How do I steam my oven when baking bread?

A question I am often asked is “How do I steam my oven?” shortly followed with “Why is adding steam important?”. This article and the accompanying video aims to answer these burning questions.

Why is adding steam to your oven important?

Adding steam to your oven when baking bread makes a huge difference to the final loaf. When your loaf is fully proved and ready to go in the oven it still has some potential to rise further in the heat of the oven. This is called oven spring; the carbon dioxide trapped within the gluten expands in the heat of the oven and causes the air bubbles to expand and the loaf grows. To achieve maximum oven spring the loaf needs a steamy atmosphere. If you load your loaf into a hot, dry oven the crust will very quickly dry and harden. Once it has hardened it won’t be able to expand. With steam in the oven for the first 10-15 minutes of the bake the crust of the loaf will stay moist and the loaf will be able to expand.

Steam will also improve the colour of the crust helping with the caramelisation and developing a darker crust colour. With steam your loaf will produce a thinner crust because it won’t begin to harden until the steam subsides.

selection of loaves

A yeasted loaf versus sourdough

Both yeasted (by that I mean a loaf made with commercial yeast, i.e, easy bake/instant, active dried or fresh) and sourdough (made with a wild yeast starter) loaves need steam to achieve maximum oven spring. The difference is in the timing. A yeasted loaf will achieve maximum oven spring faster than a sourdough loaf. For a yeasted loaf you only need steam in the oven for the first ten minutes. A sourdough loaf takes longer to achieve maximum oven spring so you may need steam for the first twenty minutes of the bake.

How do I add steam?

There are several ways to add steam to your oven and I advise that you experiment with each one to find the method that suits you best.

Safety first:
Always check the manufacturer’s instructions for your oven before adding steam.
Always avoid getting steam on a glass oven door or the oven light as it may cause them to shatter. If you have a lift down oven door, place a tea towel over the glass as you spray the steam.
Remember steam can burn, so stay well away from the oven as you are steaming it.

  1. Using a dutch oven. A dutch oven is a way of enclosing your loaf in a chamber for the first 15-20 minutes so that as the loaf naturally evaporates water as it bakes this water is trapped in the chamber as steam. This is a really effective way of achieving maximum oven spring. You can read all about how to use dutch ovens and the different sorts here. You will need heavy duty oven gloves to handle the dutch oven.
  2. Using a pressurised sprayer. A hand-pumped pressurised sprayer is fairly cheap to pick up from DIY stores and makes adding steam really easy. Just pump the sprayer and then spray a continuous jet of steam into the oven as you load the loaf and shut the oven door.
  3. A plant mister is much smaller than a pressurised sprayer so is great if you have limited storage space. I spray about 15-20 jets of water as I load the loaf and shut the door.
  4. A roasting tray and a cup of hot water can be a convenient and easy way to add steam. You place the roasting tray in the bottom of the oven and as you load your loaf you pour in a cup of hot water into the roasting tray. This can produce a lot of hot steam so be careful to stay well away to avoid burns. Don’t put too much water in. You only want enough for the first 10-20 minutes of the bake.
  5. Adding lava rocks or nuts and bolts to your roasting tray can help create an additional burst of steam.
  6. Throwing ice cubes into the oven can create a burst of steam but it can also drop the temperature of your oven. If using ice cubes then compensate by preheating your oven to 240C and then lowering the temperature to 220C as you close the oven door.

NB. You only need steam for the first 10-20 minutes of the bake. After that you want the loaf’s crust to harden and caramelise. If you have steam in your oven for a prolonged time you will have a chewy crust and the loaf will not develop its full flavour potential.

Which method do I prefer?

If I am making only one or two loaves my preference is to use a dutch oven. Enclosing your dough in a hot chamber for the first 10-20 minutes of the bake helps achieve an even rise and maximum oven spring.

If I am making lots of loaves then there isn’t room to use the Dutch oven so I use my pressurised sprayer. This is a really convenient way to steam the oven and doesn’t steam my spectacles up which is also helpful.

Which method do you prefer?

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