Oven Spring: A Full Guide On How Oven Spring Works

How oven spring occurs is truly amazing and my favourite topic in bread baking. You may already be familiar with how oven spring works, or at least know that dough pushes up when it goes in the oven. This post is going to explain why it springs and how you can manipulate oven spring to your advantage.

Being able to understand oven spring helps us to create unique personalities in our breads. 

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A brief explanation of oven spring

To start with I'm going to pretend that you have never heard of oven spring before, if that's true then, even better. Either way, we'll start with the basics first. Oven spring basics, shall we say? By the time you have read this post in full you'll understand one of the most important processes in bread baking.

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Oven spring put simply:

During the first ten minutes in the oven, the remaining yeast in the dough rapidly feeds on the protein in the flour. This causes the loaf to spring up. To do this, you need to create a humid environment in the oven by adding steam at early stages of the bake. Good oven spring creates bread with a light and airy crumb. The crust will be strong and crispy, perfect for sandwiches.

To understand how oven spring works, first lets look at how bread rises with a levain. 

Types of levain to raise bread

Bakers yeast or natural sourdough are the most common levains for bread making. Levains are active ingredients which make the bread rise. They do this through yeast fermentation. There are a few different levains to choose from. The most common in making bread are yeast, yeast'd preferements and sourdoughs.

Further reading: How fermentation works in bread making, How a levain makes bread rise

In warm conditions levains become more active and work harder to ferment the flour. Depending on the type of levain used, different characteristics are imparted into the bread. Levains have different optimum working temperatures depend on type. Once the bread gets too hot, the levain becomes inactive and stops raising the bread. This happens in the oven, and there will be more about this later.

how oven spring works

Yeast based levains

Fresh yeast is the most common levain that is used to prove bread. There are many yeast based alternative levains. These include biga, poolish and Pâte fermentée. Yeast used at home is either be fresh, dried or instant dried yeast.  Yeast’s have differences between brands, some are designed for lower temperature proving, other types include having a slow proof action or suitable to raise very sweet bread dough.

Yeast breaks down starch from the flour into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Flour ferments by creating a network of gluten. This structure traps the carbon dioxide gas created by the yeast fermentation between gluten strands. The pockets of air expand, causing the bread to rise.

Sourdough

A Sourdough gains its personality from the environment, the type of flour used, the water, ratio, feed time, age, temperature….. Every sourdough starter is unique. A sourdough starter absorbs natural yeasts found in the air which ferment to create an acidic sponge.

To make a sourdough bread from a sourdough starter, bakers will add it to their mix of flour, water and salt. Once in contact with each other the contrasting Ph factors of the high Ph levain and the neutral Ph of the other ingredients react, alongside natural yeasts in the sourdough and the bread is raised.

And Bicarbonate of Soda based levains

These work in a similar way to sourdough just without the natural yeast element. The pf factor of the bicarb reacts with the mix of Ph neutral ingredients to make gas and raise the bread.

The downside to bicarbonate of soda breads is that there is little to no development of flavour from the fermentation.

Either way, each of these levains do the same thing… Raise the bread.

How oven spring works

As a general rule levains work best when warm, usually at around 30 - 38C. When the bread hits the warmth of the oven the levain rapidly increases its activity. This activity causes the dough to spring up which is what we call oven spring.

The oven spring occurs until the dough temperature reaches around 60C (149F). At this temperature the levain becomes permanently inactive. Bakers also refer to this temperature as the point where "The yeast dies." After this the yeast is permanently inactive.

The carbon dioxide created from the levain activity also increases. This pushes the bread up and makes it rise..

The moisture in the dough has a use too. As it evaporates in the oven heat, it also pulls the bread upwards as it escapes (heat rises), further helping the oven spring.

These processes combine causing the oven spring to push the bread up. 

But oven spring will only happen if another condition is met.

As soon as the outside edges of the bread are met with heat from the oven, they immediately start to gelatinase. It's gelatinisation that forms bonds together to form a crust. If the crust sets immediately the breads ability to push up is hindered so, there will be minimal oven spring.

To allow the bread to rise, we need to delay the crust formation. We do this by making the oven a humid environment,

How stream creates oven spring

Adding water to a hot oven quickly evaporates into steam. By creating a humid environment through the addition of steam bakers can stop the crust gelatinising straight away. The moisture in the oven lightly covers the outside of the bread, preventing the crust from forming straight away.

This allows the bread time to spring up.

If you are interested in learning how to add water to the oven to make steam check out this piece. 

When does oven spring happen?

Oven spring occurs during the first three to ten minutes of the dough entering the oven. After this period the levain tends to have run out of food and what remains becomes inactive in the heat. The rising activity of a levain ends at around the same time during the bake that steam starts to be absorbed into the bread. At this point the crust forms.

The bread stays roughly the same size (well, it shrinks a little) for the remainder of the bake. Bread that‘s steamed and oven sprung correctly has a crusty and glossy crust with a light crumb.

How to use a baking stone to create oven spring

A baking stone sits in the oven and is preheated, usually for 2 hours. The heating up time depends on the thickness and material of the stone. For good oven spring and the bottom of the bread to bake correctly, a baking stone is important.

The heat from the stone conducts into the bread so the bread has the maximum force to rise up. This creates good oven spring. Baking stones also help retain the heat in the oven, preventing it from cooling too much when opening the door.

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A professional bakers deck oven will contain a baking stone in the bottom of the oven. You can make a baking stone yourself using this link, or purchase one. The thicker they are, the more heat they retain, however they do take longer to heat up. 

When we do not want oven spring in bread

Just as oven spring is important for crusty bread, there are breads that we do not want oven spring. Not adding steam reduces oven spring and changes the appearance of the crust. 

As the crust sets to prevent the dough from rising, bread baked without steam has a more compact crumb. The crust has more contact with the heat making it thicker.

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When cooling, a thick crust will slow the rate moisture escapes from the bread. The moisture is retained by the bread to make it soft.

A shorter bake time is common to keep moisture in the dough making the bread crumb soft.

Combining all of these factors produces bread that is soft.

Even without adding steam to the oven, there is a small amount of oven spring before the crust sets. But it is small. The dough should be full size/almost full size before you put it in the oven to bake.

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Adding steam to the oven to create oven spring

Learning how to add water to an oven to create steam is an essential artisan baker skill.

For commercial bakers, it's usually as easy as pressing a button on the oven (unless the jets are blocked) and out comes the steam.

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For home ovens and commercial ovens that don't have steam injecting jets there is still a way to add it.

Upon placing the bread into the oven, spray with a water spray, or add water to a tray that's been heated in the oven. 

The water quickly evaporates into steam to create a moist atmosphere perfect for creating oven spring.

There is an article which partners this one. It explains how to add water to make steam in the oven, you may want to give it a read.

Further reading: The best way to add steam to an oven

Breads that get oven spring without using steam

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Bread doughs that contain a high amount of fat or sugar are called laminated doughs. 

We’re talking about brioche, challah or bready cakes such as Chelsea buns here.

These breads do like a bit of oven spring, but do not tend to need any steam added to the oven.

In breads like these, fat and sugar in the dough increase the temperature of which the crust forms. This naturally slows down the rate of gelatisation on the surface. So this means when laminated bread dough is placed in to the oven there is enough time for the dough to spring, before the crust starts to set. Meaning there is no need to add steam.

How to change the volume of oven spring

When you start moving from a beginner bread baker to a more advanced baker, changing the qualities of bread recipes is a skill you learn.

Playing around with the bulk ferment time, affects the oven spring. As does under-developing a dough by reducing the final proof or mixing or rest times.

Changing how a dough is proofed before it goes into an oven has a relationship with the volume the bread gets from oven spring.

Placing a loaf underproofed into the oven can create big oven spring.

Underproofed bread is smaller and more light in taste and texture.

oven spring

How to get a nice Ear on bread

If dough is underprooved when it must go into the oven it is wise that the baker cuts it before. Cutting prevents the crust getting rips during baking. Rips occur when the excess gas retained in the dough has no room to escape so it forces through the crust, rupturing the breads crust.

Bread can go into the oven slightly underproofed. This technique can be used to create an "Ear" on a bread. An Ear occurs when a slightly underproofed bread is cut at the right depth and angle just before it goes into the oven. The oven spring forces the cut to expand along the angle, leaving what looks like an ear sticking up.

The right level of proofing, a good oven set up and a good cut are all important in making an ear. Personally a lot of breads with good ear's suffer from poor, overly open crumbs.

Many people love an Ear, many, like me aren't too fused and would rather their bread is perfectly proofed!

Why does bread burst while baking?

Bread shoots up through the oven spring reaction though sometimes it can burst it's surface. The crust bursts as there is a large amount of activity still remaining in the levain after the crust has set. Causes for this are adding too much yeast to the recipe or underproofing.

Cutting white bread before it goes into the oven is pretty important in preventing bread bursting. Cutting releases excess gasses during oven spring, reducing excess burst of gas popping up and ruining the breads surface.

How to proof wholemeal bread. 

Wholemeal flour contains proteins and sugars that are more complex and strong than white flour. They take longer to ferment and are not as erratic. Wholemeal bread does benefit from oven spring, but springs in a more organised fashion than white bread.

The complexity of the grain means there is no call for cutting wholemeal bread before it goes into the oven. Cutting it reduces the oven spring effect so the bread can be dense and unpleasant.

Underdeveloped wholemeal dough usually results in holes in the crumb, a dense crumb or sometimes both.

A correctly developed wholemeal bread has a dark coloured crust, less developed have a lighter orange colour. It’s due to the amount of starch broken down into sugar, the longer the bread is developed, the more sugar is extracted from the process.

The sugar turns the crust a darker colour and has a sweeter, more intense flavour. If a light tasting bread with a thinner crust is desired, we can under develop the fermentation in the bulk fermentation or kneading stage.

Why white tin bread is often underproofed by bakers

Breads like a sandwich or farmhouse loafs can be under developed and under final proofed. When making these breads, bakeries like to use recipes that contain high percentages of water. They do this to get the maximum yield from their ingredients, making production cheaper.

Under proving a loaf with high water content will create a bread with a softer, dense crumb. Combine this with a big oven spring and the bread will be airy and refreshing with a crust that is light in colour and flavour.

The perfect bread for sandwich fillings to shine.

How to know when the bread is ready to go in the oven

When learning how to bake bread it's often a hot topic to know when the bread is ready for the oven.

To discover the optimum proof period for a dough we are looking for the time when the levain has run out of food and cannot continue to raise the bread.

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Depending on how long the pre-final proof (otherwise called development) time the dough was allowed affects the final proof time.

Dough that has undergone long bulk fermentation will have broken down more protein. Well fermented dough tends to final proof fast.

We often refer to the final proof in a period of time. Really we should be  looking for the moment when the dough is ready to go in the oven. 

The mixing technique, speed, the temperature, the freshness of the levain and many more variables, even the mineral activity in the water can affect the rate of the rise.

Testing bread dough to tell if it's ready for the oven

To find out when the levain has ran out of food (starch), bakers often use the finger test. To try the finger test, poke the surface of the dough lightly with your finger.

After pulling the finger away if it has left an indent in the dough that remains after 3 seconds, the yeast is exhausted. If the dough pops straight back up then it is still developing and needs more time.

This is a tried and tested method used in bakeries across the world. The only down side is that the dimple does not always bake out. The indent can remain after baking, though this is more likely if the dough is approaching over-proved when you test it.

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Of course as we’ve just explored we don’t always want to fully develop every bread that we make.

We may choose to measure the volume of growth during the prove time.

A common way is to allow the bread to double in size, or just under double. But there is another way to test if the dough is done that can work...

My favourite way to tell if the bread is ready for the oven

The best way to tell if the dough is ready is to use the same recipe, the same tin or basket every time and work out what level the dough should rise to before it is ready to bake.

Generally if you use a 2lb loaf tin, you’re bread should have risen so the edges of the dough touch the edge at the top of the tin. But every tin and every recipe is different.

I always try to study the origins of the bread when I develop a new recipe, check out a post about how I get inspired to bake new bread recipes if you have the interest. 

I’ve added steam, why no oven spring?

Ok, this happens. Without being able to see your loaf I can’t say exactly. But the issue is likely to resolved by attempting one of these solutions:

  • Select the bottom heat setting on the oven once the bread is placed.
  • Use a good baking stone, if not already using one.
  • Increase the water you add to the oven. Experiment with ice or boiling water instead of tap temperature water.
  • If using the tray method to add steam, make sure the tray is HOT!
  • Maybe your dough is overprooved, trying increasing the recipe to have enough dough to fill the tin/proof basket and reducing your proof time.
  • Cut down your development time, for maximum oven spring, mix 2 slow, 5 fast, leave to rest for 10 minutes before pre-moulding, then final moulding 5 minutes later. It's fast and your bread will pop up nicely!
  • Your oven in not well sealed. Replace the seals, or if this doesn’t work, try another oven, gas ovens aren’t well sealed to allow the flame to stay lit, consider an electric for bread baking.
  • You are using a fan oven, use convection with bottom heat only.
  • How long have you preheated your oven and stone? I usually do mine for 2-3 hours.

Key oven spring takeaway

To get a strong oven spring, use steam and a baking stone in your oven. For a bigger spring and a softer crumb, you’ll need a less developed dough.

A less developed dough will spring up more in the oven.

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There are also times when you don’t want oven spring, for these breads don’t add steam.

The best thing you can when learning artisan bread baking is to experiment with your prove times and the amount of oven spring you receive.

Once you get the first 2-3 recipes nailed you’ll find recipes get easier to perfect first time.

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