Adding Water To An Oven - The Best Way
If you’re wondering “What is the secret to adding water to an oven,” “What is the science behind what goes on with steam ovens” or simply, "How to steam bread." Then like me, it’ll probably bug you for years until you find the way that works best for you.
Maybe believing a theory along your bread baking journey which turns out later to scientifically not correct...
After years of bread baking combined with a few months of intense "steam" and "adding water" research, I’ve got the problem dialled down for you.
This article shares the best way to use steam to bake the most perfect light and crusty bread.
Why is adding water important when baking bread?
Adding some water to the oven creates a moistened environment, this allows the bread to rise easier by delaying the setting of the crust. It makes bread deliciously light and crusty.
How it does this, and why, we'll cover in detail later on in this post.
Is it steam or water?
Before we begin with the juicy stuff, I’m just going to make you aware that I use the terms “water” and “steam” interchangeably.
Adding water to a hot oven creates steam. This is the point of adding water. When talking with other bakers we tend to lean on the “adding steam” phrase. So adding water or adding steam, either is good.
What professional bakers learn about baking with steam
My journey to understand baking with steam started a while back. Most professional bakers learn about using steam in the oven in a kind of backward way.
Let me share a conversation:
I was sat in a coffee shop with John, a supermarket baker of 20 years. He is one of the most passionate bakers that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. John would make spot-on bread every bake.
He never made mistakes.
I'd often wondered why he hadn't pushed himself down a more artisan route in bread baking. He was one of a few people I knew who would be able to handle the more complicated processes and techniques with ease. He was fantastic.
Anyway, enough of hosting his ego. Let’s get back to the point...
Whilst sipping my latte, naturally the conversation turned to bread. I told him I was starting to write this article, he showed an interest.
I asked him “What do you understand about using steam in the oven?”
His reply was typical to many heard before. It had not progressed.
“It makes the bread go crusty”
To be fair, I couldn't argue with him.
It is true,
but, there’s more to it than crusty.
So I fired a quick trio of more challenging questions:
“How much steam to add?”
“Why does it do what it does?”
“What are the other benefits of steam? ”
To these questions John stalled, but as we conversed, it all made perfect sense...
Many bakers including myself rely on old wives tales or assumptions when understanding how adding water to the oven works. They get passed through the ranks in every bakery establishment.
Often though (here's the thing...) they are not the full picture. My definition of adding water to the oven (to create steam) a year or two ago was very similar to Johns. Now I know that creating steam by adding water into the oven is a bigger subject.
Knowing the science behind team baking bread isn’t vital to baking a loaf of bread. All you have to do is follow a process to create steam.
Pour the water -> Close the door -> Run away (how I first learned to add water to an oven)
I’ve explored many ways to add steam to an oven over my years in bread baking. My desire to conquer it started back when I was a supermarket baker with John. The steam injectors would regularly bread in the deck ovens we were using.
Apparently we had dirty water in our pipes or something?
After the engineers had repeatedly attempted to repair, our baking team decided to learn how to create steam ourselves.
The Pour, Close & Run strategy was the technique that we used. It works by chucking a cup of tap water onto the baking stone as we dropped the bread in.
It works pretty well, it would create enough steam sometimes too much if we got carried away. There was a slight worry that the sudden attack of cold water might shatter the baking stone.
But they weren’t our ovens, so we didn't really care!
(bad I know)
I used the "Pour, Close & Run" technique hundreds of times in my career, then one day it occurred to me...
“What is actually going on?”
After many years of baking, I still don’t know, not really anyway!
... So I set out to find the truth about adding water to an oven
Having strong technical knowledge helps bakers make the best quality bread. Any extra advantage benefits home bakers, especially when starting out. The equipment used in pro bakeries is a higher quality and helps “paper over the cracks”.
It’s easier to learn bread baking as a job than studying at home. I felt I needed to learn everything about this topic so I could share it with you to give you an advantage.
How a professional baker adds water to an oven to make steam
Steam jets are fitted in the ovens. The jets are powered by a tank storing pressured water. When the oven demands it, the jets are opened and water is released into the oven. Depending on the type of steam system the oven uses it can take a few minutes after use for them to be ready to spray again.
It may sound great, but there are always issues with pipes clogging up and expensive repair charges. At least, I’ve found that in hard water areas it's sometimes not worth bothering with the repair costs.
They constantly get jammed.
I’ve not found a reliable situation. I tend to use the techniques commonly used for home use in a commercial bakery.
At least I know they work every time.
THE BEST WAY TO ADD WATER TO AN OVEN
This is a combination of methods shown below. It allows plenty of steam to get into the oven and stay there!
Domestic ovens are not as well sealed as commercial ones so you have to over-steam in most home setups to compensate for some moisture leaking out.
Here are the steps that I follow:
- Heat the oven with a baking stone and a tray on the shelf below
- Boil the kettle
- Place the bread on the baking stone
- Pour a cup of boiling water into 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 over walls for 5 seconds
- Shut the door again and wait 30 seconds
- Spray again for another 5 seconds
- Open the door after 20-25 minutes to release the steam
Alternative ways (+ photos) to add water to a domestic oven:
Put water in the bottom of the oven
Heat a tray in the oven, placed below the baking stone. The tray should have a reasonable lip to hold the water.
The tray must also be strong enough to withstand the high heat of a bread oven without wilting, at least 240C (465F). Check the guidelines before you buy.
Once you place your bread in the oven, pour a cup (you can use a jug if it’s easier) of tap temperature water onto the hot tray.
This will rapidly create steam and so quickly shut the door!
You can use boiling water, or ice cubes instead of water from the tap. The boiling water way tends to exhaust the steam so quickly it flies out of the oven- before I can close the door!
So I add a bit more if I use boiling or hot water.
The ice cube way creates a steady stream of steam, but it can add too much too late on.
The issue in adding ice or cold water is it cools the temperature of the oven. Low powered oven users really struggle for their oven to regain temperature when using this method. Baking at a lower temperature will change the texture and colour of the bread.
To follow this method, you need space in the oven for the tray, baking stone, and the bread. It also needs to be in a hot area of the oven.
Bake with a water bath
Similar to method 1, but we add in more water or ice than in the previous. So much more, that it doesn’t evaporate. To build up the steam, we can put a tray of water in the oven 5-10 minutes before the bread goes in. This gives time for the oven to get back up to temperature before the bread goes in.
The tray is removed after 10-15 minutes as the oven spring has occurred and the baking now focuses on the generation of the crust.
This is can be great if the seal in your oven is not that great as otherwise the steam tends to escape. I think this is the case for gas ovens as an air circulation is needed to keep the flame going.
Letting the heat out the oven when the boiling hot tray is pulled out is desierable to avoid (whilst also trying not to burn yourself with the water).
Opening the damper
After around 20-30 minutes of baking it's best practice to open the oven door quickly to release the steam as a damper does in a professional oven. At this point, the yeast has died from exposure to high temperature. There is to be no more rising so the size of the bread is set. Releasing the moisture lowers the humidity which forces the crust to focus on gelatinization.
The spray mister way to make steam
Use a spray mister, or if you have a big oven a heavy duty pump action sprayer filled with water. After the bread is dropped spray the inside of the oven with the mister. Be careful to avoid light bulbs, glass and the baking stone, they might shatter.
It’s difficult to add enough steam for the best quality bread using this technique.
Spraying water 3 times like this (leaving 30-second intervals between each spray) allows the oven to heat up between sprays and gives time for the steam to distribute through the air inside.
This method will cool the sides of your oven down quite considerably and also doesn't always create as much steam as the previous two options.
Any water mister will do really, though you ideally want one that will throw a lot of water in a short amount of time. A water mister that has a large resvoir and which can pump the water to a high pressure is best. This is the water mister I recommend as it does everything you need to create steam in the oven:
Clicking on this link takes you to Amazon where if you decide to purchase I will receive a small commission which helps me to continue making content on this site.
Wet the bread
Don’t do this:
Just don't. You will end up with a gummy crumb, or/and blisters on the surface of the bread. Some bakers looking for the San Francisco bread look choose to wet their hands and smother them over the bread before baking.
By all means, have an experiment with this technique but I won’t be recommending it!
What does too much steam look like?
Below is a photo of the bread where I added water directly to the dough before baking. You can make out some blisters that appear when water is attached to the dough surface when it bakes.
The photo also shows the effects of too much steam:
The most notable issue of over-steaming the bread is how the cut spreads out. The flour that was on the dough when it came out of the banneton became a paste when it became wet which when baked creates a dull colour.
The crust of the over steamed bread has a flat surface, no rise from the cut can be found.
What did it taste like?
Well it made a nice bread pudding, let's leave it there!
If your wondering if you are adding too much water to your oven, look at the picture and see if your bread resembles the same traits.
If you are enjoying this guide, please take a moment to follow Busby's Bakery on social media by clicking on the links. If you think other bread bakers can benefit from this site, please share the page with them. It just takes a second and it really helps my motivation to keep writing more articles.
What happens in the oven when we bake bread?
Artisan Bread Coach
The ovens role in bread baking is where all your hard work comes to an end. The moment of truth sits in front of you. Before loading your oven you go through the steps you took...
“Did I do everything right?
...Is the dough proved perfectly? Is it strong enough? The oven, is it hot enough?”
After covering the range of methods of creating steam, including my favourite we are now going to cover why it is important, what happens during the baking process and how we can use steam to change many factors of our freshly made bread.
The dough being baked may have developed for hours, maybe days. Making a mistake in the final stages is gutting.
Getting your bake right creates endless personal satisfaction.
You’ll feel able to strive the streets in confidence, pick up new partners in the street, send your food back in restaurants….
...Ok, ok, I might have got a bit carried away
But if your bake goes wrong, you’ll probably wish you hadn’t wasted your time.
An introduction to oven spring
Once you have the ability to make a great dough you’re going to want to get the most out of your oven. Understanding oven spring is a really important bit of knowledge.
A preheated baking stone stores heat from the oven. When bread is placed on the stone the heat is conducted into the bread.
To get the best oven spring, we need to add moisture to the environment and use a baking stone.
Baking stones emulate the stones found in professional deck ovens by conducting the heat evenly into the base of the bread.
Baking stones help the bottom of the bread bake properly and help to create a good oven spring.
A good quality baking stone is vital for great quality bread. I scoured hundreds of baking stone reviews and tested a many myself and found that the stones at the lower end of the market do not last very long. They can shatter after a couple of months if you are unlucky.
A good baking stone will last a long time and retain heat well enough so you can bake doughs after each other.
The baking stone that I use is made from firebrick like the one recommended below. My firebrick baking stone has lasted for a few years, with no sign of damage.
(The link takes you to Amazon where I am a affiliate. I you do go ahead and make a purchase I receive a small commision which goes towards keeping the site going)
Oven spring explained:
As the bread hits the heat of the oven, the dough warms making the active levain work harder (levains love warmth). This reaction forces the bread to rise rapidly.
Bread springs up during the first ten minutes of baking. A typical increase is around 20% of the size it was before it entered the oven.
We call this “Oven Spring”
After approximately ten minutes of exposure to the ovens heat the internal dough temperature hits 60C (140F). This is too hot for the levain and kills its activity, preventing the bread from rising any more.
For the remainder of the bake the bread shrinks slowly as moisture escapes.
Further reading: How oven spring works
How important is adding water to an oven to oven spring?
When bread dough enters the oven, the outer surface of it is fiercely attacked by the heat. As it’s in direct contact with the hot air of the oven it feels intensity more than the core of the bread.
The heat draws the water from the surface of the bread which then evaporates. The elastic gluten at the edges of the bread will bond together (coagulate) as it dehydrates. This creates a crust.
A dough with a strong gluten network will create a stronger, more tearable crust than dough that is weak and under fermented.
But if the dough’s crust forms shortly after it goes in the oven it will prevent the oven spring from pushing up. The crust is too strong and quick to form, we need to delay it from setting so that the bread will be able to rise in the oven.
The crust is essential in bread making, we cannot remove it forms the bread, but if we can delay it setting for 10 minutes so the oven spring can do its thing we can make a nice and light loaf of bread.
Adding extra yeast speeds up fermentation time. If you do this you will have to put the bread in the oven at a smaller proof height than usual. The bread will rocket up in the oven which is pretty fun to watch, but you’ll end up with bread with poor flavour and structure.
What happens when water is used in the oven?
When we add water to the oven the water particles quickly evaporate into the air. They latch onto the air molecules to create the moist gas known as steam.
It’s steam that a kettle emits when you make a cup of tea (or whatever you use a kettle for if you live outside the UK), actually thinking about it... Do other countries have kettles??
Anyway, I'm sure you get what I mean...
Water is retained by the air inside the oven, making it dense. It also means the climate of the oven becomes moist which is another word for humid.
As the bread goes into the oven as it is cooler it attracts moisture in the air. The moisture latches to the outside surface area of the dough which creates a barrier between the hot air and the dough.
This barrier keeps the dough moist and stops dehydration, allowing oven spring to have full effect. Without adding water to the oven the dough will not spring up very much creating a dense loaf. Oven spring makes the crumb expand which makes it more light and enjoyable.
Why increase the oven humidity for bread baking?
If you’ve been to a Swedish sauna, you’ll know that adding water to a hot environment intensifies the heat. It’s doesn’t get hotter in the sauna when you add the water, you can check the dial, the thermometer doesn’t go hot desire it feeling more uncomfortable.
The water actually cools the temperature, but due to the increase in humidity it feels more intense. Water is a better conductor of heat than air is which combines with the heavy air to make a sauna experience feel more intense.
Our bread in the oven undergoes the same exposure once the moisture barrier around it disappears. The oven heat is more intense after the bread has sprung up which makes the crust form harder and thinner.
Why starch has a big role in forming the crust
If more water is added to the oven at the start of baking the humidity of the air increases. The increase leads to more moisture being absorbed by the surface of the crust.
It’s specifically starch particles that do the absorbing. Starch is a form of sugar that is created by the fermentation of flour.
This explains why bread crusts go a darker colour than the interior section of the bread. Similar to how sugar is heated to turn into syrups or caramels which are golden or darker colours.
The amount of starch created increases by the amount of fermentation activity the dough undergoes.
You may have noticed that supermarket bread has a light, bright, golden coloured crust. The simple colours are due to a short fermentation whereas artisan baked bread usually has a darker, more mature tone.
During long bulk fermentation stages, more starch and complex starches are broken down. These create more colour, aroma and flavour intense bread.
Learn more about dough fermentation with these two articles:
Further reading: Dough fermentation basics or an in depth guide on dough fermentation for bread making
What is "Singing Bread" & how do crusty loaves get that sheen?
Once crusty bread is removed from the oven it crackles rapidly. It’s as if the pops are singing to you! This is called “singing bread”.
The cracking noise is actually related to the glazed sheen that you may have noticed appear on crusty bread.
So now we know moisture in the oven is absorbed by the starch on the outside of the dough. Though there’s a thing about starch...
It has no control limits!
Not when comes to absorbing moisture anyway.
The starch particles keep absorbing water and growing in size until they finally burst.
As these particles burst, they release a gel which coats the outside of the loaf. As the bread continues to bake the gel becomes shinier and hardens.
The process continues after the bread is removed from the oven.
As the bread cools, moisture escapes from the core of the loaf or what we call the crumb. As it escapes, it goes from the inner core to the outer perimeter before passing out of the crust. The starch at the edge of the loaf latches on to the escaping moisture and continues to grow... and then burst.
The bursting starch continues to make the crust shiny and brittle and it’s the bursting starch we hear when it sounds like the bread is signing to us.
Can I add too much steam when baking bread?
Bread which is not intended to be very crusty usually requires for small amounts of steam when baking. It is also possible to add too much moisture to the oven. You can tell if this has happened as the cuts made in the bread before baking do not open out properly.
Overly steamed bread spreads outwards, is less 2D (don’t stick out) and featureless on the crust and has a dense crumb.
Should I add steam in every bread I make?
If you want your bread to benefit from oven spring fully then yes, but there are breads that you wouldn’t want to do this with. A fantastically common example is soft rolls.
Soft rolls should have a dense, soft crumb and a soft top. The opposite of what adding steam provides. Because the cells are more compact from the lack of oven spring the texture of the crumb is soft.
The absence of steam also creates a crust that is thicker. This is an important feature of soft bread as a thick crust slows down the rate which moisture can escape from the bread as it cools. The thick crust retains moisture in the crumb making it to be softer to eat.
How much steam should I add for laminated doughs
Laminated doughs are doughs that 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.
This includes, croissants, brioche, and other sweet breads like panettone.
In a laminated dough the temperature which starch gelatinizes s raised by the sweeteners and fats. Adding steam to delay the crust being formed is not required.
If you do choose to add steam, it will have little effect on the oven spring. It is more likely to encourage a thicker and harder crust, which can be undesired. That said, adding a little can help hydrate the starch to create a shinier, more attractive bread.
With doughs like this, it’s good to start mastering a new recipe without adding steam. Then add it in small quantities in subsequent batches if you feel the recipe would benefit.
Not too mad though, otherwise the crust will become too crusty!
"Adding water to the oven alters the texture of the crumb as it creates a thinner crust. Moisture trapped inside the bread after baking escapes easily when cooling making the crumb light and airy."
Do you add steam when making croissants?
I do find that adding a little bit of steam helps them spring up and gives croissants and danish pastries a beautiful glazed surface, giving 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?
If you want your sourdough to have a really thick crust, then yes! Add plenty of steam to the oven at the start of baking. Then drop the temperature after 25 minutes of baking (halfway) from 230c (450F) 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 texture that matches the modern trend of stretch and fold sourdough then I would do it differently.
To get a nice spring in the oven I would add some steam, but only a small amount. This will allow a good rise, a nice amount of hydration for the starches, but not too great. Combine this with baking it at a constant 220c (430F) temperature for a more tearable crust.
How much water?
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.
Should you add steam or ice when using a dutch oven
Many bakers bake sourdough bread using dutch ovens. Some preheat the dutch oven before the bread is dropped in and baked, some don’t preheat the dutch oven, and some don’t even preheat the main oven and bake the bread from cold.
The idea of using a dutch oven is to create an enclosed space to bake the bread. Cast iron dutch ovens and usually preferred.
Having a thick base on the dutch oven generates a good oven spring and as the dutch ovens are good at conducting heat (especially the cast iron ones), the heat quickly seeps inside, locking any moisture from escape which creates an intense environment to bake bread.
Having a decent sealed lid on a dutch oven should retain enough moisture. No additional steam should be required to make a decent loaf of bread. Some bakers that don’t have a very powerful oven or tend to underproof their bread like to create additional steam.
They either spray the bread (remember method 4 - avoid at all costs!) which will help but will create blisters and an uneven colour/texture. Or they chuck a few ice cubes in the base to the side of the bread as it goes in, providing you have enough space in your dutch oven.
Some will bake the bread on a layer of parchment paper, making a barrier between the dough and the dutch oven bottom.
If you find the amount of steam a problem I would first review the dough quality, checking it is well developed and the water ratio is healthy for the flour before using one of these methods to add more steam.
How much oven spring will I get with different flours?
Well developed and well final proved breads will get a lot less spring than an underdeveloped dough.
Wholemeal flour is more complex to break down so expect less oven spring, this goes for many complex grains.
Low gluten flours and grains will not have the elasticity to spring far in the oven which is why these breads are often dense.
Rye bread requires plenty of steam in the oven to keep the crust together which prevents it from cracking.
So, in reality, the amount of oven spring depends on the type of flour used, how well it has fermented, the heat of the oven, the amount of levain and the amount of steam.
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?
Experimenting a little till you get a method that works well for you may take a few attempts but believe me it is worth it when you get it right!
All in all, having a trusted method of adding water to the oven and so creating steam is vital for every home or professional baker.
For crusty, light and airy bread - add steam
Is there anything I have missed or a topic that I have not been clear on? If so give me an email and I'll get it updated. Click here to return to the learn to make bread at home page