I’ve gotten that query several times via email the last few days, and I confess it’s a hard question to answer. For there’s no denying that boule (ball)-type breads bake up very well inside thick metal or clay vessels. Dutch ovens, if they’re already hot when the dough goes in, both radiate and conduct heat like a big brick oven (there’s no convection, but that’s not a big deal). They also tend to give you a good crust, since they hold moisture in. Even in my big oven, I sometimes have trouble with crusts if I don’t fill it to capacity with bread. This is because (as I mentioned), baking bread gives off steam. That steam disperses into the baking chamber, and if the oven is properly sealed, settles back onto the surface of the loaves, creating crispy crusts (of course supplemental moisture always helps, which is why many old-world brick ovens were built with metal chutes for adding water, and why I sometimes “spritz” the inside of my big oven with a super-soaker).
So the bottom line is: Dutch ovens give home bakers the most important benefits of big brick ovens with almost none of the fuss. So why don’t I dig them? In fact, why did I instead build an 8-foot, one-and-a-half ton brick oven in my back yard at the cost of some $2,000 instead? I suppose, funny as it sounds, because baking in a Dutch oven feels like a “hassle” to me. It also only bakes one loaf of bread at a time, and I prefer a method that lets me do more than that. Also, as I said, I like the flexibility of baking different shapes. Add it all together and there was a powerful incentive for me to first learn how to make the most of what my home oven could offer (i.e. make it as hearth-like as I could), and then move on to a big monster of the type that’s sitting in my back yard right now. I guess, were I a different sort of bread eater, I could have simply went out and bought a heavy le Creuset, Lodge cast iron, or Indian clay oven, all of which would have given me very serviceable bread. I’m just not that kinda cat, I guess.