Baking with Steam

Almost all the recipes I post here say “bake with steam” for X amount of minutes. For commercial bakers that have steam-injected ovens, that’s a no-brainer. But most home ovens don’t have a steam injection function (unless you have a Miele). For those of us who don’t have that, our only alternative is to use a vessel of some sort to hold water that will evaporate in the high temperature of the oven.

I use the bottom tray of my broiler pan as my vessel. Others use a cast-iron skillet. I actually prefer the broiler pan as a cast-iron skillet requires preheating. No matter what you use, it should be able to hold at least 1-2 cups of hot water.

Here’s how I “bake with steam”:

  1. About 3-5 minutes before I place the loaves in the oven, I pour about 1-2 cups of hot water into my pan. This gives the water a bit of time to heat up and creates a steamy environment for when the bread gets loaded.
  2. Immediately after placing the loaves, I splash a few tablespoons of water near the outer rim of the pan to create a cloud of steam to make up for the steam I lost when I loaded my loves.
  3. When the time comes to vent the steam, I simply remove the pan from the oven and then finish baking dry.

Note that to avoid losing too much oven temperature. You have to be real quick because you don’t want to leave the door open too long. Also, some books, like “Flour Water Salt Yeast” will say to use just a single cup of water. That’s never enough for my oven because it has a built-in fan that will quickly evaporate the water. So I almost always use twice as much water as listed in the recipe. You’ll have to experiment with your own oven.

In the words of the great Jacques Pepin, “That’s it!” It’s not perfect. Most ovens like mine are built to naturally vent moisture. When I’m baking, I actually plug the vents using some foil and Gorilla tape. This serves to both retain the steam and helps maintain my oven temp.

Achieving Great Oven Spring Using a Baking Stone

When I read Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, he recommended using a Dutch oven for baking as that would create a steamy environment that promoted oven spring. He further asserted that as domestic ovens were designed to vent steam, he wasn’t able to trap enough steam to get a good oven rise.

Then I saw a video the other day comparing results baking with a Dutch oven vs. a baking stone. Luckily the guy didn’t say one was better than the other, but I totally disagreed with his conclusions that one is better suited for everyday baking (Dutch oven) and the stone is much better for baking multiple loaves. Irrespective of his results, when I saw his oven setup, it didn’t surprise me that his loaf baked on a stone didn’t have as much oven spring as his Dutch oven.

So… based on what Chad Robertson and on what that video showed, I have one thing to say: They probably didn’t set up their ovens correctly and have their stones appropriately positioned in the oven to catch the steam. It’s physics. Heat makes things rise, so the steam is going to collect in top half – or at least in the case of my oven – the top 30%-40% of the oven. If you have your stone too low, your dough will not get enough steam and your oven rise will seriously suffer. Take a look at the diagram below:

With my stone correctly positioned, I get GREAT oven spring because my baking stone is placed so that my loaves catch the steam! Check out the bread that I’ve made in the last few days…

And here’s how my own oven is set up:

When I bake ciabatta and baguettes, I move the stone one notch up as they are low-profile loaves and I want to make sure they’re in the steam. In addition to my broiler pan, I also use two loaf pans with water-soaked towels in them to provide even more steam. I had to do this because my oven is very good at venting moisture, so I have to produce more steam at a faster rate than the rate my oven can exhaust it.

A “New” Steaming Method

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.

The Towels

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.

The Results

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.