We love baking bread in a Dutch oven. Because it’s made of cast iron, a Dutch oven retains and radiates heat very well, and its tight-fitting lid helps keep in steam so that the bread rises properly and develops a perfect, crackly crust. Better still, it’s a piece of cookware that many home cooks already own, so there’s no need to shell out extra cash for one or for other specialized tools such as baking stones or lava rocks.
That said, we do have a few minor quibbles when it comes to using our favorite Dutch ovens for baking bread. First, while spacious, they’re round, so it’s not possible to bake full-size oval-shaped loaves in them. Second, the Dutch ovens’ tall sides can make it tricky to lower the dough into them or lift the finished loaf out, especially when the pot is already hot; more than a few of us have burned our knuckles or forearms in the process. And finally, any traces of oil or fat leftover from cooking can polymerize and form sticky patches when exposed to high heat. While these sticky patches don’t affect a Dutch oven’s performance, they are unappealing to look at and difficult to get rid of.
So we were intrigued when we saw that prominent bakers were raving about the Challenger Bread Pan online. Essentially an oblong cast-iron cloche, a stoneware vessel with a shallow base and domed lid that is used for baking bread, this pan promises to produce crusty breads of different shapes and sizes—and to make the entire bread-baking process easier from start to finish. Curious to see if it lived up to the hype, we bought one and used it to make about 20 loaves of bread, including several loaves of Almost No-Knead Bread and Pain au Levain, over the course of a few months.
The Challenger Bread Pan is made from nearly 22 pounds of very thick cast iron, so it’s about 5 and 8 pounds heavier than our two favorite Dutch ovens, respectively; in addition, its walls are almost twice as thick. Because it’s so thick and heavy, the Challenger Bread Pan takes a long time to fully heat up in the oven. So long, in fact, that we weren’t able to use the cold-start method called for in several of our bread recipes, wherein we place a proofed round of dough in a room-temperature Dutch oven and stick the whole shebang in the oven to bake. The loaves we baked in the Challenger Bread Pan using this method turned out wide and flat instead of well-shaped and domed: As the pan’s thick walls gradually heated, the loaves slowly expanded outward and collapsed instead of quickly rising outward and setting their shape, the way they would in a thinner-walled Dutch oven that heats more rapidly.
To avoid squat loaves, we learned that we needed to preheat the Challenger Bread Pan for at least an hour before baking any bread. (When making our Almost No-Knead Bread and Pan au Levain recipes, we found that once the pan was preheated, we could proceed with most of the instructions as directed, such as baking the doughs first with the lid on and then with it off.)
Because of the Challenger Bread Pan’s substantial thermal mass, we also discovered that we needed to adjust our baking times. Once the pan got hot, it stayed hot, and the darkness of its traditional cast-iron interior ensured that it also radiated much more heat onto the bread than the light-colored interior of our enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. As a result, the breads we made in it baked up darker and faster—our Pain au Levain was done about 20 minutes before the recipe stated it would be.
Once we got the hang of using this bread pan, though, we were more than glad that we’d put in the effort. The Challenger’s dark interior and high thermal mass helped to consistently produce some of the most beautiful loaves of bread we’ve ever made, with deeply caramelized crusts spotted with desirable bubbles and blisters. While we’d never been disappointed with breads that we’d baked in our favorite Dutch ovens, there was no denying the superiority of the loaves that came out of the Challenger Bread Pan. Their crusts were darker than those we’d baked in the Dutch ovens and looked almost as if they'd been made by professional bakers, all beautifully browned and craggy.
The Challenger Bread Pan has one real downside: Because it weighs nearly 22 pounds, it’s a bear to lift. Ultimately, however, we found its weight a small price to pay for such great performance. In fact, the pan’s other excellent design features help compensate for that problem, making it otherwise easy to use. Once it was preheated, we lifted its domed lid and simply slipped the risen dough onto its shallow base; there was little danger of burning our hands or arms as we might on the walls of a Dutch oven. And with two sets of large handles—one extending horizontally from the base and another fixed at an angle on top of the lid—the Challenger Bread Pan was easy to maneuver, open, and close, even when our dexterity was limited by thick oven mitts.
Moreover, its oblong base was long and wide enough to accommodate round and oval loaves. We could even use the base as a baking stone. Thin-Crust Pizza turned out especially crisp and well-blistered when baked on the dark cast-iron base, though we had to shape the dough into large ovals on parchment and maneuver them gently over the lip of the base.
The Challenger Bread Pan is also well-made and durable. It arrives preseasoned, so we were able to use it right out of the box. And while the manufacturer recommends maintaining this waterproof layer with regular coats of oil, applied either before or after each bake, we didn’t find this to be immediately necessary. The seasoning showed no signs of eroding and was still relatively glossy and rust-free after more than 20 uses, suggesting that unless you get it wet, any maintenance work will be rare.
If you bake a lot of bread, we think you’ll love the Challenger Bread Pan. Yes, it will take a little work to figure out how to adjust your baking times. But that effort will prove well worth your while, as this pan can help you produce truly beautiful breads in different sizes and shapes. It’s both durable and versatile, and its smart design features help make it especially easy to maneuver and load bread doughs into. Our two main quibbles are with its weight and its price. At about $295, it’s not inexpensive; all that cast iron and smart design costs almost as much as our favorite Dutch oven. But considering its stellar performance, we think it will more than earn its keep over the many years you’ll use it.