Oven spring is truly amazing and it's probably my favourite topic in baking bread. Getting a good oven spring is make or break for homemade bread. You might be familiar with the concept of oven spring already, and if you do then great, otherwise don’t worry, I’m going to start with the basics anyway.
This guide post explains the science of how oven spring works, then shares the best way to get that final rise and lastly, some pro tips for you to manipulate your oven spring to make your bread unique.
What is oven spring?
During the start of baking, bread rapidly shoots up which is what we call oven spring. The rise can be as high as 30% on top of its original size. At the end of the rise, the outside perimeter hardens and develops into the crust.
A good oven sprung bread will be crusty, light and appealing. Understanding how to improve oven spring in homemade bread will help you to achieve crusty bread with a nice professional shine around the outside.
The benefits of oven spring
The rise in the oven forces the crust to stretch during baking. This widens the air bubbles in the crumb and makes the crust thinner. A thinner crust hardens more than thicker ones. Therefore this is why a correctly oven sprung bread has a crispy crust and a light crumb interior.
Why not just proof for longer?
Getting a rise like this during ordinary proofing is not possible. In the oven, the structure of the bread is held together allowing it to rise high without collapsing.
How does oven spring work
The rise that occurs in the oven is created by the yeast in the bread. Yeast loves being warm and works best at around 35C (95F). When the bread hits the wrath of the bread oven, the levain rapidly gets to work.
Just like proofing bread, the yeast creates carbon dioxide which is retained in the gluten network. It does this at a rapid speed and the gluten network retains the gas a raises the bread.
Not only is more gas created, as does ethanol. As moisture and ethanol in the dough evaporate they rises upwards, taking the bread with it.
These conditions create a fast rise of the bread at the start of baking which we call oven spring.
When does oven spring happen?
Oven spring begins three minutes after the bread enters the oven and continues until the crust starts to harden. It typically lasts 10-15 minutes.
But oven spring will only happen fully if there is moisture in the oven.
When bread goes into the oven the exposed outside perimeter will gelatinase immediately. It's gelatinisation that bonds the starch together to form the crust. Once the starch has gelatinised the crust is too rigid for it to expand during oven spring. So as soon as the crust is formed the bread cannot rise.
For bread to rise in the oven we need to delay the crust formation. To do this we create steam in the oven.
How steam creates oven spring
Adding water to a hot oven will evaporate to steam pretty quickly creating a moist environment. During baking, the starches gravitate to the outside of the bread and the moisture latches onto these particles.
The water around the bread prevents the starch from gelatinizing. The crust is then able to stretch as the yeast activates to force the bread upwards.
When does oven spring end?
Once the temperature of the crust hits 50-60C (in wheat breads) it starts to coagulate (harden). At around the same temperature the yeast is too hot and becomes permanently inactive. It takes 10-12 minutes for this to happen, afterwards ths oven spring is finished.
After oven spring, what else happens?
The moisture attached to the surface of the bread is absorbed into the bread or released to the oven. Using a damper after 20-25 minutes releases the steam built up so that the moisture can escape the bread. Home ovens can replicate having a damper by opening the door quickly.
When humidity is released from the oven, the heat is felt by the bread more which increases the rate of baking. The colour darkens and the crust hardens.
During the remainder of the bake, moisture escapes making the bread lighter and smaller. Most of the volume gains of oven spring are lost by the bread shrinking.
How to improve oven spring?
Follow these 7 steps to get the best oven spring in your bread. If you are completely new to baking focus on the quality of the dough and the baking process. The others will improve with practice. If you are baking sourdough bread, I've written a post on solely sourdough oven spring which you might find useful.
1. The quality of the dough
For the best oven spring, look at the maturity of the dough. I’ve not found that the hydration levels of dough affects the volume of the oven spring. Providing it is not very dry or overly wet that the gluten cannot develop. The flour must be hydrated correctly so that the gluten is long and extensible.
An autolyse before mixing can be helpful when a short fermentation window is used. This allows the flour to hydrate. As flour hydrates the gluten strands unwind fully so they are nice and long. This gives building a strong gluten structure a head start.
Extensible gluten really helps bread stretch in the oven. To find out more I have a guide on how to do an autolyse.
But what a lot of bakers don’t realise is the importance of fermenting the flour with yeast. Fermentation develops acids in the dough which help it to hold shape and retain gas. Without them the oven spring would be significantly flawed as the dough will not capture the gas created from the oven spring.
Working the dough
Dough fermentation is created when yeast is given time to react with the starch in the flour. It can be sped up by increasing the temperature or kneading. The addition of prefermented flours such as biga, poolish or sourdough improve the maturity of the dough which reduces the bulk fermentation time.
A good kneading technique is useful to develop the gluten in the flour. It can be combined or replaced with a long bulk fermentation stage. During bulk fermentation the dough needs to be turned with a stretch and fold technique.
Here is a link to a post where a home baker discovers the impact of switching his stretch and fold method:
The strength of the levain
When making sourdough bread it’s really important that the starter that you use is really active. You’ll want to see it triple in size after 5-6 hours of being refreshed.
If yours is not quite at this level, you can still make bread. After a bit more care you’ll see an improvement in the volume of your bread. Want some advice on building a sourdough starter? Check out my sourdough starter troubleshooting article
There is a post on which levain should I use for the best oven spring if you'd like to find out more on how important a levain is to oven spring.
2. How shaping is important to the oven spring of the bread
Shaping can impact how well your bread rises during proofing and in the oven. It should be shaped firm enough to hold shape so that it rises upwards instead of sideways.
Tension should be added to the outer membrane by degassing, pre-shaping, leaving to rest and final shaping firmly and confidently by stretching as it’s shaped.
Bread that has been shaped correctly will be strong enough to hold shape during proofing and baking.
3. Get the proofing right
A common reason for a weak oven spring is over-proofing the bread. Use the poke test to tell if the bread is proofed.
You will usually get a larger oven spring if it’s slightly under proofed (see below for how to adapt the oven spring). It’s best to slightly under proof than over. A good dough will tolerate going into the oven a little early.
4. Score the bread firmly
Most crusty breads are scored before they are baked. Cutting prevents the crust from ripping the surface of the dough. Rips occur when the excess gas has no place to go. The dough cannot retain it therefore it finds the weakest spot in the outer membrane and pushes through.
This can rupture the crust, ruining the bread's appearance but can also help exaggerate a cut made by the baker, improving the look of the bread.
Excess gas is more likely to be found in under fermented or under-proofed bread dough.
If you score the bread too deep or make too many cuts, you may find that the cuts don’t open up very much. Also too much gas can escape so the bread collapses when baking. Gas created by the oven spring combined with the pressure created in the oven by adding steam means that weak structured bread cannot cope.
Elaborate designs cut into the bread can cause bread to collapse.
5. Use a baking stone
A baking stone is a food-safe stone with heat retaining properties. It is preheated for 1-2 hours in the oven before bread is baked on it directly. Professional baker's deck ovens contain a baking stone at the bottom of the oven.
The heating time depends on the thickness and material of the stone and the power of the oven. A baking stone conducts heat into the bread directly which aids the oven spring and the crust formation whilst baking the bottom of the bread evenly.
A lot of home bakers experience an issue with under or over baked bottoms, using a baking stone is the best way to resolve it.
Baking stones also help retain the heat in the oven, this is especially important when baking multiple loaves in a home oven as it prevents heat from escaping when opening the door.
Here’s the baking stone I recommend:
Some home bakers add multiple baking stones, additional fire bricks and lava stones to their oven to retain more heat. Here’s a few links to amazon if you think they could be helpful to you.
6. Add steam to the oven
Learning how to add water to an oven to create steam is an essential artisan baker skill. For commercial bakers, it's 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.
Here is an article which partners with this one. It explains how to add steam to an oven for bread.
Using a dutch oven to bake bread
A dutch oven can be used to bake sourdough bread with great results. A dutch oven is essentially a bread baking oven inside a conventional oven.
The sealed oven retains moisture so the bread doesn’t need any extra steam added. There are some bakers who chuck in a couple of ice cubes with the bread to give it a boost.
Many home bakers with good quality dutch ovens discover they do not need to use a baking stone to get a good oven spring, but it may be a wise investment if you struggle with under or over-baked bottoms.
7. Bake on the right oven setting
When it comes to baking, a preheated oven with a baking stone or a dutch oven really makes all the difference. As will selecting the right setting on your oven!
Using the top heat setting when baking bread can be a bit of an oven spring ruiner! In my previous oven I always baked bread with the bottom heat only. This way I get the stone nice and hot whilst not pushing heat down from above. I would only turn the top heat setting on when making soft rolls of something that needs a short baking time for the bread to be soft.
That said I now preheat with bottom heat only and once it's come to temperature I turn the top and bottom mode on. This will be left on throughout. For soft rolls I'll raise the stone up so it's closer to the top heater element.
What setting you use depends on how heat circulates in your oven.
Can I use a fan oven for baking bread?
Fans work by circulating the air which lowers the air pressure in the oven. In lower pressured environments, heat becomes more effective which is how food cooks quicker in a fan oven.
However this is bad news for crusty bread. Lowering the pressure means the heat sets the crust earlier and ruins our oven rise.
What’s more, the side of the bread closest to the fan has all of the moisture blown away and sets even earlier. The exposed side comes out lower than its opposite, creating some very odd shaped bread!
It is possible to use a fan oven to bake bread with a dutch oven. Bread that isn’t supposed to be crusty can still be made in a fan oven.
Top oven spring tips
Do you always want oven spring when baking?
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 will get a reduction in the volume of oven spring and change the appearance of the bread.
The exact same set up can be used as described above, we just don’t add any steam.
The crust sets quickly and prevents the bread from rising. Less air is incorporated in the bread and the crust will be thicker. When cooling, the thick crust absorbs the escaping moisture, which reduces the rate moisture escapes.
The moisture ends up being retained by the compact crumb, making the bread denser and softer.
When baking bread without steam the baking time is often shortened to keep as much moisture inside the bread as possible. This makes the breads crumb soft. To shorten the baking time, sugars and fats are introduced to brown the crust. Increased heat from the top of the oven and opening the dampers throughout the bake help to quickly caramelise the crust.
Even with no adding steam, there is going to be a small amount of oven spring that occurs before the crust sets. Though it is small, it does improve the volume of bread. When baking bread without adding steam it should be almost full size when it goes in to bake.
Bread that oven springs without adding steam
Doughs that contain high amounts of fat or sugar are called laminated doughs. We’re talking brioche, challah and bready cakes such as Chelsea buns here.
These breads do oven spring, but do not need additional steam to be added to the oven.
In laminated doughs, the fat increases the temperature at which the crust forms which naturally delays the gelatinisation of the surface.
When laminated bread dough is placed in the oven there is plenty of time for the oven spring to occur before the crust sets, so there is no need to add steam.
Why no oven spring?
This happens. The issue is likely to be fixed by one of these solutions:
- Use the bottom heat setting only on the oven unless otherwise advised.
- Use a quality preheated baking stone.
- Increase the water you add to the oven. I use boiling water in a tray and sometimes spray with a mister as well.
- 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 proofed, 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? My oven is not very powerful so I heat mine for 2-3 hours.
Adjusting oven spring for individual breads
Adapting 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 bread's oven spring.
How to change the volume of oven spring
Short development time = Large oven spring
Long development time = Small oven spring
Using sourdough = Small oven spring
Adding a high amount of yeast (a percentage above 2%) will speed up the bulk and final fermentation time to make bread with a large volume of oven spring.
A baker that worked for me would sleep in and to try and catch up he’d add extra yeast to his doughs. The resulting bread would often rise so high in the oven that we’d need to place a piece of cardboard over the crust to protect it from the top of the oven as two of us yanked them out!
You will also get larger amounts of oven spring when reducing the final proof, though this can be risky and often causes holes throughout the bread or a ruptured crust.
How to get an Ear on your bread
The elusive ear is very popular at the moment. I’ve written a bog post that explains the process of creating an ear in more detail. Take a look at the how to get an ear on bread article.
Conclusion and Limitations
As you can see much can be achieved if we get good oven spring, though I think improving the oven spring is the wrong way to look at it. Yes, we need to get the right conditions in the oven, but that’s generally the easy bit. The focus on improving the bread should always come from the start. The dough. And the levain.
If the dough and the yeast or sourdough is good then the rest usually falls into place.
Before I leave you with some frequently asked questions I would like to take a moment to not expect too much from oven spring.
We should not expect oven spring to do the proofing of our bread. This is what the final proofing stage is for. Before cutting and baking the bread should be at around full size.
If we go into the oven too early with an under fermented dough the oven spring will be large and irregular. The likelihood that under proofed bread will have an uneven, irregular crumb or a weak crust is high. Dough should be properly matured during fermentation to prevent a poor or uneven bread structure.
Oven spring is an important factor, just don't expect too much!
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 and prevents an excess burst of gas bursting through and ruining the surface of the bread.
When bread enters the oven, the yeast in the bread gets progressively active as it warms and rapidly produces gas to expand in the structure formed by the gluten. This forces the bread to rise in the first 10 minutes of baking which we call oven spring.
When sourdough bread enters the oven the yeasts provided by the starter increase in activity as the dough warms up. As baking continues the levain raises the bread aggressively which forces the bread to rise by around 30% which we call oven spring.