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Breakthroughs in Bread: Los Angeles Bread Festival and the Romertopf

Photo courtesy of Renee Tymn

Bread lovers are in for a treat this weekend when the Los Angeles Bread Festival debuts at Grand Central Market in downtown. On Saturday and Sunday, local artisans will be selling and talking up bread. There will also be demonstrations, like flour milling by Grist & Toll, a no-knead bread making workshop, a talk by legendary bread maker Mark Stambler, and other panel discussions. Check out the schedule of events on their site.

The upcoming carbo-loading event got me thinking thinking about Romertopfs that home bread makers are adding to their baking arsenal in pursuit of that perfect loaf. If you've ever used or seen a cloche doing its work on bread, the Romertopf is a close cousin. Like the bell-shaped baker, a Romertopf is essentially an instant brick oven made from terra cotta that cooks by steam. The lid is then removed to finish off the browning of the crust.

Photo courtesy of Renee Tymn

Renee Tymn, an amateur baker who will be volunteering at this weekend's event, used her Le Creuset dutch oven for years to bake bread before switching to the Romertopf. Though her family has been cooking with them for as long as she can remember -- like a dutch oven, they're versatile in the oven for making stews and roasting chicken and fish -- she only started using the unglazed vessel to bake sourdough batards, those oblong-shaped loaves, several months ago.

"I love the texture of earthenware and another great thing about it is that it's so much lighter than cast iron," she says. "You also get a nice, crispy crust that's not as hard as using a dutch oven."

Photo courtesy of Renee Tymn

First-time users of a Romertopf can find it to be finicky to prep initially. It can't be used on the stovetop. It shouldn't be put in a pre-heated oven, so it's either placed in a cold oven or preheated along with the oven for baking. When cooking meats or stews, the terra cotta dish needs to be soaked first.

For bakers, an initial challenge with a Romertopf is being able to deftly pop cold dough onto an extremely hot vessel. But when it comes to that elusive ideal loaf, serious bakers will try anything.

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