A bread cloche or cooking bell is an earthenware cloche which is designed to be used in an oven during bread baking. To use a bread cloche, bakers preheat it in the oven, put the bread dough inside, and then cook the dough as they would normally. By baking inside the cloche rather than in the oven itself, the bread cooks differently, developing a more chewy crust and a chewy, moist crumb. For people who make artisan breads, a bread cloche is an appealing alternative to a costly traditional bread oven.
People have been using cloches in cooking and baking for centuries. The Romans, for example, buried cloches full of meat and fish in their campfires to roast their food, and cloches have been used in Northern Africa for things like tagine for centuries as well. There are two main parts to a cloche: a bottom baking stone, and an upper domed lid. Many cloches having baking stones with lips which are designed to retain drippings and juices from foods cooked in the cloche.
There are several reasons to use a bread cloche in baking. For one thing, the interior of the cloche stays moist, retaining the steam released by the bread as it cooks and yielding a moister final product. Cloches also get hotter than the surrounding oven, and the internal temperature of a cloche is very regular, without the hot and cold spots which develop in an oven. All of these factors combine to impact the way the bread cooks, changing the texture and the flavor of the finished product.
Using a bread cloche is fairly simple, but there are a few cautions to keep in mind. Most cloches are sensitive to thermal shock, so you should never put a cold cloche in a hot oven. You should also avoid putting a hot cloche on a cold counter, as it may crack. Cloches should not be spritzed with water, either, as the sudden release of steam can cause the cloche to crack. To wash a bread cloche, wait for it to cool to room temperature and rinse it with water.
A bread cloche doesn't just have to be used for bread. These cloches can also be used like their historical counterparts for meat, vegetables, and fish. However, because these foods can deposit flavors on the cloche, many bakers prefer to dedicate a particular cloche to bread and another one to other foods to avoid things like fish-flavored sourdough.