Oven Spring: A Guide On How It Works

How oven spring occurs is amazing, you may already be familiar with how oven spring works to push dough up in the oven. 

This post should explain why it happens and how to manipulate it to our advantage.

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

Learning artisan bread baking is what this site is about.

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. 

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If you have never heard of oven spring before, no worries. I'll start with the basics and by the time you have read the full post, you'll know understand one of the most interesting processes in bread baking.

Here's a brief explanation of oven spring:

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.

What happens when bread goes into the oven?

To understand how oven spring works, we need to understand what happens in the bread making process. Most important in the topic of oven spring is knowing how the bread rises by using a levain.

Choices of levain available to rise bread

Yeast, Sourdough or whatever type of levain you use to raise your bread love warm temperatures. In good warm conditions, they become more active and work harder to ferment the flour. Depending on your levain choice, they have different characteristics and optimum temperatures. 

how oven spring works

Yeast based levains

We typically use yeast based levains including biga’s, poolish’s, instant or fresh yeast to prove our bread. Yeast’s have differences between brands, some are designed for lower temperature proving, other options include delayed action or sweet doughs. The yeast breaks down starch from the flour into ethanol and carbon dioxide. 

Sourdough and Bicarbonate of Soda based levains

A Sourdough gains its personality from the environment, the type of flour used, the water, ratio, feed time, age, temperature….. Every Sourdough is unique! These both work the same way, when the levain is added to the dough mix, the contrasting Ph factors of the levain and the other ingredients react to create carbon dioxide and rise the bread. Write more here!!

Either way, they do the same thing…

….Raise the bread!! As a general rule, they work best at around 30 - 40C. When your bread hits the warmth of the oven the levain rapidly increases its activity which causes the dough to spring up. This process happens until the levain becomes permanently inactive at around 60C, the phrase “The yeast dies” is often used to describe it between bakers.

So the carbon dioxide created from the increased levain activity shoots the bread up, but there’s another process going on too.

...As we may remember from our school days, when particles heat up, they expand. There is already plenty of carbon dioxide and ethanol in the dough created from the pre-oven development. When the dough hits the heat, the yeast rapidly works causing the carbon dioxide to expand, pushing the bread up rapidly.

A bit of the ethanol remains in the bread which adds to the breads flavour the rest evaporates away. The moisture in the dough has an action too. As it evaporates it pushes the bread upwards (heat rises) and helps push the bread up.

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

When met with heat, the outside edges of the bread want to immediately gelatinase and form a crust. Having a setting crust would halt the breads ability to push up, or in other words:

                          There will be no oven spring

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

Adding water to a hot oven quickly evaporates and turns into steam. This is going to make a moist environment in the oven which stops the crust forming straight away and gives the bread time to spring up. We call this oven spring.

With the addition of steam, the dough’s able to push up during the first ten minutes of entering the oven. This is oven spring. After this period, it gets too hot for the levain, which gets killed off and combined with the steam starting to become absorbed into the bread, the crust forms.

If you are interested in learning how to add water to the oven, check out this piece. The bread stays roughly the same size (it shrinks a little) for the remainder of the bake. Bread that‘s steamed and oven sprung correctly has a crusty and glossy crust.

When do we not want any oven spring?

There are breads that we may choose to not want oven spring too. Soft rolls should go into the oven when they are 90% proved to the final size.

By not adding steam we are going to have a minimal oven spring. 

The same reactions happen inside the dough without allowing it to spring up. This means a denser crumb which is what we want in this type of bread.

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By with-holding the oven spring, you get a thicker crust and a shorter bake time. A thicker crust slows down the rate that moisture in the dough can escape whilst cooling. By retaining moisture and having a shorter 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 bake it!

Adding steam to the oven to create oven spring

Learning how to add water to an oven to create steam is essential in 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 heating 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 creates oven spring without the need to add steam.

How to change the volume of oven spring

When you start moving from a beginner bread baker to learning 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. 

oven spring

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

It’s not usually a good idea to underproof wholemeal bread. 

It’s gluten structure is more complex, and strong. It doesn't shoot up as well during the oven spring period which usually results in holes in the bread crumb, or a dense crumb and sometimes both.

 Well developed bread results in a black 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. Underdeveloped dough also will result in a bigger oven spring.

It is often a good idea to underproof and underdevelop a white tin bread

Breads like a sandwich or farmhouse loafs can be under developed and underproofed.

When making these breads, bakeries tend to use as of a high hydration level as possible. They do this to get the maximum yield possible from their ingredients which makes the bread 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 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 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.

The best way 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.

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.