The Perfect Ovenless Loaf

Annie Hill’s been cruising without an oven for 20-plus years. Now she shares her secret for making PERFECT stovetop bread

July 6, 2003

My friend Katie came for lunch. I made a big pot of soup — it was that sort of day — and baked a loaf of bread to go with it. We ate and chatted and caught up on all the gossip as sailors do. As she was going, Katie said, “That was a lovely loaf, Annie, where did you buy it?”

“I made it,” I replied.

“You made it! But you couldn’t have. It was lovely and crusty and it looked like a loaf and you don’t have an oven aboard Iron Bark.”


“I did, though! It’s my latest achievement. It works well doesn’t it?”

She put her bag down. “Show me,” she said. “I’ve never managed to make a really good loaf on the boat. How do you do it?”

I don’t have many virtues, but the few that I have include patience and perseverance (also known as stubbornness). For years I have pursued the reality of a loaf, easy to make, not too fuel-hungry, with a proper crust and of a shape that can be cut into suitable slices for toast or sandwiches. I’ve sung the praises of pressure-cooker bread, given muted hosannas to frying-pan bread, and discovered the truth: that all these extra risings, knocking downs, etcetera, are, if not a waste of time, at least totally irrelevant to those of us who want bread to eat rather than for winning prizes at the local county fair. I’ve discovered why it is that many loaves don’t rise, I’ve produced a simple recipe for a (more or less) foolproof dough, and at last, after a quarter of a century of experimenting, I’ve discovered how to make the perfect ovenless loaf.


The catalyst was that my new shipmate was obviously impressed when I mentioned in passing that I knew how to make bread. “I’ve always wanted to have bread at sea,” he told me, so, with suitable nonchalance, I knocked out a loaf and cooked it in the frying pan. Trevor ate it with every sign of relish, but I sensed a certain disappointment that although it tasted like bread, it didn’t really look like a loaf ought to. And, as ever after making a frying-pan loaf, I was irritated that it needed turning over to cook through, which flattened it out. So I thought about it and concluded that the real problem with frying pan bread is cooking it through without burning the bottom. After a couple of experiments, at last I came up with the solution.

Here it is: You make bread dough as usual and then put it into a standard, greased, loaf tin. Put a trivet (use the one from your pressure cooker, if you have one) in a frying pan and stand the loaf tin on it. Put the frying pan over a moderate heat and cover it with a deep, stainless steel bowl. Cook for 45 minutes. If you smell burning, reduce the heat, if you can’t smell baking bread, increase it. That’s all there is to it. After the requisite time, turn off the heat and remove the bowl. Leave the loaf to stand for a few minutes and then shake it out of the tin. Eat over the next couple of days.

A few points:

  • The frying pan has to be heavy or else it will warp. A simple, cast-iron frying pan is the best for this. If your frying pan has a laminated base, experiment carefully to ensure that “dry frying” won’t damage it.

  • If you don’t have a trivet, a half dozen nuts (as in nuts and bolts!) can be used to keep the loaf tin away from the frying pan.

  • If you don’t have a deep stainless steel bowl, buy one. You’ll find it endlessly useful — for making the dough, if nothing else.

  • And the bread recipe? In said stainless steel bowl, put 1 cup of lukewarm water, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of INSTANT dried yeast. Combine and then mix in 1 cup of whole-wheat flour. Add a further cup of whole-wheat flour, clean off the spoon, and mix the rest by hand. After a few minutes you should have a pleasantly yielding dough that isn’t particularly sticky. If you can’t roll it easily into a ball, add a little more flour. Once it comes away fairly cleanly, roll it into a sausage and put it into a well-greased (or oiled) loaf tin. Flatten it down and leave it to rise — it really doesn’t need any more kneading. It’s often worth putting it all into a plastic bag to rise — the dough is susceptible to cold draughts. When it has risen above the tin and is nicely domed, cook as described above.

  • A further point: if the bread doesn’t rise, it is usually for one of two reasons. Either the yeast has gone stale or the water was too hot. Made with cold water bread will eventually rise, but if the water is too hot you will kill the yeast, so err on the side of cool. In cold places, put your bag-wrapped loaf in the sun or cuddle it up with a hot water bottle.

And there you are: Bon appetit!


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