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- For baking crusty, rustic loaves of bread at home, a Dutch oven often gives the best results.
- The Challenger Bread Pan is the Cadillac of bread-specific baking vessels — a supercharged Dutch oven.
- I’ve baked hundreds of loaves in mine, and can say it’s an essential tool for anyone serious about making great bread at home.
I have been baking bread seriously for going on 15 years now, and created countless bread recipes for home bakers, in magazines such as Cook’s Illustrated, classes at places like King Arthur Baking Company, and my own bread-instructional newsletter, Wordloaf. I lost count years ago, but if I had to guess, I’ve probably baked a few thousand loaves of bread over all these years.
And the vast majority of those loaves have been baked inside an enameled, cast iron Dutch oven, because it is unquestionably the easiest way to achieve bakery-quality results in a home oven. That’s because great loaves with an airy, open crumb and a crackly, blistered crust rely on two key things: Heat, to power good oven spring, and steam, to keep the crust soft and supple while the loaf expands. Dutch ovens can provide both, because their heavy mass pumps loads of heat into the bottom of the loaf, and their tight-fitting lids trap the steam that is produced when water in the loaf evaporates as it bakes.
But there are two major drawbacks to Dutch ovens for bread baking. One, most Dutch ovens are round, while breads come in all shapes and sizes. My favorite style of loaf to bake is a long, narrow bâtard, since it yields uniform, evenly-sized slices from one end to the other; no Dutch oven can accommodate a long loaf, no matter how roomy it might be. And two: A Dutch oven’s high walls shield the sides of the loaf from the oven’s heat, inhibiting rapid browning, and they make getting loaves in and out of the pot without burning yourself a real risk.
Enter the Challenger Bread Pan, which — literally and figuratively — turns Dutch oven baking on its head. Instead of a deep pot and a flat lid, the Challenger has a shallow, 1-½ inch tall “pot” and a 4-inch tall “lid” that, once removed, allows air to freely circulate around the loaf. Better yet, the Challenger is rectangular and roomy, allowing it to accommodate loaves of nearly all shapes and sizes. I’ve been baking in a Challenger Pan for nearly a year now, and can say without reservation that it is a game-changer for any serious home bread baker.
Design and specs
The Challenger Bread Pan is made from black, un-enameled (but pre-seasoned) cast iron. It has two sets of handles: A matching pair built into the short ends of the base and lid, used for moving the entire kit in and out of the oven, and another pair on opposite sides of the top of the lid, for easily removing it at the midway point during the bake, once the loaf has fully sprung and steam is no longer warranted.
The nearly-13-pound lid fits snugly onto the base, serving to hold onto nearly all the steam released by the dough, for maximum oven spring and a crisp, blistered crust. And at 22 pounds all-told, the Challenger weighs nearly double what the average Dutch oven does. All that extra mass makes for rapid and maximal oven spring and an open crumb. (It also means that the Challenger requires a fair amount of brawn to move around, something to keep in mind before investing in one.)
Since it has curved inner edges, the Challenger’s effective inside dimensions are 11 inches long, 8-¼ inches wide, and 5-¼ inches tall, which make it more than adequate to accommodate even the largest of artisanal loaves, whether round boules or elongated bâtards. (I routinely bake 2 pound loaves in mine, with room left to spare.)
That said, the Challenger is too short to bake the average baguette, since those loaves typically run 15 inches and more. However, it’s plenty large enough to accommodate one or two (side-by-side) 10-inch long “demi” baguettes.
As for how to use the Challenger, those used to working with a Dutch oven will likely need to adjust their approach slightly, owing to its unique design. While many Dutch oven bread recipes have you preheat your pot for as little as 30 minutes at 450 Fahrenheit, the Challenger’s instructions suggest doing so for 1 hour at 500 F, because of the pan’s increased mass. (I’ve had good results preheating at 475 F for 30 minutes myself.) And they recommend lowering the oven temperature to 425 F once the bread has been loaded.
Because of that extra mass and the pan’s heat-radiating black color, loaves tend to cook about 30% faster than in a light-colored and lighter-weight Dutch oven. (My usual approach is to bake the bread for 20 minutes, covered, and 15 to 20 minutes, uncovered.) For the same reasons, loaves can sometimes burn on the underside before the top and sides are fully browned. (My workaround for this issue is to remove the loaf from the pan entirely once it is close to fully baked, and finish it on the bare oven rack for 5 to 10 minutes.)
But once you get the hang of working with the Challenger Pan, you’ll quickly turn out beautiful, bakery-caliber loaves in no time. In the 10 months I’ve had one in hand, I’ve made loaf after loaf of super tall, crackly, and blistered-crust loaves of all shapes and sizes.
Care and upkeep
Since the Challenger comes preseasoned, it is ready to use right out of the box. Re-seasoning it is as easy as coating the pan inside and out with a thin film of any sort of oil before use, but it’s rarely necessary. (In the 10 months I’ve owned mine, I think I’ve only re-seasoned it four times.)
At $224.95, the Challenger Bread Pan is considerably more expensive than all but the most pricey Dutch ovens, so it’s definitely an investment, especially if you are new to bread baking. And even the most experienced baker will need to adjust their technique to make it work with a Challenger Pan.
The manufacturer suggests that you can also use the Challenger Pan for cooking things other than artisan loaves, such as pizza, buns, cinnamon rolls, even freeform pies. While the base of the pan can serve as a stand-in for a ceramic baking stone for pizza and other flatbreads, there are two reasons it’s not ideal here. For starters, it’s considerably smaller than the average baking stone, limiting the size of the pizza you can put on it. And its raised lip makes loading and unloading a pie with a pizza peel impossible, so you’ll have to take the pan out of the oven, load and top the pizza and then return the pan to the oven. As for using the base to bake buns, rolls, or pies, it would certainly work, though I don’t really see any advantage to doing so, especially since none of these products require the added mass of the Challenger for best results.
I personally think the Challenger is a must-have for anyone who is serious about baking crusty, artisanal loaves of bread, especially if it is within your budget. It’s not an all-purpose replacement for an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, so if you don’t have one of those yet and are just getting started on your bread baking journey, I’d suggest starting there. But anyone who wants to take their bread baking to the next level will eventually want to make the Challenger Pan upgrade, especially if it’s within their budget.
Pros: Retains steam for bread with a crackling, crisp crust; lots of mass for excellent oven spring; ergonomically placed handles for easy maneuvering
Cons: Takes some experimenting to get good results, extra mass in the base can cause the bottom of the loaf to burn without the right baking approach, pricey