5 Basics to Baking Perfect Cast Iron Bread
As much as Southern cooks value cast iron cookware, you would think we would keep it under lock and key. Instead, we keep it at a handy arm’s length, either on the stovetop or in a convenient cabinet, so we can grab the appropriately sized skillet whenever we need it. And that is usually – almost – every day. We don’t fry chicken as often as our mothers did and we may not bake a skillet of cornbread to go with supper every night but cooks still appreciate the savory Sunday pot roasts, roasted vegetables, and apple cobblers baked in a cast iron skillet. If you are on the lookout for something new to try, consider baking a yeast bread, such as this Cinnamon Sugar Pull-Apart Loaf, in cast iron. Study up on these five bread basics, then tie on your apron and get started.
A friendly fungus, yeast is the microscopic magic that leavens bread and gives it its unique texture and flavor. At the grocery store, you'll see instant (or "rapid-rise") and active dry yeast. We recommend active dry—the activation means the yeast is alive and ready to go to work. Use yeast packets before the expiration date. To store yeast after it has been opened, refrigerate the granules in an airtight container. Stir active dry yeast into warm water (100° to 110°). Too cold and the granules will remain dormant; too hot and the yeast will die. Yeast loves sugar, so add a pinch to speed up activation (aka "proofing"). If bubbles appear, you're golden. That's the gas that makes bread rise.
Once you combine the ingredients for a yeasted dough, it must rest and ferment in a warm spot. This allows the yeast to convert sugar into carbon dioxide, alcohol, and natural acids, which leaven the bread and make it flavorful and aromatic.
When you knead dough, you develop gluten, an elastic protein (it behaves like bubble gum) that allows the dough to trap air and rise during proofing. Kneading can be sticky work, but don’t over flour your work surface or the dough itself. This will make the bread tough and dense. To knead, fold the top of the dough in half toward you. Then, using the bottoms of both palms, push the dough away from you. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat the process until it becomes a smooth and stretchy ball, using little to no additional flour. Practice your kneading skills when making this Cherry-Pecan Swirl Bread.
This is the dough’s chance to rise before it goes into the oven. Proofing makes the crumb light and tender and helps the bread hold its shape as it bakes. To keep the dough from drying out as it rests, cover it loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Lightly grease the plastic wrap so it won’t stick to the dough, causing it to tear and deflate.
WATCH: How To Clean A Cast-Iron Skillet
One of the main benefits of baking with cast iron is that it gives bread a crisp and golden crust. For the best caramelization and oven-spring (the initial burst of rising that occurs in the first few minutes of baking), preheat the pan in the oven so it is hot when you add the batter or dough. If you aren’t sure whether the bread is done baking, use a thermometer to check the internal temperature.