Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bread Baking - Steam

Most of the breads we've been talking about so far are soft breads. The goal on these breads is a soft crust and even soft crumb or interior.

Hearth type breads, such as french breads like baguettes (not to be confused with the soft grocery store breads labeled "french bread") have a very different texture. Ideally, a hearth bread will have a blistered crispy crust. The interior will be chewy and may contain large irregular holes.

I struggled for years to make good hearth breads. I still don't have it quite where I want it but in the last few months, I've come far closer to my imagined ideal.

I know that one of the "tricks" is humidity. Commercial bakery ovens inject steam while baking. The moist steamy environment allows the bread to rise quickly without the crust cracking. At the end of the baking period, no steam is used so that the crust dries and caramelizes into a lovely blistered golden color.

Since I don't have a steam injecting oven, I've tried various techniques to imitate the result.

One thing that is often recommended is to bake on an oven stone which is preheated to high heat. At this point, I haven't tried this but some day maybe I can get a baking stone and try it.

To add humidity, I have misted the loaf with water before baking. This helped but not enough.

I also tried placing a pan of hot water under the loaf. I placed my broiler pan in the oven while it preheated. After placing the baking sheet with loaf in the oven, I CAREFULLY poured a cup of water in the boiler pan and shut the oven door. This too helped but I still wasn't pleased.

Some home bakers use a large dutch oven to bake their loaf in to keep humidity around the loaf. I found this heavy and unwieldy to use in the oven. Plus I could only bake a round loaf and the loaf was hard to remove.

This fall I learned of the roasting lid technique from Northwest Sourdough. This method finally gave me the bread result I was wanted.

I already had a large turkey roasting pan lid. You can use a roasting pan lid or pan. I preheat my lid and the baking sheet while the oven preheats. I usually use high heat 450-500 degrees. I place the shaped loaf on a piece of parchment or silicone baking mat to rise. When the oven is preheated, I mist the loaf, add topping ingredient if desired and slash the dough. I then pull the hot baking sheet and roasting pan lid out of the oven. Remember they are hot. Use oven mitts! I speak from experience!

Quickly lift the parchment paper or baking mat and place the bread onto the pan.

Cover with roasting pan lid and slide into the oven. Lower the heat of the oven to the desired baking temperature. The reason to preheat at a higher temperature is because opening the oven door will cause the oven temperature to drop.

Generally you'll bake the bread for 10-15 minutes then remove the roasting pan lid. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning and bake until finished. The roasting pan lid holds the steam right next to the dough. This eliminates the need for adding more steam as it bakes.

This method has resulted in by far my most successful hearth breads. Let me know if you try it and your results!

Coming next - the recipe of a french type hearth bread for you to try this technique!


  1. What an excellent tip! I will be giving this a try and let you know how it does for me :)
    Thanks for sharing Gina!

  2. Looking forward to that recipe! What a beautiful loaf of bread!

  3. I'm am going to try this! I have used 2 of your previously mentioned methods with similar result. This looks very doable. Do you have a favorite hearth bread recipe? I'm sorry if you already posted it, and I missed it.

  4. I am going to try this! I did put the steam pan under the bread I baked last weekend (remember,my first!). I thought it worked really well as I could knock on the crust and it had that hollow sound. Actually, that part I had trouble with was making the slash marks in the dough. I just couldn't get my knife to "slit" through the skin of the bread. Any tips there? Do you use one of those razors recommended in the book?

  5. Snippets of Thyme -
    I use a very sharp serrated knife. It seems to work well though I think it is getting a little dull. I should just find a straight razor and try that. The only time I really have a problem is with very wet dough.

  6. Thank you for this series on yeast dough/bread baking. I've been having fun reading your posts and learning a lot along the way!

  7. This is an excellent idea. You could also try placing a hand towel soaked in boiling water inside a pan - this tends to dispense more steam than a normal pan of water

  8. am just now discovering your wealth of information and expertise here.......can't wait to try this method!!!

  9. Hello, I'm new to your site and enjoying it very much. I've had a similar journey as yourself, being self taught and on a joyous lifelong journey balancing my passions for bread and family. My journey has led me to becoming a true artisan basket, starting a public bread store next month after having wild success selling from my home. My big bread aha moment, after having watched and read dozens of
    articles and videos of how to get the crust right, was when I learned that true crackly and chewy bread is actually in the dough itself. Learn about HIGH HYDRATION BREAD and you'll find a WHOLE NEW WORLD of bread making!

    You don't just want the outside to crackle, you also want those huge, chewy holes inside!

    The dough will be basically an overnight cool rise process with little yeast and so much hydration that it resembles melted marshmallow when you put it on your counter to rise. (use a silicone mat if you have one) How do you deal with this consistency, you'll ask. Just let the dough get to room temp and walk away and every half hour, lift edges and and fold it over itself (like a baby diaper) with a wet bench scraper (never punch down... Airy is the goal) Within 2-4 hours you'll have a tall mound of airy dough that you can carefully cut a loaf piece out with the wet scraper (again, keep as much air as possible), delicately roll in flour, and bake on parchment at a high temp (at least 400) need to spray or steam, because the hydration is there and will do the magic! You'll have an amazing experience.

  10. I bake my round sour dough in a cast iron dutch oven and works amazing. However; I want to try your soft enriched sour dough recipe in a loaf pan. If I make two loaves, per your recipe what do you mean by turning the loaves half way through baking? just give them a 150 degree turn or more? Thanks...Gina R. in Minnesota

    1. Yes, I just turn the loaves 180 degrees. I don't always do this but it does seem to bake them more evenly. It probably depends upon your oven.


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