Oven Spring: A Guide On How It Works

How oven spring occurs is amazing, you may be familiar with how the oven spring works to push the dough up in the oven. This post is going to explain why and how to manipulate it to your advantage.

Being able to understand oven spring helps us to create unique personalities in our breads. If you've found this site for the first time take a look at the other bread baking articles which will help your bakery knowledge.

Learning how to bake bread is what this site is all about, so get that bookmark set!

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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. By the time you have read this post in full you'll understand one of the most interesting 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 a humid environment in your oven by adding steam at early stage of the bake. This creates bread with a light and airy crumb with a crust that’s strong and crispy, perfect for sandwiches.

To understand how oven spring works let's first understand how the bread rises by the use of a levain. 

Choices of levain available to rise bread

Bakers yeast or 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 to choose from which will be covered further down and more detailed explanation about Levains can be found on this post.

Generally in warm conditions levains become more active and work harder to ferment the flour. Depending on your levain choice though they have different characteristics and optimum temperatures. Once the bread gets too hot the levain it contains will become inactive. This happens in the oven, more about this later.

how oven spring works

Yeast based levains

We commonly use fresh yeast to prove our bread. There are also many yeast based alternative levains used including biga’s, poolish’s, or dried yeast.  Yeast’s have differences between brands, some are designed for lower temperature proving, other options include delayed action or sweet doughs.

Yeast breaks down starch from the flour into ethanol and carbon dioxide. In a dough that has undergone fermentation of the flour the gluten structure that has been created traps the carbon dioxide gas between it's gluten strands. This 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 levain and the neutral Ph ingredients react alongside the natural yeasts to raise the bread. 

And Bicarbonate of Soda based levains

These work in a similar way to sourdough, just without any natural yeasts. The pf factor of the bicarb reacts with the mix 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, they all do the same thing…

….Raise the bread.

How oven spring works

As a general rule levains work best when warm, usually at around 30 - 40C. 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.

This process happens until the levain becomes permanently inactive at around 60C, we often call this the point where "The yeast dies” to describe it. After this point the yeast is permanently inactive.

So the carbon dioxide created from the increased levain activity shoots the bread up, but there’s another process to be aware of too.

...As you may remember from school, when particles heat up, they expand and rise.

The moisture in the dough has an action too. As it evaporates due to the extreme heat, it pushes the bread upwards (heat rises) and helps push the bread up. 

These processes combine to push the bread up, but only if another condition is met.

How steam impacts oven spring

When met with heat, the outside edges of the bread want to immediately gelatinase and form a crust. A crust that sets immediately like this would halt the breads ability to push up and...

There will be no oven spring

To allow the bread to rise, we need to delay the crust formation. We do this by adding moisture to the oven.

Adding water to a hot oven quickly evaporates into steam. This is going to make a moist environment which lightly covers the outside of the bread to stop the crust gelatinising straight away.

This allows the bread time to spring up.

By adding steam the dough is able to push up (oven spring) during the first three to ten minutes of entering the oven. After this period, it gets too hot for the levain which is killed off at around the same point the steam absorbs into the bread and the crust forms.

If you are interested in learning how to add water to the oven to make steam check out this piece. 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 and 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 but it depends on the thickness and material of the stone. For the best oven spring and to bake the bottom of your bread a baking stone is really important.

The heat from the stone conducts into the bread so the bread has the maximum force to rise up. This creates a 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 bakers deck oven contains baking stones built into 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 any oven spring for our bread

Just as oven spring is important for crusty bread, there are breads that we may not want much oven spring. By not adding steam we are going to have a minimal oven spring. This creates a thicker crust and a denser crumb.

The same reactions happen inside the dough without allowing it to spring up. By not adding steam you get a thicker crust and a shorter bake time is neccessary. 

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A thicker crust slows down the rate that the moisture in the dough can escape. By retaining moisture and having a short bake time, you’re going to have an even softer crumb.

There will be a small amount of oven spring that happens before the crust sets, but it’s small, your dough should look full size/almost full size before you start to put it in the oven.

Adding steam to the oven to create oven spring

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

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

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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.

It’s fairly simple to get the hang of after a few attempts. You could also check out the learn how to add water to an oven post if you’ve not done it before.

Breads that do not need steam for oven spring

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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 call for any steam to be added to the oven.

In these breads the fat and sugar they contain in the dough will increase the temperature that the crust needs to form. This naturally slows down the rate of gelatisation on the surface without the need to add steam.

How to change the volume of oven spring

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

By changing how much a dough is proofed before it goes into an oven you'll change the volume the bread gets in the oven.

An underproofed loaf has not been allowed a full final proof time. Making it smaller when compared with standard bread dough.

Placing a loaf that has been underproofed into the oven creates a bigger oven spring!

To underdevelop a dough we reduce the final proof time or reduce the mixing or rest and fold period.

Both create a slightly different effect on the oven spring and the crumb colour/structure. Underproofed bread will be smaller and more lighter in taste and texture.

oven spring

Making ears and prevent rips in bread baking

If underproving dough it is wise for the baker to cut the bread before it goes into the oven. This prevents the crust getting rips during baking. Rips occur when the excess gas retained in the dough has no room to escape so it rips through the crust to escape.

This technique can be used to create an "ear" on a bread. This is where slightly underproofed bread is cut at just the right depth and angle before gong into the oven. The oven spring is forced to expand the cut along the angle leaving what looks like an ear sticking up.

How to proof wholemeal bread. 

It’s gluten structure is more complex, and strong. It doesn't shoot up as much during oven spring. Underdeveloped wholemeal dough usually results in holes in the crumb, a dense crumb and 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 and more intense flavour. If we want a light tasting bread with a thinner crust then we may choose to under develop the dough. 

Why white tin bread is often underproofed by bakers

Breads like a sandwich or farmhouse loafs can be under developed and underproofed. When making these breads, bakeries like to use recipes that conatin a high amount of water. They do this to get the maximum yield possible from their ingredients to make the bread cheaper to produce.

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 to continue raising 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.

Doughs that have had a long fermentation time before the final proof will have more proteins broken down and are often faster to be ready for the oven than doughs that have a shorter development time.

Even though we often refer to the final proof as a period of time, we are really looking for the moment when the dough is ready to go in the oven.

This can change due to the mixing technique or 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.

How to test 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, all you need to do is poke the surface of the dough lightly with your finger.

If the finger leaves a hole after 3 seconds then the yeast is exhausted. If the dough pops back up then it is still developing. A down side of this technique is that the dimple in the surface you create does not always “bake out”.

The indent can remain after baking, this is more likely if the dough is approaching over-proved when you do this test.

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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.

The common way is to allow the bread to double in size, or just under double.

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

The best way to tell if the dough is ready for the oven is to use the same recipe, the same tin or prove basket every time and work out the optimum proof size.

Generally if you use a 2lb loaf tin, you’re bread should be risen so the edges of the dough touch 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 but still don’t get any oven spring in my bread, what can I do?

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 or 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 top and bottom heat.
  • How long have you preaheated your oven and stone? I usually do mine for 2-3 hours.

Key oven spring takeaway

As you’ve learnt, to get a strong oven spring, use steam in your oven. For a bigger spring and a softer crumb, you’ll need a less developed dough.

The less developed a dough is, the more it “springs up” 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 by perfecting them you’ll find future recipes get easier to perfect the first time you try them.