lahm) to score breads. For baguettes, you ideally want to use a curved-blade lame rather than a straight one, because the former is easier to orient at an extreme angle to the dough, which in turn helps to cut a "flap" of dough that will form a dramatic ear once the loaf is baked. (That said, a straight-bladed lame can work here too.) Be sure to start with a brand-new razor blade for maximum sharpness because razor blades dull far more quickly than you'd think. Lames are available at baking specialty stores or online.

Baking stone: In order to achieve an open, tender crumb and a crisp crust, baguettes need to bake quickly. For this reason, they are usually baked at a high temperature (500˚F) on a preheated baking stone, which pumps heat into the core of the loaf to encourage rapid oven spring (loaf expansion). If you don't have either of these yet, you’ll need to get one before you begin. 

Baguettes on a baking stone
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

I don’t recommend using a baking steel for baking baguettes, because the oven temperature is so high and they can have a tendency to burn on one. If it is all you have, then you might want to set a baking sheet below the baguettes to insulate them, especially after you’ve removed the foil pan in Step 18 of the recipe below. 

Disposable turkey roasting pan and aluminum foil: Professional baguette bakers use steam-injected bread ovens to keep the exterior of the loaves moist at the start of the bake, for maximum oven spring and to produce the baguette's signature crisp, crumb-scattering crust. At home, I have found that the best way to mimic these conditions is to bake the baguettes underneath an upside-down disposable 17- by 13-inch turkey roasting pan wrapped tightly with aluminum foil. I’ve been using the upside-down foil roasting pan for years now, but I only thought of sealing the container with a sheet of foil while developing this recipe, and it was a game-changer. (After the baguettes have expanded fully and the crust has begun to set, the pan is removed to let the loaves finish browning and crisp up.) This works identically to baking larger loaves in a covered Dutch oven—the container corrals moisture that evaporates from the dough, enveloping the loaf with steam. It’s a bit of a chore to do, but it’s well worth the effort. Trust me, I’ve tried every oven steaming approach possible, and this is far superior to any of the alternatives.  

Pizza peel: If you are here, I’m guessing you already have a pizza peel to use for loading and unloading the baguettes. Just about any sort will do, as long as it is at least 12 inches wide and long. (I prefer a thin-bladed aluminum one myself.) If not, you can always use a rimless baking sheet or the back of a rimmed one instead (the latter won’t work for unloading, but the baked baguettes can be moved around with a pair of long-handled tongs).

The Method

There are a lot of stages to baguette making, though—shaping aside—none of them are especially complicated, especially with this formula, which I deliberately kept as simple as possible without compromising on results.

Mixing: One of the main ways to get that desirably irregular, open crumb is to let the dough do its own thing during fermentation. For that reason, my formula is light on manipulation: It’s mixed quickly by hand and folded just once after 30 minutes to even out its texture. There's no need for kneading, since—as in other “no-knead” recipes—the long fermentation allows the dough’s gluten to develop passively.

Room-temperature proof: Before the dough can be moved into the fridge, the fermentation needs to get solidly underway; in my formula, it sits at room temperature until it's puffy and nearly doubled in volume. This can take anywhere from one to two hours after the fold, depending upon ambient temperatures. After that, it gets pressed gently into the lightly-oiled cake pan, covered tightly, and then moved to the refrigerator.

Cold-proofing: There are a million ways to make a baguette dough, but the best of them usually involve an extended period of fermentation at some stage to develop flavor. Oftentimes this involves the use of a preferment, a portion of dough that has fermented ahead of its inclusion in a dough. (A sponge, which you may be familiar with, is a colloquial name for one type of preferment.) This recipe instead uses an en bac (or “in a container” in French) approach, where the entire batch of dough gets a long, cool fermentation. This is my preferred method for baguettes, since it is both convenient and flexible: Convenient because you make the dough on one day and bake the baguettes the next, and flexible because there is a relatively wide window of time, 15 to 48 hours, during which the dough is ready to use.

Dividing: This formula yields four baguettes, but only two can go into the oven at a time, so you’ll need to stagger the baking of each set by at least 20 minutes. How long you wait before starting the clock on the second batch is entirely up to you, as long as it is within the 48-hour window. For instance, you can make them 20 minutes after the first set, or wait until the following day (this way means you can have fresh-baked baguettes every day!).

Baguette dough divided in four
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

To start, you want to flour the top of the dough inside the pan, then gently turn it out onto a lightly-floured countertop. To maintain the dough’s rectangular shape, use a bench scraper to detach it from the sides of the pan as needed, then invert the pan over the counter at an angle to let it slowly peel off. If necessary, you can reach under with a hand and gently separate the end of the dough from the pan; the rest usually comes off on its own. After that, flour the top of the dough lightly, restore its rectangular shape if necessary, then divide it into four pieces of near equal weight and shape. (The more uniform they are at this stage, the easier it will be to keep them uniform later on.) Carefully return two of the pieces to the pan, separated from one another by at least a few inches, cover the pan tightly, and return it to the fridge to bake later on. Finally, separate the remaining two pieces from one another, then cover them loosely with a clean plastic garbage bag (or another cake pan if you have one.)

Warming up: Because cold doughs are stiff and hard to shape, the dough needs to warm up before starting the shaping process. It shouldn’t warm up completely, however; the goal is to just take a little of the chill off and get it between 50˚ and 55˚F, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour, depending on ambient temperatures.

Preparing the couche: In a bakery, couches are in constant use on a daily basis, which means they are saturated with enough moisture to keep them stiff enough to stand upright when pleated. For home bakers with couches that are brand-new or that see only occasional use, the trick is to mist the couche lightly with water using a spray bottle. You then center it, misted side down, over a rimmed baking sheet (or a rimless cookie sheet), and roll up the ends until there's no overhang. You then dust the exposed surface of the couche with flour lightly but evenly, preferably using a small fine-mesh sieve.

Countertop management: Shaping many breads, and baguettes especially, uses the friction of the dough against the countertop to develop tension. This means that you need to be careful not to flour the work surface excessively, or the dough will just slide around freely. I like to use a “flour station” approach for flour management: Instead of dusting the area I’m working in with flour, I dust a section of counter adjacent to it, either to the side or the rear. Then whenever the dough piece seems like it is getting sticky, I lift it up and drop it gently into the floured area to give it a light coating of flour, then return it to the unfloured area to continue shaping. 

Overhead view of a flour station
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Preshaping: Most breads get shaped in a three-phase process: an initial preshape, a brief rest to let the dough relax, and a final shaping. This sequence is especially important when it comes to baguettes. You cannot brute force an amorphous blob of dough into a 14-inch long, uniformly-round cylinder in one go; the gluten in the dough will tighten up long before you get it there, leaving it misshapen, and you'll knock out all the gas it contains, ruining its internal structure. Instead, you want to coax it along gradually and gently by first delicately folding the rectangle of dough into thirds like a business letter in one direction, then repeating again in the other direction. This turns the dough into a small, uniform loaf shape that can be easily manipulated into a cylinder after it relaxes for 20 minutes or so.

Final shaping: Similar to preshaping, the final shaping of baguettes involves a stepwise movement from short rectangle to long tube, with each step in the sequence elongating the dough gradually and evenly. For the beginner, it’s this complicated set of movements that takes the most repetition to become second nature. It’s easier to demonstrate than it is to explain, but here they are, one after the other: 

  • One: You gently pat the rectangle beneath your flattened hand, to even out the thickness of the dough and elongate it slightly in both directions. 
  • Two: You fold the top third of dough toward the center (the long way) and then seal the flap of dough to the dough beneath it, working your fingertips along the line where they meet. (Try not to compress the newly-formed roll of dough itself; only push down along the seam.) 
  • Three: You rotate the dough 180 degrees and repeat, to yield a rectangle of dough with a slight trough along its center line where the two flaps overlap. 
  • Four: You place the thumb of your non-dominant hand into the opposite end of the trough, gently anchoring the dough in place against the countertop. Using your other hand, you fold the dough in half over itself (and your thumb) and gently seal the back edge of the dough to the front edge. You then move your thumb an inch or so further down the trough and repeat, working your way along the log of dough until you reach the other end. (One note: You want to avoid sealing the ends of the log at this stage, since that can trap overly large bubbles of air in the core of the loaf.)
  • Five: You place the palm of one hand on the center of the log and stack the other hand directly atop it. Then you gently roll the log forward and back under your hands to compress the center slightly. Starting in the center forces internal bubbles toward the ends of the log. 
  • Six: You then move your hands apart in opposite directions, rolling the log beneath them, expanding it lengthwise. If necessary, you return both hands to the center and repeat until the log attains the appropriate length, 14 to 15 inches, in the case of a home-oven sized baguette, or what in France would be called a demi-baguette. It’s best to elongate the log gradually rather than in one go. Again, don’t seal the two ends until it is fully elongated.
  • Seven: You roll the ends of the log under your palms in opposite directions to form sharp points. It’s best to over-emphasize the points, because they tend to soften as the bread proofs.
  • Eight: You look for the seam (sometimes it can be hard to see), and then you set the log onto the floured couche, seam side up. (Seam side up because you always want the proofing container to cradle the top of the loaf, and because that allows you to keep track of it, so that you can bake the loaf seam side down.)
  • Nine: You pleat the couche around the loaf, cover the couche with a clean plastic trash bag, and move onto the next one. Once both baguettes in the set are shaped, you fold the ends of the couche over them and fold the ends of the bag under the pan to enclose it fully.

Proofing the baguettes: The shaped baguettes proof at room temperature until they are puffy and a poke with a finger leaves a depression that springs back slowly. (If the loaf is underproofed, the depression will spring back quickly; if it is overproofed, it likely won’t spring back at all.) This can take anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, depending upon ambient temperatures. While they proof, preheat the oven and baking stone to 500˚F. 

Preparing the foil "Dutch oven”: In order to fully enclose the loaves within the foil roasting pan, you start by setting a 20- by 18-inch sheet of aluminum foil on the counter and centering a 16- by 12-inch sheet of parchment over it.

Transferring the baguettes to the parchment: I explained how to use the transfer peel above, but here it is in a bit more detail: First, you unpleat the couche to separate the loaves, then use the transfer peel to roll the first baguette over, seam side down. You then wedge the peel under the long edge of the baguette, lift the loose end of the couche in your other hand, and then use it to roll the baguette over onto the board, seam side up. Finally, you roll the baguette over one last time onto the sheet of parchment and then use the transfer peel to fine-tune its position and straighten it out, if needed. You then repeat the sequence with the second baguette.

Scoring the baguette: The classic baguette score is a series of overlapping slashes that are just barely angled off the centerline of the loaf. As the scores expand, they form the almond-shaped openings that give a baguette its distinctive “beanpod" shape.

But this is a difficult scoring method to pull off, requiring lots and lots of practice. For beginners, I recommend just making a single slash down the centerline of the loaf. The results can be just as dramatic and beautiful, and it is pretty easy to pull off.

Overhead view of scoring the baguette
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The goal of scoring a baguette is to create a flap of dough that peels back from the loaf as it expands, to form an “ear.” To do so, you want to hold the lame with the cup of the blade facing up, at about a 30-degree angle to the dough. And to prevent the blade from catching on the dough, you want to also angle the handle of the lame away from the loaf, so only the very tip of the blade is doing the work. (Learning to orient your hand and the lame correctly and consistently is one of the things that only comes with extensive practice.) To keep the loaf from moving while you make the slash, anchor it gently but firmly in place by grasping the sides of the loaf with the thumb and index finger of your other hand.

Some bakers insist that the correct method for scoring breads is backhand, with the tip of the blade pointing away from you. I learned it forehand, working from the back side of the loaf, with the tip pointing toward myself, and I can't unlearn it. (Clearly, either way works.) 

Closing the foil “Dutch oven”: Next, you set the roasting pan over the baguettes and then roll the overhanging foil over the rim to seal the packet completely. Then you slide a pizza peel (or a rimless baking sheet) under the foil packet and transfer the whole thing to the baking stone and set a timer for 10 minutes. 

Removing the foil: Once the 10 minutes are up, you carefully remove the foil packet from the oven and set it on a wire rack. Then, very carefully use a pair of tongs (or your hands) to open one corner of the foil to release any remaining steam, making sure to stand back when you do so! Finish uncrimping the foil completely, and remove the pan. 

Browning the baguettes: Finally, you return the two loaves to the baking stone for 8 to 10 minutes to brown, rotating them from back to front halfway through baking. Be sure to let them reach an even, deep red-brown color for maximum crispness and a deeply caramelized flavor.

Cooling: At this point, you might be tempted to rip into one of your baguettes as soon as they are cool enough to handle, especially if it is from one of your first attempts, but resist the temptation if you can! Their texture will actually improve as they cool, since the crust will be dry and hard when it first comes out of the oven. As it sits, the crust will absorb moisture from the interior of the loaf to attain the ideal shattery-crisp texture. The flavor of the baguette will improve over time, too, since aromas from the caramelized crust will penetrate deeper into the crumb.

Overhead view of a baguette sliced in half
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Learning to make a great baguette requires a lot of tools, skills, and practice, and is definitely not for the beginner nor the faint of heart. Getting there will take time, and your first few attempts are likely to fall short (though they’ll probably still be tasty!). There are few breads that are as rewarding to tackle, both for the satisfaction of having done a difficult thing, and because eating a well-crafted and freshly-baked one is a sublime experience, hard to come by any other way.  

In a medium bowl, whisk together sifted whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, yeast, and diastatic malt (if using) until thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds. In another medium bowl, add water and half of the flour mixture and mix with a dough whisk or your hands until a thick batter forms, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix until a uniform dough forms and no dry flour remains, about 15 seconds. Cover bowl with a plate, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Two image collage of dry and wet ingredients in a metal bowl
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using lightly-moistened fingertips, fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of the dough toward center. Rotate bowl slightly and repeat folding until the dough is taut and you can no longer easily stretch the edge of the dough, 6 to 8 times total. Cover bowl with plate and let rest at room temperature until dough is puffy and expanded about 1 1/2 times from its original volume, 1 to 2 hours.

Two image collage of folding dough over and it rising in a metal bowl
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer dough to a lightly-oiled 13- by 9-inch cake pan, pressing gently until the dough fills as much of the pan as possible. Cover pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 48 hours.

Two hands gently pushing dough to fill baking pan
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Lightly flour a work surface that’s at least twice as large as the pan, and flour top of dough lightly but evenly, until no longer sticky to the touch. Using a plastic dough scraper or stiff plastic spatula, release dough from sides of pan if necessary, then gently nudge dough onto work surface without stretching it beyond its current dimensions. Flour top of dough once more, lightly but evenly. Using a bench scraper, divide dough into 4 equal rectangles (about 225g or 8 ounces each). Using bench scraper, return two of the rectangles to the pan, separated by at least 1 inch. Cover pan tightly and refrigerate until ready to bake remaining two baguettes. 

Dough separated into four sections, two in a pan, two on a floured surface
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using bench scraper, and dusting work surface with more flour as needed, separate remaining two rectangles by at least one inch and cover loosely with a clean plastic trash bag (or a clean cake pan). Let rest at room temperature until dough warms up to just cool to the touch (between 50˚ and 55˚F), 30 to 60 minutes.

Dough covered with a baking sheet
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Meanwhile, using a spray bottle, lightly mist back side of couche with water. Center couche, misted side down, over a rimmed (or rimless) baking sheet, roll overhanging sections up to meet edges of pan, and, using a fine mesh sieve, dust exposed area of couche liberally and evenly with flour.

A clean couche properly folded
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Flour an area of the work surface away from where you are working and slide one piece of dough onto floured surface. Position the remaining piece of dough so that the short side is facing you, then gently fold into thirds like a business letter. Rotate dough 90 degrees and repeat folding into thirds to form a log about 4- by 3-inches. Move log back to floured area and then repeat with other dough. Cover logs loosely with plastic bag (or a cake pan) and let rest for 20 minutes.

Four image collage of folding the dough like a business letter
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian
Four image collage of folding the second piece of dough like a business letter
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

On a lightly floured surface, position one piece of dough with the long edge facing you. Using a slightly cupped hand, gently compress dough into a 6- by 4-inch rectangle. Fold top third of dough toward center and press gently using fingertips to seal seam. Rotate dough 180 degrees, and repeat folding to form a rectangle with a slight crease along the center where seams overlap. (If at any point dough begins to stick to counter, flour an area adjacent to your work area and briefly place dough on floured area to eliminate stickiness.)

Two image collage of hands pressing down on folded dough and sealing the dough with fingers
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Place the thumb of your non-dominant hand at end of the seam to anchor dough in place, then fold the dough in half over your thumb, sealing the dough with the heel of your hand and moving your thumb as you work your way from one end of loaf to the other. (Do not seal ends of loaf.)

Gif of folding the dough using your thumb into a log
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Cup one hand over center of loaf, and roll it gently forward and back 3 or 4 times, compressing the center slightly.

A hand gently pressing down on the dough
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using both hands, starting at center of loaf and working outward toward ends, gently roll dough into an even, 13- to 14-inch long cylinder. You may need to repeat rolling from center to ends 2 to 5 times to achieve the desired length. Do not seal ends of loaf until it is fully elongated.

Gif of elongating dough into a cyclinder
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Moving hands forward and back in opposite directions, roll ends of loaf under palms to form defined points. (The finished loaf should be about 14 inches long.)

Gif of rolling dough into pointed ends
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer dough to floured couche, seam side up. Form edges of couche into pleats along either side of loaf, fold remaining flaps of couche over loaf, and then cover couche with loosely with a second clean plastic garbage bag. Repeat steps 12 through 17 with the remaining dough piece.

Dough placed into couche
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Fold loose ends of couche over loaves, then cover baking sheet completely with plastic bag. Fold ends of bag loosely under sheet to enclose. Let loaves rest at room temperature until about 1-1/2 times in volume and dough springs back slowly when poked gently with fingertip, 45 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes.

Dough covered with plastic trash bag
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to the middle position, place baking stone directly on rack, and preheat oven to 500°F (260°C). On a work surface, place a 20- by 18-inch sheet of aluminum foil and center a 16- by 12-inch sheet of parchment on top. Remove plastic bag from couche and unfold couche to separate loaves. Using a transfer peel, gently roll first loaf away from second one, inverting it seam side down. Place transfer peel alongside inner edge of first loaf at a 45-degree angle to couche. With other hand, lift opposite end of couche and use it to invert loaf, seam side up, onto transfer peel. Gently invert loaf onto parchment-lined foil, seam side down, centered lengthwise and about 2 inches from long edge of parchment. Use transfer peel and your other hand to straighten loaf if needed. Repeat with second loaf, leaving 3 inches of space between loaves. 

Four image collage of transferring loafs from couche to baking surface and straightening loaf
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Holding lame concave side up, with handle oriented at a 30-degree angle to loaf, make a 1/8-inch deep slash along centerline of loaf, using a single, swift motion from one end to the other. Repeat with second loaf.

Two image collage of slashing middle of loaves with a bread lame
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Invert a disposable aluminum 17- by 13-inch roasting pan over edges of parchment, then crimp overhanging foil tightly around edges of pan to seal it close. Carefully slide pizza peel (or rimless baking sheet) under foil packet and transfer to baking stone. Bake for 10 minutes.

Two image collage of crimping aluminum foil around pan
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using pizza peel, transfer packet to a wire rack. Using tongs or hands, carefully peel back one corner of foil and allow excess steam to escape. Uncrimp remaining foil and remove roasting pan. 

A pair of thongs lifting pan to allow steam to escape
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using pizza peel, return loaves to baking stone (discarding parchment-lined foil), separated by at least 2 inches. Bake loaves, rotating them back to front after 5 minutes, until deep golden brown, 8 to 12 minutes total.

Loaves on a baking stone in an oven
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer loaves to wire rack and let loaves cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Repeat steps 6 to 28 to proof and bake remaining two baguettes.

Two baguettes resting on a wire rack
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Kitchen scale, water mister bottle, linen couche, transfer peel, rimless cookie sheet or rimmed baking sheet, clean plastic garbage bag, parchment paper, wide pizza peel (or second rimless cookie sheet), baking stone, lame, disposable aluminum 17- by 13-inch roasting pan, wire rack, dough whisk

Notes

For best results, weigh the flours and water for this recipe.

For sifted whole wheat flour, sift whole wheat flour through a standard fine-mesh strainer to remove most of the larger particles of gluten-degrading bran it contains. You can discard the bran in the strainer or save for another use.

If a high-protein all-purpose flour like King Arthur is unavailable, use bread flour instead. 

Diastatic malt powder is an enzyme used to promote browning in cold fermented doughs. It can be sourced from bakery supply stores online. Be sure to get diastatic malt powder; sweeteners like malt sugar, malt syrup, and malted milk powder are not appropriate substitutes. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

Baguettes are best consumed within 4 hours of baking.

Armenian-Style Rice Pilaf

Rice and pasta toasted in butter and then simmered in chicken stock—the perfect side dish for any meal.

Overhead view of rice pilaf on a pale plate
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Rice pilaf—long grain rice and a handful of thready, busted-up pasta, toasted in butter, cooked with chicken stock—is absolutely fundamental to diasporic Armenian cuisine. "Diasporic" is an important qualifier, since, as with most things having to do with Armenian culture and history, it's complicated. Rice wasn't commonly eaten in Eastern Armenia, the country now known as the Armenian Republic. But for people like me, whose ancestors emigrated from Western Armenia, here's what I mean when I say rice pilaf is fundamental: At my family’s gatherings, no matter what's on the menu—a Thanksgiving meal, for example—and no matter how much food has already been prepared—a 22-pound roast turkey and mounds of butter-laden mashed potatoes, say—my mother will ask, “Should I make pilaf?” Sometimes we can talk her out of adding pilaf to the already full table, sometimes not, but we all understand the impulse: To many Armenians, a meal of any kind just doesn’t seem complete without it.

Most non-Armenian Americans are now familiar with this style of rice pilaf thanks to Rice-a-Roni, the “San Francisco Treat,” that boxed side dish that introduced rice eating to the States in the 1950’s. (The story behind how an Italian-American pasta company began selling a packaged version of an Armenian dish thanks to the efforts of a Canadian immigrant was told by NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters a while back, and is well worth a listen.) While I love that Rice-a-Roni brought a small part of Armenian cuisine into American culinary history, and appreciate the value of convenience foods like it, here’s the thing: Homemade rice pilaf is far superior to anything you can find in a box and it's almost as easy and quick to make!

Side view of plated rice pilaf
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Here’s how it's done: After rinsing the rice of excess starch, you melt a generous chunk of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then add a handful of pasta. (Most Armenians use vermicelli “nests,” crushed gently into 1- to 2-inch long threads, but you can also use busted-up straight vermicelli, angel hair, or short, non-tubular pasta like orzo.) You keep a watchful eye on the noodles and stir occasionally to prevent them from burning, until they toast to a deep golden brown. (In the process, the butter solids also brown, lending the dish its essential nutty, toasty flavor.) Once the pasta is toasted, you add the rice, cook it briefly in the butter to help keep the grains separate, add salt, pepper, and chicken stock, and then increase the heat to high. Once the pot comes to a boil, you turn the heat all the way down and let the liquid simmer gently under a lid for 10 minutes or so, until all of it has been absorbed. After that, you move the pot off the heat, place a folded towel under the lid, and let the rice and noodles steam for another 10 minutes (the towel sucks up excess steam, allowing the rice to finish cooking through while the grains remain fluffy and separate).

The whole thing takes barely more than 30 minutes, most of it—aside from the careful pasta-watching phase—hands-off. And that little bit of extra time and effort yields a delicious, aromatic, and sumptuous side dish that's far more than the sum of its simple parts.

My recipe for rice pilaf is pretty standard, aside from a few minor refinements. Other recipes vary, but I use an even 2:1 ratio (by volume) of stock to rice, which is both easy to remember and yields what I think of as just the right final consistency. And I like to soak my rice in hot tap water for 10 minutes before cooking it, which helps to remove any last traces of surface starch, while also pre-softening the rice just enough that it cooks through evenly. (Some recipes for pilaf have you soak the rice for hours or even overnight in cold water for the same reason.)

What about pre-toasting the pasta?

Many rice pilaf recipes suggest pre-toasting the pasta dry, in bulk, to save time and perhaps avoid the risk of burning it on the stovetop. While that’s something many people do, I don’t personally think it saves much time in the long run (especially since you still need to brown the butter), so I don’t bother. But you can if you like: Just place the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet in a single later and cook it on the middle rack of a 325˚F oven until deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Once cool, you can store it in a jar—broken up or whole—until needed.

What about bulgur pilaf?

Armenians also love to make this dish using bulgur in place of the rice, and the good news is that it can be made with an even swap of one grain for the other, by volume. Unlike rice pilaf, it’s not necessary to pre-soak the bulgur; all it needs is a quick rinse. Bulgur pilaf can be made using any grade of bulgur, though it works best with medium or coarse bulgur (which are conveniently easier to find in supermarkets than fine bulgur).

Place rice in a medium bowl and rinse with hot tap water until water runs clear, about 30 seconds. Cover rice completely with fresh hot tap water and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain rice thoroughly in a fine-mesh strainer; discard soaking water.

Two image collage. Top image: Rice soaking in a metal bowl. Bottom Image: Rice being strained
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring regularly, until evenly golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until edges of rice begin to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Add stock, salt, and pepper, increase heat to high, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.

Four image collage. Clockwise from upper left: pasta toasted in pan; rice added to pan; broth added to pan; rice and pasta with all water absorbed.
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Remove pan from heat, remove the lid, cover pot with a folded dish towel, and set lid back in place. Let sit for 10 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork, stir in half of parsley, if using, and transfer to a serving dish. Top with remaining parsley and serve.

Rice pilaf being fluffed off heat
Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Fine-mesh sieve

Notes

The recipe can easily be doubled, if desired.

For bulgur pilaf, replace the rice with 1 cup (175g) bulgur, rinsed and drained and skip step 1 entirely. Add the bulgur in place of the rice in step 3, and cook until sizzling stops, about 3 minutes, before adding the remaining ingredients.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Rice and bulgur pilaf can be refrigerated in a sealed container for up to 3 days.