Steam in bread baking: how steam can transform your bread from dull to dazzling

Have you ever loaded your perfectly risen artisan bread into the oven, only to discover a dull, constricted loaf at the end of the bake? How do artisan bakeries achieve that lovely golden, crisp, shiny crust? Steam in bread baking is the key!

Steam in bread baking-17

Adding steam during baking doesn’t just enable a great rise in the oven, and help develop a beautiful, crackly crust.

Steam in bread baking promotes an open crumb structure, as well as rich flavor and color. Click To Tweet

But how can we get results like this at home?

Today we’re going to test different home methods of adding steam in bread baking. Our test bread is the Pain Au Levain recipe used in our Baking School. This lovely sourdough bread has a mild flavor and a wonderfully open crumb.

Pain Au Levain is the perfect guinea pig for our steam tests. We can first admire the loaves baked in class, utilizing a professional steam injection oven. Next, we’ll use the same recipe at home to test various baking and steaming methods. Which home steaming method will bring us closest to professional oven results?

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourThat’s the Baking School’s steam injection oven on the left, and closeups of the Pain Au Levain loaves baking on the right. Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourAnd here’s a beautiful loaf straight from the oven. See what we’re aiming for here?

If you want to follow along with our tests and bake the Pain Au Levain bread, you can find the recipe and directions here. If not, these steaming methods will work with any artisan bread recipe.

Time to bake

We’ll bake this bread at 450°F for 35 to 40 minutes. If you plan to use a stone and a cast iron frying pan (for steam), preheat both of these for 60 minutes before baking.

A brief note about scoring (a.k.a. “slashing”)

Before we get too steamy, let’s take a moment to consider the importance of scoring your bread before baking. Those cuts in your bread aren’t just decorative! Scoring the loaf provides a strategic vent to release fermentation gases during baking. Good scoring, along with proper steaming, allows your loaf to open up fully. Without scoring your loaf is likely to burst open at weak spots and end up oddly shaped and constricted.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourThe Pain Au Levain bread requires one long “ear” or “lip” cut down the center of the loaf. Notice how the blade is angled, and only one corner of the blade touches the loaf.

For more tips on scoring, check out this blog post and helpful video.

Ways to add steam in bread baking

Before we get started, please remember to suit yourself up with good oven mitts whenever you’re working with steam!

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Steam in bread baking: Method #1

The simplest method of adding steam to your oven is to spray the loaf with warm water prior to putting it into the oven. Spray the oven once the bread is loaded, and then again about 5 minutes into the bake.

Unfortunately, this method doesn’t offer much moisture, and the effects on the bread are minimal.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Steam in bread baking: Method #2

In class our instructor illustrated method #2. She loaded the loaf onto the preheated stone and then poured about 1 cup boiling water into a preheated cast iron frying pan on the shelf below. This method works quite well, as you can see from the resulting loaf on the right.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourI tried the same method at home with the addition of preheated lava rocks in the frying pan. My loaf looked great, too.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Steam in bread baking: Method #3

If you want to enhance the effect of method #2, a large metal bowl can be placed over the loaf to trap the steam and keep it close to the surface of the bread during the oven-spring period.

This is part of the reason steam injection ovens get such great results; the individual “decks” of the oven aren’t very high, keeping the steam where it’s needed—on the surface of the loaf.

Load your loaf onto the preheated stone and then place the bowl over the loaf, with the front of the bowl overhanging the stone and leaving a gap that lines up with the preheated cast iron frying pan below.

Pour about 1/2 cup bowling water into the frying pan and shut the door. Remove the bowl 15 minutes later and allow the bread to finish baking in a dry oven. A butter knife comes in handy to lift the hot bowl, which will be hard to grab with oven mitts.

If steam is so great, why finish in a dry oven?

Steam is vital during the oven-spring period so that the surface of the loaf remains moist and expands easily. However, once the yeast has died and the loaf is set, moisture is no longer a friend to your bread. Too much moisture throughout the bake can lead to a thick, rubbery crust.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Steam in bread baking: Method #4

A Dutch oven or cloche also works to keep the moisture given off by the bread during baking close to the surface of the loaf, allowing for the same kind of expansion and shiny, golden crust.

Although we don’t generally recommend preheating empty any of the baking pots we sell (a method popularized by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman about a decade ago), Emile Henry’s 4.2-quart Dutch oven can be preheated empty, as can their new potato and bread pot. These pots heat up more quickly than cast iron, so 30 minutes preheating should be sufficient. Remove the lid after 20 minutes of baking.

Never fear, though, if you don’t have a pot suitable for preheating empty (or don’t like messing with a very hot pot), you can still get great results baking in your Dutch oven. In the photos above, I put the Staub Dutch oven with its cargo of risen bread into a preheated oven; but if you prefer a cold start, that works great too. Again, it’s important to remove the lid and allow the bread to continue baking in a dry oven after the loaf is set (remove the lid after 25 minutes in a preheated oven, after 30 minutes when baking from a cold start). Overall baking time will be a little longer when baking from a cold start.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Let’s compare our results

The loaf on the left was steamed with method #1. This loaf failed to open properly where I scored it, and the crust is dull in color. Notice how the crumb structure is relatively dense, in comparison with the other loaves? It will still be a delicious loaf of bread, but more steam would have made it even better.

The loaf in the center was steamed with method #2. It opened up beautifully and has a lovely brown crust, although not quite as shiny as loaf #3.

The last loaf was baked with method #3. See how shiny and blistery the crust is, and how open the crumb?

Both this loaf and the loaf baked in the Dutch oven were refrigerated overnight in their shaped form before being baked the next day. This added step contributes to a more blistery crust, as well as more sour flavor.

Overnight refrigeration is particularly useful when you know your schedule will interfere with baking bread on its own schedule — when it’s perfectly proofed and ready to go into the oven.

What happens when you over-proof your bread?

Have you ever wondered what effect allowing your dough to rise too long in the shaped form has on the final outcome of your bread?

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour
Notice there are lots of large gas bubbles right under the surface of the loaf above. This is a sign that the loaf has been allowed to rise too long before going into the oven. I deliberately over-proofed this loaf as an added experiment, and baked it using the bowl method of steaming (#3).

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourThe loaf on the right is my over-proofed loaf, and the loaf on the left is loaf #3. While my over-proofed loaf didn’t open up quite as much as loaf #3 and has a slightly denser crumb structure, it still rose well and colored up nicely.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflour

Steam saves the day!

If we compare the crumb of my over-proofed loaf (right) to the relatively closed crumb of loaf #1 (left), we can see how even an over-proofed loaf will fare better with steam than a loaf that doesn’t get enough steam.

Keep in mind that not all breads will endure as well as this one did when allowed to rise too long. Have you ever scored your loaf, only to see it deflate like a poked balloon? Or has your lofty loaf collapsed in the oven? These are sure signs that you’ve let your bread rise too much before baking.

I hope you’ll give our Pain Au Levain recipe a try and test out some of these steaming methods as well. Steam really does make the difference!

You can view the Pain Au Levain recipe here, along with the printable version.

Steam in bread baking via @kingarthurflourBig thanks go out to Lee Clarke for taking these beautiful photos during class, so I could get down and dirty with the dough!

And if you ever get a chance to take a class at one of our baking schools, I guarantee you’ll have a great time, and go home with a wealth of baking knowledge and techniques.

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Tatiana

    Hi, I have a professional oven with steam injection but I´m so confused because it has low, medium and high steam power and a button for manual steam injection.
    So I saw that 10 seconds of manual steam injection was perfect but after some minutes they came out from the oven the crust is not crunchy anymore. Then I have been reading many books and it says that for sourdough it´s needed steam in the first 10 minutes. Please help me and thank you so much 🙂

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks for the clarification, Tatiana! Let me know if you have further questions.
      Barb

    2. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Tatiana, different ovens will release different amounts of steam, so it may take a little trial and error for you to discover the best amount of steam to add to your sourdough baking. When you added 10 seconds of steam manually, did you also vent the steam after about 10 minutes? The idea is to add enough steam so that the surface of your loaves stays moist during the oven spring period. Once the internal temperature of your bread reaches 140 degrees and the yeast dies, then the loaves won’t rise further and you need to vent the steam and allow the bread to finish baking in a dry oven. If the bread softens too much after baking, it may be helpful to bake it a little longer. Although on humid days, any bread crust is going to soften up a bit as it cools. That’s why baguettes are best consumed the same day!
      Barb

  2. Lu Peeters

    I’m wondering about overnight refrigeration, which I have been playing around with in order to improve the flavour of my bread. I find that the sourdough flavour is definitely more pronounced, but I frequently get a less than ideal rise out of the bread after it’s been in the fridge. Is there a way to deal with this? I feel like part of it may be finding the right balance between giving the dough enough time to come to temperature after taking it out of the fridge without letting it overproof; not sure if a warmer or colder proofing environment (after taking the bread out of the fridge) would help.

    Also, is there any difference in whether you refrigerate before the first or final proof? Could you do both?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Lu, refrigerating the dough does tend to promote sour flavor development in your bread. However, in order for the fermentation time in the refrigerator to be productive, the dough has to spend enough time at room temperature prior to refrigeration to get the dough actively fermenting. In other words, if you stuck your dough in the refrigerator right after mixing and kneading, the cold would stall fermentation, preventing the dough from doing much of anything while it’s in there. I’ve found what works best is to allow the dough to proof at room temperature in bulk form until it’s rising well and looks and feels airy and light. That’s a sign that it’s ready to be shaped and placed in the refrigerator for the final rise.

      If your bread looks ready to bake in the morning, there’s really no need to let it come to room temperature before baking. The only real concern has to do with the baking pot, and whether in might break from thermal shock if you place cold dough in it and put it directly in the oven. If your pot is up to the challenge, your well-proofed dough will benefit from baking directly from the refrigerator.

      I hope this helps!
      Barb

  3. Alex

    I’ve been baking sourdough in a Staub dutch oven – preheating it to 500 and then dropping the oven temp to 450 when the bread is in. Overall this seems to work well although I’ve been concerned about preheating an empty pot. Would it make sense to preheat the pot with some water in it? Then dump the water before baking? I’m thinking this would solve the problem of heating an empty pot and might even help create a tiny bit of extra steam with any residual water left in the pot. Would love to know your thoughts.

    Also, I’m wondering what is the reason that steam is so helpful for creating great crumb and crust? I have my theories about why it would work, but I’d love to hear the *real* reason.

    Thank you for your blog – it’s an incredible resource!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Alex, you’re right to be concerned about preheating your Staub Dutch oven empty, as Staub doesn’t recommend this practice. We’ve found that both the cold start method and baking in a preheated oven can deliver great results, so you have some excellent alternative options. The issue with preheating with water inside the pot is that the water temperature won’t go above 212°F, so this will essentially keep the temperature of the pot much lower than the oven temperature. On the other hand, it will be hotter than room temperature, so it might be worth a try. I’m guessing, however, that the difficulties associated with this method may outweigh the benefits. The science behind the benefits of steam in bread baking is much more involved than I can fully explain here, but to put it very simply: steam helps create an open crumb by keeping the surface of the loaf moist and flexible during the oven spring period, thereby allowing for greater expansion. Delaying the formation of the crust also results in a thinner, crisper crust, while moisture aides in the gelatinization of the starches on the surface of the loaf–contributing to shine and color. Pretty miraculous when you think about it!
      Barb

  4. Joy Hurlburt Angelbeck

    We bought a wonderful walnut sourdough bread in Berkeley, California years ago. That bakery no longer exists. Do you have a recipe for something similar? Please let me know. My husband lived that bread.
    Thank you,
    Sincerely,
    Joy

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We have a recipe for Fruity-Nutty Sourdough, Joy, that’s simply delightful. You can leave out the dried fruit if you just want the walnuts to be the defining mix-in within the dough. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Averill, I love that I get to learn about new innovations from our readers! This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this product, but the results look promising. It seems to rely on the same principle of pouring water into a hot pan, but the channels may cause the steam to be dispersed a little more gradually and more evenly throughout the oven? I think I’ll wait until there are more reviews, and perhaps an American distributor?
      Barb

  5. JohnAKA

    I have had great results with the 2nd method in making bread and choux pastry. However, how would this work with breadsticks? I tried Paul Hollywood’s Olive Breadsticks, but while they had a bit of crust, could have done with more (it may be that I used olives in oil, not brine). Shirley Corriher suggests spraying cream puffs with water as well as pouring hat water onto hot rocks, so this would seem to work for crispy breadsticks.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi John. Having a little steam in the oven at the beginning of the bake should give your breadsticks a nice crispy exterior. If you have hot rocks, that would work well. Or, if you’re able to cover the breadsticks with a lid or even a tent of tin foil for the first few minutes it would trap some steam to make them good and crunchy. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  6. laura

    I did my first sourdough this weekend and it was good and I used your Method 2 to get the steam. But it was too much “work” and I keep worrying that I’ll burned myself.
    So, if I get a dutch oven and I prefer to put the loaf in it for rising, how long do I have to cook it for? You say that it can be done from cold and longer. But not sure how long is long?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Laura, we’re so glad to hear that your sourdough bread turned out well! I can totally understand your reluctance to mess around with steam; it can be a little scary. When baking in a Dutch oven with a cold start I would recommend putting the almost risen loaf and pot in the oven and waiting about 30 minutes before you remove the lid. Once the lid is removed it will take varying amounts of time for the loaf to finish baking, depending on the recipe and the size of the loaf, but I would guess it’s going to be another 20-25 minutes or so. Look for a rich golden brown color, firm crust, and when you tap the loaf on the bottom it sounds hollow.
      Barb

    2. laura

      So is cold start without a preheated oven or is it still considered a cold start if I preheat the oven but not the pot? Thanks for your reply

    3. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Laura, a “cold start” is when the pot and loaf are put in a cold oven, and then the oven is turned to the baking temperature. It will also work great to put the loaf and pot in a preheated oven; with this method I recommend removing the lid after 25 minutes.
      Barb

  7. Jay Jorgenson

    Love the article! I had no idea that steam was the key in making such amazing bread! I”m excited to try this at home. My wife makes good bread but I think this will do the trick in making it amazing! Nothing better than amazing bread with some honey butter! Thanks for the tips!
    butteravenue.com

    Reply
  8. Curtis Melville

    I just wanted to had my enhancement to your Method #3 above. I’ve been baking levain with the same starter for about 12 years now. The problem with most home ovens is that they vent steam no matter which method you use to create it. (I’ve even tried duct taping the vents closed to prevent this — it shorts out the fuse, BTW.) To beat this I currently put the loaf on pre-heated oversize baking stone which I cover with a pre-heated, inverted, full-size stainless steel buffet pan (20″ x 12″ x 6″). For steam creation I use a cast iron “grill humidifier,” a rectangular trough that measures 12″ x 2″ x2,” pre-heated and filled with rocks (think sauna), into which I pour about a quarter cup of near-boiling water before loading the bread. The inverted buffet pan retains the steam which is created in great quantity by the rocks in the cast iron container. I remove the buffet pan and rocks after about 30 minutes for a 40-45 minute bake. Works better than any other method I’ve used to date.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Curtis, thanks so much for adding your steamy wisdom to this post! I love your suggestion! I’ve been doing something similar with a roasting pan when baking baguettes, but I’ll have to try your “grill humidifier” with the rocks! Sounds awesome!
      Barb

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