It’s funny how many people seem to think their ovens are too cheap/old/junky to be improved by things like pizza stones and pans of water. The fact is, the junkier your oven is, the greater the difference these tricks will make.
The first thing you want to do to make your oven more hearth-like is to introduce some large, heat-absorbing masses to it. These will increase both the conductive and the radiant heat in your oven. The most common of these is of course a pizza stone. The best of these are the heaviest, since they can hold more heat. You want to place your stone directly on the floor of your oven for maximum effect.
What else can you add that might be even more help? How about another pizza stone? Why not? Only this one sits on a rack over whatever it is you’re baking, so that it radiates heat downward, much like an actual brick oven. Do I do this? Well, no, but I know bakers who employ this technique and swear by it. I’ve been meaning to borrow and extra stone from a foodie neighbor to try it. You might want to do the same thing!
Can you use actual bricks on the floor of the oven? Some people do that, yes. Just be sure they are unglazed “fire” bricks, the kind brick layers build fireplaces with. Why be so specific? Because you don’t want them to crack, nor do you want to disperse nasty chemicals around the inside of your oven and/or kitchen. The same goes for clay building tiles, which some bakers also use. These you can find at building supply places, usually for cheaper than you can acquire a stone (they also look cooler, for you oven interior aesthetes). Just be sure you’re buying plain clay. Nothing colored, nothing shiny. Got me?
Here’s what the inside of my oven looks like:
Kinda grubby, not very glamorous. I’ve got a large, heavy pizza stone down on the floor, and you can see that completely trashed sheet pan up top, scooted as far forward as it can go. What’s that for? I’m glad you asked: water. For moisture is another important feature of a hearth. Extra moisture translates to a better crust, for reasons you probably already know. Other important accountrement for moisture dispersal include this, a) silly cup:
and b) this spray bottle set on “stream”.
These help me introduce water into the oven environment. The lightness and length of that cup are actually important, since those features allow me to grasp it with my fingertips at its very bottom. What difference does that make? Allow me to demonstrate.
Once the oven is fully preheated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, all the surfaces, including the pan and the stone, are darn hot. When my loaves are ready, I pour about 8 ounces of hot water into my plastic cup. I open the door, promptly lay my bread down on the pizza stone, and sneak the water into my stained and buckled pan (it got that way from being treated like this, as you’ve probably guessed). The length of the cup allows me to do that gingerly without getting scalded by steam. Which hurts.
I pour in the water to a loud and violent hiss. I then give the sides and door of the oven several spritzes with water…
…then shut the thing up. Two minutes later, I repeat the spritzing:
…then close the door. Two minutes after that, I do it again:
Yes, it’s the same photo. Sue me. I’m trying to visually reinforce a point. Once all the spraying is done, I stop fiddling and simply let the oven do its work. This method would work just fine with an extra stone, in case you were wondering. Also, for those of you who might be wondering why I don’t just leave a pan or skillet full of water in the oven (as some books suggest), the reason is because moisture only helps your bread up to a certain point (which is to say, the first few minutes of baking). After that it will actually soften your crust. A simple sheet pan with lots of surface area, that can evaporate about a cup of water in 5-7 minutes, is exactly what you need (and yes, be prepared to sacrifice a decent pan for the cause).
That’s it as far as I’m concerned. Questions?