Oven Spring A Guide On How It Works
How oven spring occurs is truly amazing and my probably my favourite topic in baking bread. You may be familiar with how oven spring works, or at least know that when bread enters the oven it rises.
This post explains why it springs and how you can manipulate oven spring to your advantage to make better bread.
Understanding oven spring helps us to create unique personality filled bread.
Explanation of oven spring
Let’s just say to start with 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?
During the first ten minutes in the oven, the remaining yeast in the dough rapidly feeds on the protein in the flour causing the bread to spring up. For the best oven spring, a humid baking environment is required. To achieve this, steam added at the start of baking. Good oven spring creates bread with a light and airy crumb. Crusts are thinner, stronger and more crisp, perfect for sandwiches.
Ok so that’s what happens, let’s understand how oven spring works, first by looking at how bread rises with the use of a levain.
How changing the levain adapts the spring in the oven
Levains are active ingredients which make bread rise. Bakers yeast and sourdough are the most common levains used in bread making. Dough rises as the leavain creates gas. The gas gets retained in a gluten structure formed in the dough during flour fermentation.
There are a few different levains to choose from to make bread. The most common levains are yeast, yeast-based preferments and sourdough.
Further reading: How fermentation works in bread making
In warm conditions, levains become more active and work harder to ferment the flour. The ideal dough temperature for the most levain activity is 32C (90F). There’s an article here that gives a more detailed explanation.
The type of levain used creates different characteristics in the bread. Once the bread gets too hot when it’s in the oven, the levain becomes inactive and stops raising the bread.
Flour ferments when hydrated with water. Flour fermentation creates a gluten network. The levain used breaks down starch from the flour into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The gluten structure traps the carbon dioxide gas created by the levains fermentation. These pockets of air expand, causing the bread to rise.
Using yeast as a levain
Yeast is the most common levain used to prove bread. The yeast used in most bakeries is fresh yeast, this is yeast in it’s purest form. At home, bears can use fresh, active dried or instant dried.
Active dried yeast is reactivated in water before use. Instant dried yeast can be added straight in the dough. However, this type contains extra dough improvers and additives. I don't recommend using this type of yeast unless you are baking in a bread maker.
Yeast’s have differences between brands. Some are designed for lower temperature proving, others have a slow action, and a few specialise in raising sweet dough.
Yeast based preferments
There are many yeast based levains. These combine fermented flour with the levain. The common preferments include; biga, poolish and pâte fermentée. A basic biga or poolish involves mixing a small amount of yeast with water and flour in a bowl. Once the ingredients are combined the mixture is left for 12-18 hours. The next day the preferment is added to the dough. A pâte fermentée is simply a bit of yesterdays dough. This kept and added to the batch when mixing. Preferments give the following benefits to a dough:
- A stronger gluten network which makes better gas retaining properties
- Lowers PH value of the bread creating more flavour and better keeping qualities
- A small amount of yeast multiplies its activity to be able to raise large amounts of dough
- More starch and complex starch are extracted from the flour, creating more flavour and deeper colours in the bread
More yeast can be added to the dough when mixing to increase the fermentation rate if required.
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 sourdough bread from a sourdough starter, bakers add a portion of the starter to their mix of flour, water and salt. Once in contact with each other, the contrast of the high Ph levain and the neutral Ph of the other ingredients react and help raise the bread alongside natural yeasts in the sourdough.
Sourdough is fermented flour with organic leavening properties. The benefits listed in the preferment section above also apply. Though due to the complexity of sourdough yeasts they are slower to active. During oven spring the crust will set smaller than a yeast leavened bread. Sourdough is generally more compact than yeast bread and has a lower amount of oven spring.
Bicarbonate of soda levains work in a similar way to sourdough, just without the natural yeast element. The ph factor of the bicarb reacts with the mix of Ph neutral ingredients and make gas which raises the bread.
The downside to bicarbonate of soda leavened bread is there is little to no development of flavour from the fermentation.
Either way, each levain does the same thing in the oven… Raise the bread.
How oven spring works
As a general rule levains work best when warm. When the bread hits the wrath of the bread oven, the levain rapidly increases its activity. The levains activity creates rapid amounts of carbon dioxide which causes the dough to quickly rise.
This is what we call oven spring.
Oven spring starts around three minutes after the bread enters the oven and occurs until the dough temperature reaches around 60C (149F). This happens usually after ten minutes. At this temperature, the levain becomes permanently inactive. Bakers also refer to this bread baking temperature as the point where "The yeast dies."
After this, the yeast is permanently inactive.
I’m not sure if the next point is scientifically true but it’s a theory of mine. I believe that as the moisture in the dough evaporates in the heat, it pulls the bread upwards as it escapes (heat rises), further helping the oven spring. I’d love an expert to have a look at this point to clarify? If it’s true or not, it doesn’t affect how we treat oven spring so don’t worry.
But oven spring will only happen if a condition is met...
When the bread goes into the oven to bake. As soon as the outside of the bread is met with heat the outside areas start to gelatinase. It's gelatinisation that bonds starch together to form a crust. If the crust sets immediately, the dough loses its ability to push up.
The crust is quickly too strong and rigid, stopping the dough springing.
To allow the bread to rise, we need to delay the crust formation. We do this by adding moisture to the oven making it a humid environment.
How stream creates oven spring
Adding water to a hot oven quickly evaporates into steam. By creating a humid environment, bakers can delay the crust gelatinising. The moisture in the oven lightly covers the outside of the bread. This delays the crust forming so it has time to spring up. The crust is then created later on.
The moisture attached to the surface of the bread is absorbed after a few minutes, allowing the crust to form. Any remaining steam gets released by opening the oven door momentarily.
Further reading: The best way to add water to make steam
The bread stays roughly the same size (well, it shrinks a little) for the remainder of the bake. Good crusty bread has a glossy, thin crust and a light crumb.
How to use a baking stone to create oven spring
A baking stone is a food-safe stone with good heat retaining properties. It is preheated for about two hours in the oven before bread is baked on it. The heating time depends on the thickness and material of the stone and the power of the oven.
A professional bakers deck oven will contain a baking stone in the bottom of the oven. A baking stone conducts heat into the bread directly. This aids the oven spring and the crust formation.
The baking stone also ensures that the bottom of the bread is baked correctly. A lot of home bakers experience this problem and getting a baking stone for your oven is the only way to resolve it.
The heat from the stone conducts into the bread so it has the maximum force to rise up quickly. 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.
Some home bakers add multiple baking stones or lava stones in their ovens. This helps to retain the heat in the oven. Techniques like these help ovens that are not very powerful.
You can make a baking stone yourself using this link, or purchase one. The thicker they are, the more heat they retain, however the longer they take to heat up.
Why we should avoid oven spring
First off, we should not encourage a big oven spring but rely on final proofing to achieve the height desired. Oven spring will give the bread a nice spring however after this the dough will shrink in the oven and deflate when cooling. If we get too big of an oven spring the dough will suffer from an uneven, irregular crumb and also a weak crust formation.
Oven spring is an important factor, just don't expect too much!
Just as oven spring is important for crusty bread, there are types of bread that do not benefit from oven spring. By not adding steam we reduce the oven spring and change the appearance of the crust.
As the crust sets quickly and prevents the oven spring from rising, the bread is denser. Bread baked without steam has a thicker crust and a more closely knit crumb.
When cooling the thick crust slows the rate that moisture can escape from the bread. This is retained by the crumb, making it softer.
When baking bread without steam the baking time is shortened. This keeps moisture in the dough and again helps the bread crumb soft.
Even without adding steam to the oven, there is a small amount of oven spring before the crust sets. Though it is small, it does help. The dough should be almost full size when it goes into the oven.
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).
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: The best way to add steam to an oven
Bread that has oven spring without adding steam
Doughs that contain a high amount of fat or sugar are called laminated doughs. We’re talking about brioche, challah and 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 which the crust forms. This naturally slows down the rate of gelatinisation on the surface. When laminated bread dough is placed in the oven there is plenty of time before the crust sets for oven spring. There is no need to add steam for oven spring in laminated doughs.
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 duration of the bulk ferment affects the oven spring. As does under-developing a dough by reducing the final proof or mixing or rest times.
How long the dough is bulk fermented is related to the volume of the breads oven spring.
Short bulk fermentation = large oven spring
Long bulk fermentation = Small oven spring
Use of preferment or sourdough = Small oven spring
Adding a high amount of yeast at a percentage of above 3-4% will speed up the bulk and final fermentation time and make bread with a large volume of oven spring. Dough that has undergone long bulk fermentation will break down an increased amount of protein.
Using a dutch oven to bake bread
A dutch oven can be used to bake bread with good oven spring results. A dutch oven is essentially a bread baking oven that you put inside a conventional oven. The sealed oven retains moisture so the dough needs no extra steam to spring up. There is a big community that just follow this method for making sourdough bread. Many home bakers that have a good quality DO do not use a baking stone.
Cutting the bread
Most types of bread are cut before baking. Cutting prevents the crust from riping the surface of the dough. Rips occur when the excess gas created in the oven spring has no room to escape. It forces through the weakest areas in the crust and ruptures.
Excess gas is created when the dough is baked under fermented.
How to get an Ear on your bread
Bread can go into the oven slightly under proofed. More gas is created when baking dough which is under proofed. This forces through the weakest area of the crust to escape, opening up the cut. The exaggerated cut looks appealing to many people. This trick is used to make an "Ear".
An Ear occurs when dough that is slightly under proofed is cut at the perfect depth and angle. The oven spring forces the cut to expand along the angle, leaving what looks like an ear sticking up.
An ear is made by making the proofing, oven set up and the cut perfect. Personally, a lot of bread that I have seen on baking groups that has profound ear's will often suffer from poor, overly open crumbs.
Many people love to see an ear. Though some like me aren't fused. I would rather bread that is perfectly proofed.
Why does bread burst while baking?
Bread shoots up through the oven spring reaction though sometimes it can burst its 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 under proofing.
Cutting white bread before it goes into the oven is pretty important in preventing the loaf from bursting. Cutting releases excess gasses during oven spring, reducing excess burst of gas popping up and ruining the surface of the bread.
How to proof a wholemeal loaf
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 a white loaf.
The complexity of the grain means there is no call for cutting a wholemeal loaf before it goes into the oven. Cutting reduces the oven spring effect making it dense and unpleasant.
Underdeveloped wholemeal dough can have erratic holes in the crumb, a dense crumb and sometimes both.
A correctly developed wholemeal loaf has a dark coloured crust, a less developed one has a lighter orange colour. Longer fermented wholemeal bread has a darker coloured crust compared to an underdeveloped one. Longer fermentation creates more starch which accelerates the Maillard reaction causing darker colours.
The Maillard reaction turns the bread sweeter and has a more intense flavour. Bulk fermentation time is shortened for lighter loaves.
Why white tin loaves are often under proofed by bakers
Loaves like a sandwich or farmhouse loaves will have a short bulk fermentation period. They will also be baked when they are slightly under proofed. When making these breads many 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 loaf 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 loaf of 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 good to know when the bread is ready for the oven. To discover the optimum proof stage we look for the point when the levain runs out of food and cannot continue raising the dough.
Properly fermented dough will final proof quickly. 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 an indent will be visible. If the indent remains after 3 seconds, it proves the yeast is exhausted and the dough is ready to bake. If the dough pops straight back up then it is still developing and needs more time.
Sometimes we want bread to be slightly underdeveloped. For this dough when completing the poke test the dough will return back when poked, but not immediately. This result shows the dough is almost ready.
This is a tried and tested method used in bakeries across the world. The indent can remain after baking. This is more likely to happen if the dough is over proved when tested.
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.
If you use a 2lb loaf tin, with 950g of dough it should rise so that it meets the rim of the tin.
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 resolve by attempting one of these solutions:
- Use the bottom heat setting only on the oven unless otherwise advised.
- Use a good quality baking stone.
- Increase the water you add to the oven. I use boiling water in a tray and a mister.
- The sourdough starter is not mature enough to raise sourdough bread.
- If using the tray method to add steam, make sure that the tray is HOT!
- Maybe your dough is over prooved, trying increasing the recipe size to have enough dough to fill the tin/proof basket and reduce the final proof.
- Cut down your development time, for maximum oven spring, mix 2 minutes 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!
- Replace the oven seals, or if this doesn’t work, try another oven. So the flame has oxygen, gas ovens aren’t well sealed. Consider an electric with bottom heat only setting for baking bread.
- You are using a fan oven, use convection with bottom heat only.
- How long have you preheated your oven and stone? I have to do mine for 2-3 hours.
Key oven spring takeaway
To get strong oven spring, use steam and a baking stone in your oven. For an even bigger spring and a softer crumb, you’ll need a less developed dough.
There are also times when you don’t want crusty or light bread, for these you don’t add steam to the oven when baking. This reduces the oven spring and makes the bread more soft and dense.
Have a play and experiment with the prove times and the oven set up and see what changes in the amount of oven spring you get.
This should be everything you will ever need to know about oven spring. There’s also an article about how to best add water to the oven which has a few nuggets that I hope you will enjoy also. If you like this article, feel free to share it with your friends as it really helps this site grow.
Further reading: How to add water to an oven