The Best Way To Add Steam To An Oven
If you’re wondering, “What is the secret to adding water in the oven?” Or, “What about the science behind what’s going on?” Then like me, it’ll probably bug you for years until you finally work it out. And after years of research and experience, I’ve got the problem solved.
So I’ve written this for professional and home bakers alike, it shares the best way to use steam when baking bread.
Here’s a quick outline of what adding water to an oven does:
Adding water to an oven creates a moistened environment, this allows the bread to rise easier by delaying the setting of the crust. It makes bread deliciously light and crusty.
But, there are times when we should not add water as well.
More on this, plus the techniques that get the best steam follow in this article.
The common professional outlook to adding steam to an oven
Most professional bakers learn about the process of adding water to an oven to create steam in a kind of backward way.
Let me share a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago:
I was sat in a coffee shop with John, a baker of 20 years and one of the most passionate that I’ve worked with.
Naturally, the conversation turned to bread. I asked him “What does he understand about adding steam to the oven?” His reply was typical to many heard before.
“It makes the bread go crusty”
This is true,
...but, there’s slightly more to it. Many bakers rely on old wives tales or assumptions to work out what goes on when adding water to the oven.
They get passed down from baker to baker in an establishment.
Often though there's the thing... They are not correct.
Here’s my definition of adding water to the oven a year ago:
“Water is added to the oven at the start of the bake. As the bread bakes, we can do a few things like release the steam or adjust the temperature of the oven to develop the crust. When the baking time has elapsed, the bread is removed from the oven. We allow it to cool for 20-60 minutes, depending on the size.”
After this the bread should be just as John described, crusty.
But after doing some more research on the subject I discovered this wasn't the end of steam application.
I realised there’s much more to adding water to an oven than that.
My journey to understand baking with steam
I’ve explored many ways to add steam to an oven over the years.
My desire to conquer it started back when I was a supermarket baker and the steam injector kept failing in the ovens we used.
After repeated attempts of repair I knew I needed to work out how to do it myself.
Then it occurred to me, “What is actually going on?”
After many years of baking I realised, I still don’t know!
So I set out to find the truth about adding water to an oven
Having strong technical knowledge allows any baker to get extra quality from their bread. This is extremely important when baking in a home set up.
Any extra advantage will raise your breads quality!
Learning how adding water to the oven really works has become a passion of mine. It was a piece of the puzzle that maybe I hadn’t cracked, even if thought I knew!
It took many hours of reading, watching and experimenting but I got there, and I’m delighted to share these secrets.
But, let’s start from the beginning...
How to make quality artisan bread without equipment
If you’ve learnt bread baking in a formal way, you’ve probably have come across the phrase:
“Getting the perfect dough is 80% of the quality of the loaf”
And I agree with it. The quality of your dough is going to determine the flavour, structure, shape, and colour of your bread.
Getting the hydration ratio and mixing times right are the two major factors in creating a great bread recipe.
You’re also going to have to choose the right levain to prove your bread too.
Be it yeast, sourdough, bicarb or variations of these. Changing the levain used in a bread recipe has a massive effect on the flavour and texture of your bread.
When it comes to mixing, shaping, resting and proving, the techniques are basically the same in a professional environment as they are at home.
If you don’t have a decent dough mixer then use your hands to hand knead. You can use the stretch and fold technique, or a conventional table kneading method, perhaps a mix of both or some unique method like mine.
Making dough by hand can give results better than machine if you know what you're doing. Many bakers prefer “feeling” what is going on and prefer to stay on the table.
The resting, moulding and proving skills are the same. Only, it’s unlikely you'll need to find time for scaling your dough as you’re only making a one or two loaves at a time.
You just add a 5-10 minute rest between pre-mould and final moulding.
But anyway, this post is focusing on another stage of baking…
….The oven bit
This is where all your hard work comes to an end, the moment of truth can sit in front of you. Before loading your oven, you may think, “Did I do everything right?
...Is the dough proved perfectly? Is it strong enough? The oven, hot enough?”
The dough that’s about to go in it may have been developing for hours, days in fact...
...Getting your bake right results with endless personal satisfaction.
You’ll feel able to strive the streets in confidence, pick up partners in the street, send your food back for being a touch overdone in restaurants without embarrassment….Ok, ok, I might have got a bit carried away...
...But if your bake goes wrong, you’ll feel…
...dejected, disappointed, and possibly wishing you hadn’t wasted your time.
There’s no middle ground. Check this post about oven spring if you want to find out more.
Water, or steam?
Before we begin with the juicy stuff, I’m just going to make you aware that I use the terms “water” and “steam” interchangeably in this topic.
Adding water to a hot oven in the ways you’ll see below creates steam. Which is the goal a baker strives to achieve. When I refer to this process with other bakers, we tend to lean on the “adding steam” phrase, but either is good.
So please follow if I go between adding water or steam in this article- they mean the same thing!
What goes on in the oven and what’s the importance of oven spring?
Once you have the ability to make a great dough and you’re motivated to get the bake bit right, you’re going to want to know how to get the most out of your oven.
In a home oven, you are going to need a baking stone, this emulates the stone that’s fitted in a professional deck oven.
Essentially, a baking stone helps heat transfer into the bread. This is vital for a great oven spring and crust.
I’ve covered the importance of using a stone, and how to make a DIY one in another post. So check it out if you want to know more.
But here’s a quick insight on what happens when bread goes into an oven with a baking stone:
"As the bread hits the heat of the oven, the dough warms. This gets the active levain inside to work harder (they love warmth) and the bread rises further.
Even if the dough is well proved the levain always finds more sugar to feast on. This reaction, due to the environment of the oven, forces the bread to rise rapidly.
This makes the bread spring up during the first ten minutes of baking.
We call this “The Oven Spring”.
Once the internal dough temperature hits 60C, the heat kills the levain. This halts any further rising and the bread stays the pretty much the same size.”
But in a dry oven, there’s a problem….
When bread first goes into the oven, the outside surface of it is hit by heat fiercely. It’s in direct contact with the wrath of the oven, so it kinda makes sense that it feels the heat the most!
As soon as the bread goes in, the oven gets to work by evaporating moisture from the surface of the loaf. This leads to the elastic gluten strands at the edge to bond together (coagulate).
The outside edge of the bread starts to dehydrate and then harden, which becomes the crust. It also explains that having a well-developed dough which has a strong gluten network is an important feature of a dough with a strong crust.
But in a dry oven, this creates an issue with the oven spring. The bread wants to rise, but it can’t push through the surface so it can’t.
The crust sets straight away and the oven cannot spring the bread up.
So we need to stop the crust drying out too early in the oven
When we add water to the oven, water particles quickly evaporate into the air. They latch onto the air molecules which creates a moist gas, commonly known as steam.
The water is held in the air of the oven, which makes it denser. It also means the climate of the oven becomes moist, or humid.
Adding steam to the oven delays dehydration in the crust area by creating a moist environment which allows the oven spring to take full effect.
Or for simpletons like me, another way to explain it is, adding steam allows oven spring to happen.
How to get different crust textures
To understand how to get a thick and crunchy crust over a light and moreish one, I’ll have to explain a bit more on how a crust is formed:
If you’ve been to a Swedish sauna, you’ll know that adding water to a hot environment intensifies the heat.
It’s just a trick.
Water actually cools the temperature. But due to the increase in humidity it creates, it feels more intense.
So if you think a hot humid oven allows the heat to attack the bread more aggressively to create a tougher crust, then you’re wrong. Click here if you want proof!
How starch has a role in creating a thick crust
In the previous section, I shared that the moisture from the oven is absorbed into the outer perimeter of the bread. If there is a high amount of moisture in the oven, it allows more to be absorbed into the bread.
This leads to a crust that will be stronger It’s the starch particles from the developed flour that do the absorbing. A form of sugar, starch reacts with the heat and turns the crust a golden caramel colour.
The longer bread is left in contact with the heat combined with using different oven temperatures or having more starch available will determine the crust qualities. Generally, the more intense these factors are, the stronger and darker the crust will be.
I worked in a bakery where they would crank the oven up to the max before dropping it down once the bread went in.
Despite dropping the heat, the oven starts at 500c!
It takes a while to cool to the standard baking temperature of 220-230c, and to be honest, it never really got close for the first 10 minutes.
The bread was the crust coloured quickly and well, it looked done.
The crumb would be extra moist, but the crust was never strong.
I didn’t like it
...It was flimsy...
That’s not good bread.
But what about the sheen (and the noise) freshly baked crusty bread has?
If you’ve heard the expression “singing bread” you’ll understand this. If not, it may sound a bit abstract! Crazy almost!
But it’s a common concept in baking, Once crusty bread is removed from the oven it crackles rapidly as if it were singing.
As we learnt earlier, moisture from the oven is being absorbed by the starch in the dough. Steam is also used to create the glaze that we see surrounding a well-made crust.
The starch that absorbs the moisture kinda has no control limits. They keep absorbing water and growing in size. They do this until they burst!
As these particles burst, they release a gel which coats the outside of the loaf. The gel becomes more shiny and more hard as the bread is baked. This is what happens to create the glaze we often see on the crust.
Actually, the process continues whilst the bread has been removed from the oven. Moisture is still trying to escape from the core of the loaf through the outer perimeter. The starch on the edge of the loaf latches on to it and continues to grow and burst.
It’s this bursting starch that we hear when the bread is singing to us.
Is it always necessary to add steam to an oven?
If you want your bread to benefit from oven spring fully then yes, but there are breads that you wouldn’t want to do this with. A good example is soft rolls.
If you want to bake soft bread, don’t add steam. For soft rolls you want a dense crumb and a soft top, adding steam ruins this. Stopping the oven spring means the crumb becomes denser and softer.
This is because the cells are more compact as it isn’t allowed to spring up when it goes into the oven. The absence of steam creates a thicker crust which slows down the cooling after it's baked. This creates a softer crumb (see below).
Also be careful if adding water to laminated doughs. They contain fats or sweeteners such as butter, eggs or sugar. The reason to be careful is these doughs need to reach a higher temperature before the starch starts to gelatinize so the crust doesn’t form as quickly.
If you do choose to add steam, it will have no effect on the oven spring. It is likely to encourage a thicker and harder crust, but this is usually undesired in these types of bread.
With brioche in particular, a high quantity of butter is added during the mixing process.
With doughs like this, it’s good to start mastering a new recipe without adding steam. Then adding it in small quantities if you feel the recipe would benefit.
When baking danish pastries or croissants the butter is sandwiched between the layers of dough. In this case, bakers often add a small amount of steam to the oven.
This is to aid the oven spring and to leave a glossy sheen finish on the pastries.
We can do this as the butter is already protecting the dough on the outside of the bread.
Adding a little steam will aid the bread to rise in the oven -but don’t add too much or the pastries will be crusty!
Does adding steam alter the texture of the crumb
Yes, it certainly does, we’ve already mentioned the effect it has on creating a more open crumb structure. But guess what?
Due to the delaying of the setting of the crust, adding steam actually creates a thinner crust. This means the moisture that’s trapped inside the bread after baking finds it easier to escape.
This gives the crumb a light and airy texture.
We’ve all had those “Bread Fails” where you’ve not developed enough gluten from the dough and you’ve not got enough (or any depending on the recipe) steam into the oven.
That dense, stodgy bread that tastes pleasant once warm, but gets rejected by kids and well, anyone that’s not polite! You probably only like it because you made it if you're honest.
But it’s ok, we’ve all done it!
Now you know it’s down to the dough development and the amount of steam.
How much water should I add to the oven?
This depends on the crust you want on your bread.
Adding a small amount is perfect for things like croissants, focaccia or soft ciabattas. It allows them to oven spring but doesn’t create too much of a thick crust.
To develop a strong crust typical of sourdough bread or baguettes it’s best to add steam in higher quantities.
How a professional baker adds steam to an oven
Now here we come away from science and hit matter of opinion. There’s the commercial way, by having steam jets fitted inside the ovens.
These jets are usually powered by a tank that stores pressured water.
When the oven demands it, the jets are opened and water is pushed into the oven.
It may sound great, but there are always issues with pipes clogging up and monthly expensive repair charges. At least, I’ve found that in hard water areas. It’s not worth bothering with the repair costs.
This may be a controversial comment in professional circles, but I’ve never found a reliable situation. So I tend to use the techniques used at home in a commercial bakery.
At least I know they work right every time.
The best way to add steam to a domestic oven
I’ve tried a few ways to add steam, just so you know right away, do not spray the dough itself! It’s just too much crust. Here are a few options:
Method 1 - The hot tray way
Heat a tray in the oven below the baking stone. The tray should have a reasonably decent lip at the edges to contain a cup of water.
It should also be strong enough to be able to withstand the high heat of a bread oven without wilting, check the guidelines on the packaging when purchasing.
Once you place your bread in the oven, pour a cup (you can use a jug if it’s easier) of tap temperature water onto the hot tray.
This will rapidly create steam and you’ll want to be quick to shut the door!
You can use boiling water, or ice cubes instead of water from the tap, but I’ve not found any advantages. The boiling water way tends to exhaust the steam so quickly it flies out of the oven- before I can close the door!
The ice cube way creates a steady stream of steam, but it can add too much too late on. Using tap temperature water works just fine for me.
You do need to have space in your oven for the tray, baking stone, and the bread! It also needs to be hot in the area it is placed. These are the reasons this way isn’t always possible at home.
Method 2 - The hot tray way #2
It's the same as method 1, but this time you add in more water or ice. So much more, that it doesn’t evaporate.
You have to remove the tray after 10-15 minutes after the oven spring has occurred.
This is can be great if the seal in your oven is not that great and the steam tends to escape. Otherwise, letting all the heat out as you pull a boiling hot tray out the oven is a nice thing to avoid.
Method 3 - The spray master
Use a spray mister, or if you have a big oven and a lot of bread a more heavy duty machine.
Spray inside the oven after the bread is dropped, careful to avoid the light bulbs, the door, and the baking stone!
They can shatter.
It’s hard to do this and add enough steam for your bread but is still a very credible way of doing the job.
Spraying water 3 times like this (leaving 30-second intervals between each spray) allows the oven to heat up enough between sprays and allow the steam to coat the air inside.
Method 4 - Wet the bread
Don’t do this.
The best way I’ve found to add steam to an oven
This is a combination of method 1 and number 2. It allows plenty of steam to get into the oven, and stay in there!
Due to domestic ovens not being as sealed as commercial ones, you kind of have to over-steam in a home oven, some is going to seep out so I’ve found this way works great.
When using a deck oven, I’ll just use the spray option as there is a large surface area that is safe to spray, and no space to place a tray of water.
Do you add steam when making croissants?
I do add a little steam aids them to spring up and gives your croissants a beautiful glazed surface that gives them the wow factor.
Too much steam, and they’ll go a bit crunchy.
No steam and they just look a bit dull and dry.
Do you add steam when baking sourdough?
If you want your sourdough to have a really thick crust, then yes! It’s best to add plenty of steam to the oven at the start of baking.
Then drop the temperature halfway through from 230c to around 210c. This will help slow the rate the starch pops and allow the crust to get nice and hard.
If you want a more chewy texture that matches the modern trend of stretch and fold sourdough then I would do it differently.
To get the bread to spring in the oven I would add some steam, but not too much. This will allow the rise, but won’t develop too firm of a crust.
Combine this with baking it at a constant 220c temperature for a more tearable crust.
How much oven spring will I get in different types of bread?
It depends on how developed the loaf is, for well developed, well final proved breads you will get a lot less spring than an underdeveloped dough.
Adding too much yeast will impair the flavour of your bread (I know there are a few cowboys out their!) so don’t think you can double the yeast, underproof it and it’ll be fine.
You’ll have poor flavour and crumb structure in your bread like this.
All in all, having a method to add water to the oven to create steam is vital for a home or professional baker.
For crusty, light and airy bread = add steam
Try out some of the techniques mentioned to discover your favourite method.