Those perfect light and crusty loaves you get from artisan bakers are not restricted to commercial set-ups, you can make bread equally fantastic at home. One of the key tricks towards the perfect loaf is adding water to generate steam in the oven. Getting this skill honed down will no doubt improve the quality and consistency of your homemade bread.
If you're wondering how to steam bake bread by adding water to the oven, or what the science behind steam baking is, let me share with you why we do it and an easy way that produces enough steam without damaging your oven.
After years of baking, combined with months of intense "steam" and "adding water" trials and research, I’ve mastered the methods described.
But, there's one technique that stands out as the best way to add steam.
Before I share with you how to do it, here's a quick bit of info on why we should add steam. I'll go into it in more depth later on, I'll also clarify and review other methods used to add the water.
You might also find my recent post useful which shares the secrets of baking bread in a home oven.
Why do you put water in the oven when baking bread?
Water added to the oven will evaporate into steam. When baking bread, we add water just as the bread goes in to bake. This helps the bread rise in the oven which benefits it in several ways.
“Adding steam allows the baking dough to oven spring at the start of the bake. After this, the crust develops a sheen which forms the outside layer of those nice crusty loaves commercial bakers make”
The process starts when water particles in the humid oven latch onto the outside layer of the bread whilst the breads yeast starts to warm. As the yeast increases in temperature it raises the rate of its leavening activity. The yeast produces gas rapidly and attempts to push the bread upwards.
Bread normally dries and hardens when exposed to heat, but the moisture protecting the outside of the bread prevents the crust from setting. The outside edges of the bread will stretch and as the gas expands the bread springs up. This happens rapidly in the first 10-12 minutes of baking and is called oven spring.
After 12-15 minutes, the yeast becomes too warm and the oven rise ends. Next, the steam is released which allows the crust to geletanises and harden. A crusty crust is formed along with a shinny film around the exposed area.
Is it steam or water that we add to the oven?
Adding water to a hot oven will create steam. Hot or cold water can be used. As can ice or a spray mister. At the end of the day, all of these methods use water to make steam, it doesn’t matter if you say “adding steam” or “adding water”.
Bakers prefer to use the “adding steam” phrase, probably because steam is automatic in professional ovens. Either adding water or adding steam, both terms can be used.
Equipment required for adding water to the oven
For the most effective oven spring, a hot oven, decent baking stone, and a moist environment is required.
The stone retains heat and conducts it quickly into the bread to help the oven spring and bake the bread evenly.
Here is the one I recommend due to its heat distribution and durability:
If you are using a dutch oven, click here.
Otherwise, you will also need a decent tray with a lip. They will be pre-heated in the oven so will need to be able to withstand high temperatures like these ones:
If following my preferred method, you’ll also need a kettle or a small saucepan to boil water in.
THE BEST WAY TO ADD WATER TO AN OVEN
This method creates plenty of steam without cooling down the oven too much, or damaging the stone. Domestic ovens are not as well sealed as commercial ones so you have to over-steam a little to compensate for some leakage.
Here are the steps that I follow:
- Heat the baking stone in the oven with a deep tray on the shelf below for 1 hour
- Boil the kettle
- Place the bread on the baking stone
- Pour a cup of boiling water onto the heated tray
- Shut the door as quick as you can - without burning yourself!
For more steam or if your oven seal is not great, take these extra steps:
- Wait 30 seconds then using a spray mister, spray the oven wall for 3-5 seconds
- Shut the door again and wait 30 seconds
- Spray again for another 5 seconds
- After 20-25 minutes, partially open the oven door for the steam to escape
Tips for using this method
- Heat the tray in the oven below the baking stone.
- The tray must be strong enough to withstand the high baking temperatures of 230C (450F) without wilting. This information is usually displayed on the products packaging.
- Wait for the kettle to boil before cutting the bread.
- Quickly shut the door, before the steam escapes!
- You might want to use lava rocks to retain heat in the oven.
Scroll down to take a look at alternative methods of adding steam to an oven.
Do I have to pour water into a tray and spray the oven?
It is not essential to spray the oven as well as pouring water in the baking tray. One of these methods is usually enough.
I add the water and look through the glass into the oven. If there isn’t much steam, or moisture settling on the outside of the bread, I’ll quickly give the oven a spray.
Spraying the oven with water must be done within the first 2 minutes of the bread going in. The change in pressure by opening the door later than this will make the bread collapse.
Pulling the damper
Bread ovens have a little hole in the back of them which opens when a lever is pressed called the damper system.
At home, opening that damper can be replicated by partially opening the door for a couple of seconds.
After baking for 20-25 minutes the yeast becomes inactive, ending the oven spring. As steam in the oven serves no purpose for the oven spring at this point, letting it out allows the heat to intensify and harden the crust. After 20-25 minutes, allow the steam to escape by opening the door quickly or releasing the damper.
Creating steam in a dutch oven
Many bakers bake sourdough bread using dutch ovens. There are 3 ways to use a dutch oven for baking bread:
- Preheat the oven with the dutch oven inside
- Preheat the oven, but not the dutch oven
- Bake in a cold oven, using a cold dutch oven
The idea of using a dutch oven is to create an enclosed space to bake the bread. The lid retains the moisture meaning there is no need for additional steam.
A thick base, made from a conductive material allows heat to quickly seep inside.
Should you add steam or ice when using a dutch oven?
Using the sealed lid on a dutch oven should retain enough moisture for oven spring. Some bakers like to create some additional steam for a better rise in the oven.
They either spray the bread which helps but creates blisters and an uneven colour/texture so I'd avoid this technique. You can chuck a few ice cubes to the side of the bread as it goes in to bake. If you can fit a small container into the dutch oven to put the ice in, this method works a treat.
If you bake using a dutch oven and think you are not generating enough steam, first review the dough quality. Check it is well developed and the water ratio is healthy, before chucking ice cubes in.
Which method works best when baking with a dutch oven?
I have had success when preheating the dutch oven inside the oven and then placing the bread in it. I've found that baking from a cold start doesn't create enough steam. It's not warm enough at the start. Some bakers find the cold start works well for them, it could work in their ovens, but I’ve only had success when preheating.
Knowing the science behind baking bread isn’t vital to baking a loaf of bread. You can just follow my preferred method and forget about it. If you are struggling with getting an oven spring, interested in other techniques or the science behind it, there’s more information below.
We are going to go over the science into what happens when water is added to the oven. The next section of this article explains how the crust is formed and leads into how to adjust the amount of steam you add to suit different breads.
What a professional baker knows about baking with steam
Most professional bakers learn about using steam in the oven in a kind of backward way. We’d understand how, but not why to add it. Most of the ovens in commercial bakeries are set up automatically for the bread type, just select the bread, allow it to preheat, load and press “GO”.
Learning to bake this way can lead to making great bread, but the “what’s going on” part (at least for me) is often missing.
an embarrassing revelation...
Many bakers rely on old wives tales to explain how steam baking works. They get passed through the ranks in bakeries and, until they are wiped out with a better theory, remain as local truths. Often (here's the thing...) they are not the full picture.
The belief that I had that adding water to the oven was important for a crispy crust and shine is correct. Though, I thought it was just to stop the bread drying out.
There’s fact to my theory. But, now I know that steam has a leading role in greeting great bread. It includes things like geletanisation, oven spring and how the crusty sheen is formed. Now let's cover what really happens when bread is baked in the oven and what adding water to the oven does to the bread.
What happens when water is used in the oven?
When water is added to the oven it quickly evaporates and latches to the air molecules forming steam. As more and more water is retained by the air inside the oven, like a cloud, the air becomes dense and heavy.
When a loaf goes into the oven it becomes the coolest thing so it attracts the moisture. Much like a bathroom mirror gets condensation after a hot shower, moisture latches to the exposed surface of the dough. A thin layer of water attaches itself to the bread to protect it from the heat. The dough remains moist and cannot harden, allowing oven spring to take effect.
What happens during oven spring?
When we bake bread with steam, the dough warms in the oven. The active levain (yeast) loves the warmth and works harder, rapidly raising the bread.
Bread springs up during the first 12-15 minutes by about 20% of its original size - though it can be larger. We call this the oven spring.
When does oven spring finish?
Once the internal dough temperature hits 60C (140F) it gets too hot for the levain so activity halts. At this temperature, yeast becomes permanently inactive which prevents bread from rising further.
For the remainder of the bake, moisture escapes from the bread and it starts to shrink. During cooling, this continues and the majority of the volume gained by the oven spring is lost.
How important is adding water for oven spring?
Adding steam is vital to allow the oven spring to occur. If the crust was to start coagulating as soon as the bread goes into the oven, the perimeter of hardened gluten will prevent the oven spring from pushing up.
In order for our bread to rise in the oven, a moist environment is needed to delay the crust setting.
How the crust is created by the oven
Soon after the oven spring has completed the steam is released from the oven. In this dryer environment, heat draws water to bread's edges where it evaporates.
The elastic gluten at the edges of the bread bonds together (coagulate) as it dehydrates and forms the crust.
Dough with a strong and elastic gluten network creates a stronger, tearable crust. Therefore bread made with a less fermented dough will have a weaker one.
For a good crusty crust, shaping and, knowing how to knead dough properly is going to make the biggest difference.
Further reading: How to make crusty bread
Why starch has a big role in forming the crust
Starch particles absorb moisture in the oven. Starch is a form of sugar, broken down from carbohydrates in the flour during the dough fermentation process.
Similar to how heating sugar makes a dark syrup or golden caramel, natural sugars found in baked bread generate similar colours in the crust.
The amount of sugar that's created is related to the amount of fermentation activity the dough undergoes. You may notice that supermarket bread has a light, bright, golden coloured crust.
Whereas, artisan bread has a darker, more mature tone. The simpler colours are due to a less sugars present in the dough, derived from a quick fermentation.
Though starch also has another important use...
What is "Singing Bread" & how do crusty loaves get that sheen?
When crusty bread is removed from the oven, it rapidly crackles as if it’s singing to you! Singing bread is related to the glazed sheen that also appears on crusty bread. It's the starch that is responsible for this!
During fermentation the starch ends up at the outside edges of the bread. Moisture in a humid oven is absorbed by the starch.
The thing about starch, is it has no control limits.
Not when it comes to absorbing moisture anyway! They continue absorbing water and growing in size, until they finally get so big that they burst.
As they burst, a gel is released which coats the outside of the loaf. The bread continues to bake, making the gel hard and shiny.
After the bread is removed from the oven to cool, moisture passes through the crust as it escapes from the core. The starch at the edge of the loaf latches on to the escaping moisture and continues to grow...
And then, like before, they burst.
The bursting starch is the sound we hear when bread sounds like it is singing to us.
Why increase the oven humidity for bread baking?
If you’ve been to a Swedish sauna you’ll know that pouring water on the stones intensifies the heat. Though a sauna rising in temperature is a misconception.
It doesn't get hotter in the sauna - check the dial.
The water actually cools the temperature, but due to the increase in humidity, the pressure feels more intense. As you become the coolest object in the room, water condenses on your skin, just like bread in an oven.
A consistent air flow in the oven supports the bread from rising evenly. This is especially important when baking several products in the same oven as it ensures the products are identical.
Why do we want oven spring?
A good oven spring allows the crumb to expand which is crucial to make bread light and enjoyable. As the dough expands, it makes the crust stretch as well.
A crusty crust must be thin to allow as much moisture to escape as possible. This is important as the escaping moisture latches onto the starch in the crust area which creates a crisp crust and a shiny protective gel.
A common troubleshooting question I get asked is why is my bread so dense? Whilst I have a full article that goes into the subject in much more depth, a common fix is improving the effectiveness of the oven spring.
Alternative methods to add steam to an oven
After establishing how important adding steam to an oven is, let’s cover all of the options we can use. As home bakers wanting to get the professional look, it’s usually best to copy what the artisans do, so let’s go over this first.
How a professional baker makes steam
Steam jets are fitted in most commercial bread ovens. The jets are powered by a tank storing pressured water. When the oven demands it, the jets are opened and a measured amount of water is released into the oven. Depending on the system used by the oven, it can take a few minutes for the steam to be ready after use.
It sounds easy, but there are always issues with pipes clogging up and expensive repair charges, especially in hard water areas.
For small bakeries, it's often too expensive to repair repeatedly. In a few bakeries that I worked at we were told by engineers that we had dirty water in our pipes so the steam jets would need repairing constantly.
It wasn't a nice to do thing, we had to add steam, so we devised our own method of doing it:
The Pour, Close & Run method
As the bread goes in the oven we’d pour a cup of water on the baking stone, quickly close the door and run away.
This method works well. Actually, we could easily over-steam the bread if we got carried away.
There was always a bit of concern that the cold water would shatter the unexpecting baking stone. But they weren’t our ovens, so we didn't really care.
I’ve used the "Pour, Close & Run" technique hundreds of times in my career, and it never broke the stone. Now I’ve matured and owned my own, I use the spray mister method in commercial bread ovens.
Alternative ways to add water to a domestic oven:
My preferred way to add steam at home introduced above uses boiling water and a preheated oven tray. Adding boiling water tends to exhaust the steam so quickly it can fly out before I can close the door. If this happens, you might want to try using tap water or ice instead. Here’s how they work:
Using tap water to create the steam
You might want to try using tap temperature water to avoid the faff of messing around with boiling it. As the bread goes in the oven, pour a cup of water into a preheated baking sheet and quickly shut the door.
Cooler water evaporates into steam over a longer duration therefore, more steam is created an it doesn’t escape before the door closes. The downside is cool water lowers the temperature of the oven and some ovens just can’t cope with this.
Using ice cubes to an oven
Dropping ice cubes to the heated tray is a common way to create steam. With ice, a steady stream of steam is created. But the lower oven temperature this method creates is undesired. Ovens often struggle to regain temperature when using this method which is why I never use it.
Baking at a lower temperature alters the texture and colour of the bread, which isn't recommended.
Here are a few other ways of creating steam in an oven:
Make a water bath in the oven
When the oven is up to temperature and the bread is almost ready to bake.
Fill a deep oven tray half-way with water and place in the oven. After 5-10 minutes the oven will be filled with steam.
Put the bread in and after 15 minutes take the bath out - careful, the waters hot!
- This is a great way to add steam for gas powered ovens or those that have bad seals
- Letting the heat out the oven when the boiling hot tray is pulled out is not ideal whilst trying not to burn yourself.
- After 12-15 minutes the oven spring has ended so steam is not required
Baking bread in water baths is a pretty good trick, Peter Reinhart recommends it in his book The Bread Bakers Apprentice. It is possible to over steam bread using this technique which is why it is not preferred. But it’s handy to know if you have issues with my preferred boiling water method.
The spray mister way to make steam
One of the most popular ways to add water is using a spray mister. It’s pretty simple and works well in most ovens.
Once the bread goes in the oven, aim the spray at the inner walls and spray with mist. After 3-5 seconds of spraying, quickly shut the door.
Wait 30 seconds and open the door and spray again, this time on a different area of the oven. Shut the door and wait another 30 seconds and repeat if you want more steam.
When spraying water in the oven be careful to avoid light bulbs, glass and the baking stone, they might shatter. Also, try to avoid spraying the bread directly.
Spraying water in three intervals allows the oven to heat up between sprays and gives time for the steam to distribute through the air inside.
The aim of the water mister method is to mist the air, but of course a lot of the water will hit the oven walls causing them to have water marks.
There is a balance between adding enough steam, whilst not cooling down the oven and letting too much steam escape whilst doing so.
I prefer this method for professional deck ovens as there is a smaller gap for the heat to escape and a large surface area to spray. At home I’ve found the results a bit inconsistent, some days it works fine, on others, not.
Using a standard water mister doesn't always create as much steam as the previous options. A high pressured pump-action spray is needed for serious bakers.
This is the water mister I recommend for creating steam in small ovens:
For more professional set ups, you might want to take a look at something like this one. It comes with a large storage tank so you won’t have to keep refilling.
Spraying water on the bread before baking
The simplest way to add water when baking bread is to spray water on the bread before going in the oven to bake. Similarly, the bread can be moistened with wet hands or a brush.
But, don’t do this.
Just don't. You’ll have a gummy crumb that’s over steamed. Some pale colours which are not appealing and cuts that don’t open up. You can see what happens below:
The flour that was on the dough from the banneton turned into a paste when wet. When baked it becomes a dull, unpleasing colour. You see blisters have appeared where water has attached to the dough surface during baking.
Some bakers looking for the blistered San Francisco bread look choose to do this, but I'd rather use an overnight rise in the fridge to achieve it properly.
By all means, have an experiment with this technique, I’m sure some people will swear by it. But, I won’t be using it!
Do I need a baking stone above the bread as well as below?
Using two baking stones in your oven to help your oven spring can be a good idea in certain situations. You’ll need enough space to fit a preheated tray, thick baking stone, thin one, and the bread in the oven.
If an oven doesn’t have a bottom heat only setting, placing a baking stone between the element and the bread will help regulate the heat to slow down the baking of the loaf. This will allow a better oven spring to occur and improve the colour of the crust.
There must be a decent amount of space between the higher stone and the bread, otherwise the bread will bake faster. Lowering the height of the stone can be a good trick to help soft breads bake quickly, but for crusty bread, generally it’s best for the 2nd stone to be raised.
Powerful ovens that have a bottom heat only selector should retain enough heat evenly, making a second baking stone pointless.
In fact, I’d go as far to say that the people advising to get a second baking stone in every oven regardless are solely after affiliate commissions.
Using lava rocks in the oven
If you want to help retain heat in the oven and create plenty of steam, lava rocks can help any oven setup. Simply place them in the baking tray to preheat before baking and when you pour your water in the rocks, it will quickly evaporate the water.
The rocks absorb the energy needed to make steam so they prevent the cooling down effect that adding water creates.
How much water should I add? - How to perfect steam baking
Artisan Bread Coach
The amount of water to add in the oven will depend on the type of crust you want on the bread.
Adding a small amount is perfect for things like croissants, focaccia or soft ciabattas. It allows them to get a nice soft crumb from the oven spring but doesn’t create too hard of a crust.
To make bread with a strong crust typical of sourdough bread or baguettes, add steam in higher quantities.
The usual amount is 1 cup but can be reduced in tighter sealed ovens.
Can I add too much steam when baking bread?
It is possible to add too much steam to the oven. You can tell this has happened as the cuts in the bread don’t open out properly.
Overly steamed bread spreads outwards, are less 2D (no upwards rip) and have a featureless crust. They tend to have less volume so have a dense crumb.
Crust colour will be pale, and largely missing irregularity and tone. The taste of over steamed bread is also affected, it’s boring.
What does too little steam look like?
Bread that has had steam added, but not enough will be be dull and with a thick crust. It will almost look like it has been baked without any steam added.
Baking bread without steam
Bread baked without steam has a darker crust and requires a shorter bake time. The crust will also be thicker which prevents moisture from escaping the breads core. This will mean that the bread will not have that shiny layer of hardened gel as it’s created by over hydrated starch.
The extra water retained will make the crumb more moist and soft whilst also tasting slightly sweeter. A lack of oven spring caused by the quick setting of the crust makes a denser bread.
Should I add steam in every bread I make?
If you want your bread to benefit from the oven spring fully, then yes. But there are breads that you would choose not to bake with steam. A fantastic example is soft bread rolls.
Without adding water to the oven, there will still be a small oven rise. Though the bread will have a more compact crumb, which if baked quickly to retain as much moisture as possible makes a deliciously soft crumb bread.
Should I add steam when making pizza?
To get that crusty outer it’s sometimes tempting to add water to the oven when making pizza. But the high heat and the long fermented dough used in pizza mean that the outside of the bread gets crispy whilst the inside of the bread stays soft.
Baking bread at high temperatures for the characteristic pizza texture will only work for thin breads, the centre of the dough would remain under-baked in larger breads.
How much steam should I add for laminated dough
Laminated doughs contain fats or sweeteners such as butter, eggs or sugar. Brioche is a well known laminated dough containing high quantities of butter, eggs, sugar and milk.
Croissants, brioche, panettone,and other sweetened breads fall in this category.
In a laminated dough, starch gelatinizes at a higher temperature which means that the crust sets later on. Adding steam to delay the crust formation is not required as the crust sets later anyway.
If you choose to add steam anyway, it will have no effect on the oven spring. It will however increase the humidity of the oven to slow the baking process. Laminated doughs can bake more even with the addition of a little bit of steam.
It's a good idea to start without adding steam, then introduce some in small quantities for subsequent batches if you feel it will help.
My bread goes off really quick, how can I fix this?
Adding water to the oven increases the air density in the oven. A pressurised environment at the start of baking is essential to slow down the caramelization of the crust. Releasing the steam at the right time releases the pressure and allows the crust to harden. This makes bread bake fastest.
If you are having issues with baking for too long, extra thick crusts or gummy textures, try releasing the steam from the oven earlier. If using a dutch oven remove the lid and then open the oven door 2 minutes later. This will ensure the steam can escape.
There are other reasons for stale bread which are explained in another post.
Do you add steam when making croissants?
I find that adding a little bit of steam gives croissants and danish pastries a beautiful evenly baked, glazed surface. It gives them a wow factor.
Too much steam and they’ll be a bit crunchy. Not enough and they will look a little dull and dry.
Do you add steam when baking sourdough?
Yes! Add steam at the start of baking at 230C (450F). Then drop the temperature after 25 minutes to around 210c (410F), this will slow the rate in which the starch pops and allow the crust to become nice and hard.
If you want a more chewy no-knead style sourdough, I would do it differently.
Add less steam than normal and bake at a constant 220c (430F) temperature. This will allow a good rise, a nice amount of hydration for the starches, combined with a more tearable crust.
Together we’ve covered together how to create steam in the oven to bake our bread. If you’ve read everything detail in this article you’ll understand how it works and how you can adjust the method or the making technique to get a better bake.
The biggest challenge you will have is mastering how your oven reacts to your choice of steam? Does it retain it well? Does it cool down too much?
You may need to experiment a little, you might also find the article dedicated to oven spring reveals a few extra tips. Believe me it is worth getting the method for adding steam for your oven nailed!
For crusty, light and airy bread you need to add steam!