Ask Peter: Making bread without an oven
I am about to be without an oven for four months (probably longer, the way things get delayed with building and renovating) and I am wondering if there is a way of cooking bread. We are remote and don’t have access to fresh bread. We used to do it in a camp oven in the embers when camping as kids. Would it work in a heavy based saucepan on a portable gas cooker or on a gas barbecue? Tina
In this column some time ago I wrote about Dutch Ovens, or as you’ve called it, a camp oven — those cast-iron “pots” that sometimes have legs attached, that you sit on a fire. They work well because they’re generally heavy, dispersing heat evenly, and they have a lid.
Obviously anything that’s covered and evenly heated will radiate the heat inside — which is what an oven does. It’s the equivalent of a fan bake in a modern oven compared to a pastry bake function — whereby the heat comes primarily from the bottom of the oven.
If you were to try to cook bread in a fry-pan, without a lid, it would likely just blacken on the bottom and not cook on the upper parts. Put a lid on and it’d cook more evenly but, if the pan and the lid were thin metal, there would probably not be enough heat contained and held within the pan to cook the dough through.
If you have a camp oven you should be able to successfully cook bread in it over any heat source so long as the heat at the base is evenly distributed, with no hot-spots. A hot spot is that annoying part of the fry-pan that the onions always stick to and burn, that the fried eggs cannot be scraped off and that make you want to invest in a better pan.
Other things to consider are making different bread doughs. For example, focaccia is a much wetter dough and you generally make it around 2 to 3cm high compared to a large loaf you’d slice for toast. Make a focaccia dough with slightly more flour than usual (increase by 15-20%) and divide into 300-400g portions — the size will depend on the diameter of the pot.
Cut a disc of baking parchment the same size as the base of the pot. Lightly dust the portion of dough all over with flour or semolina and pat it out on to the paper into a round, leaving a 3cm border around the dough to allow it to prove and increase in size. Dust with a little more flour, then lay another disc of paper on top which will help it prove evenly.
Once it’s proven, heat your pan and its lid up to a medium high heat. It’s important you heat the lid as you need the radiant heat to bounce off the lid on top of the dough to give it a cooked, golden character. Lower the dough, still on the paper, into the pot, sprinkle on a teaspoon of water and drizzle ½ teaspoon olive oil on top.
Cover and cook until done (a skewer should come out clean, without dough attached) which will be around 15-20 minutes. Use a palette knife or similar to poke under the parchment and pull the cooked focaccia out before you cook the next in exactly the same way. You can also cook your bread in muffin tins, ideally sat on a round cake rack sitting in the pot.
If you do cook a larger loaf, however, just keep the heat at a level where the dough will cook through evenly. You don’t want a blackened outer crust with a raw centre. And always add a little water before you pop the lid on: it will help the dough to expand once it comes into contact with the heat.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.