When I started making artisan bread, I thought it was weird that to get a crispy crust you needed to bake with steam. It seemed so… contradictory. But, as I later learned, steam allows the dough to expand, preventing the crust from hardening too soon and promoting a full oven spring. Once the steam is removed, then the crust is allowed to set and harden. In the end, the crust is comparatively thinner because it wasn’t allowed to harden early. So you get a thin, crispy crust as opposed to a thick, hard crust.
After hundreds of bakes this past year, the seals on my ovens have started wearing out. I first noticed it a couple of weeks ago when my sourdough loaves, which normally get great oven spring, weren’t rising much vertically and by the time I’d remove my steaming containers, all the water would be gone and the loaves we much darker at that point than before.
After trying a bunch of things with my dough and process to correct the problem – to no avail, by the way – I happened to look at my oven seals and laughed. They’re pretty worn down which explained why I wasn’t retaining steam. Unfortunately, my ovens are older models, so I’m not sure if I can even get seals for them. No matter, I had to figure out a way to produce good steam in my ovens.
So I did a search and came across a bunch of different methods: Lava rocks in a pan. Cast iron skillet with boiling water (I was doing a variant of that, but using a broiler pan underneath my stone). Then I saw that one person used cheap, terry cloth shop towels soaked in water that she popped into the microwave before baking, then placed in bread pans. OMG! I knew I had to try it!
After trying it, I couldn’t believe how much steam this method produced, so I thought I’d share the process here!
Note that all this happens about 5-10 before I pop the loaves into the oven. This ensures that the dough enters a humid environment.
It’s best to use terry cloth towels because they retain water much better than tea towels. When I first started using this technique, I used an old worn-out towel that I cut up. I have since purchased some cheap shop multi-purpose terry cloth towels from Home Depot for ten bucks. I use four of them for baking and the rest for cleaning. They work great!
Prep the Towels
Loosely roll up the towels into logs, place them in a microwave-safe bowl, and pour water over them to completely saturate them. Then pop them into your microwave and zap them for 4-5 minutes on high. They should come out steamy. If not, then zap them for another minute.
Transfer to Loaf Pans
Transfer the towels to loaf pans and pour any remaining water from the bowl over the towels.
Place the Pans in the Oven
I put my pans on the top rack of my oven to ensure they’re in the hottest part of it. The steam will come down from the top and envelop the loaves as shown. I also have a broiler pan that sits on the floor of my oven that I also put water into.
Thus far I’ve baked ciabatta and baguettes with this steaming technique and they’ve come out wonderful! But I knew that the real test would be to bake bread with a lot of whole-grain flour. The loaves to the left are 40% Kamut/10% Whole Wheat and 50% High-protein flour. The oven spring on them was incredible! I realize the loaf on the left is a little misshapen. That’s because of handling before baking, not because of the oven spring.
I’m just diggin’ this technique! Before I realized what was going on, I started thinking, Have I lost my touch? Luckily, I haven’t. But based on this, I really am going to have to save my pennies to get a dedicated bread oven.