Hey Rangers, I’m back, and I want to talk about a couple things before I dive into the world of baking bread with steam.
Most important first, and this has nothing to do with bread: If you are or were ever a fan of Power Rangers, AND if you have ever seen Breakfast Club, go see the new Power Rangers movie. There are misunderstood teens sitting in a circle sharing their detention stories, and that’s just the beginning in terms of similarities.
Second: I would love to hear if anyone tried the ciabatta recipe from my last post, or if you have any questions. Drop me a line in the comments if you have tried any recipe thus far. I know the ciabatta is perhaps intimidating, so on a scale from Just Can’t Even to Salt Bae, you may relate to Crying Michael Jordan. That’s totally fine, you are still a rockstar in my eyes. But I’d love to hear from people (and hopefully I figured out the problem with my spam filter treating real comments like spam). So talk to me!
Moving on to the topic at hand: Why use steam when baking bread? The steps can be cumbersome and the danger of burning your hand is super real. Luckily, a lot of breads turn out beautifully without steam, or with just a little water sprinkled on top. The only bread I’ve featured on this blog that benefits from a really steamy oven is the ciabatta.
According to ATK’s Bread Illustrated, there are three main reasons why baking with steam is so great:
- The steam will convert starches on the loaf’s surface into a sort of gelatinous sheath, resulting in a loaf with a glossy, crackling crust. Because of this end result, steam is best used with more rustic breads like ciabatta.
- In a dry environment, the loaf’s surface can dry out. Adding steam helps to prevent this, and as a result, the loaf rises more during baking.
- Moist environments transfer heat more rapidly than dry environments, making the first few minutes of baking super productive because the trapped gases expand more quickly.
Professional bakers achieve those beautiful, shiny, crackly crusts on baguettes and boûles because they have access to ovens that inject steam into the chamber. Therefore, no heat is lost by opening the oven door and no fingers are scalded by trying to pour water into hot pans while avoiding the bread and the oven lights and the oven window—in case you didn’t know, getting water on the lights or the window can crack them, which would be pretty awful.
Us home bakers must make do with what we have, which includes ovens that give unreliable temperature readings (a simple oven thermometer like this one can help here) and lack steam jets. If you have an oven with said jets, please, let’s hang out.
If you are thinking “Why on earth would I try something that could potentially injure myself and my oven?” let me tell you that I’m exaggerating the dangers slightly. If you still aren’t convinced that baking with steam can take your loaves from zero to hero, you do you, friend. In any case, here are the four methods that I have tried, including their pitfalls.
The Ice Method
Before preheating, place a small pan on the bottom rack of your oven. When the loaf is ready to be baked, fill a small container (like a 2-cup Pyrex) with ice cubes. Working quickly so as to retain heat, place the loaf in the oven and pour the ice into the hot pan—you will probably need to pull the bottom rack out slightly to reach the pan. Close the door and continue on your merry way.
Advantages: It’s a little more straightforward than other methods, and less messy.
Drawback: The heat needed to melt those ice cubes needs to come from somewhere, which means the ice takes away heat from your loaf.
The Boiling Water Method
The Boiling Water Method: Before preheating, place a small pan on the bottom rack of your oven. Boil a cup or two of water. When the loaf is ready to be baked, pour the boiling water into an easily maneuverable vessel, and put on an oven mitt. Working quickly so as to retain heat, place the loaf in the oven, pour the water into the hot pan—you will probably need to pull the bottom rack out slightly to reach the pan. Close the door and continue on your joyous way.
Advantage: The water is already hot, so it won’t steal as much heat as the ice cubes.
Drawback: It’s easy to spill water on the oven window in your rush, and nobody wants that.
Those two methods are ok, but not ideal. They can offer a nice burst of steam, but maybe not as much as would be desirable.
The next two methods are wonderful. They both require some extra equipment, but at least for the Lava Rocks method, the extra expense can be pretty small.
The Lava Rocks Method
Fill two disposable cake pans with lava rocks, which you can buy for pretty cheap and find most anywhere that sells outdoor grilling supplies. Place the pans in the oven before preheating. Boil about two cups of water and fill a squirt bottle with water. When the loaf is ready to be baked, put on oven mitts and pour some of the boiling water over the lava rocks. Quickly close the door, then wait about thirty seconds before sliding your bread into the oven. Once the bread is in place, pour the rest of the water over the lava rocks and shut the oven door. Spray the lava rocks with water at about 30 second intervals for the next couple minutes. Continue on your effervescent way.
Advantages: So much steam! Also, lava rocks and squirt bottles, how cool!
Drawbacks: Some extra equipment. Needing to hang around the oven for a while. Still a chance of being burnt.
The Covered Baker Method
Bake your bread in a dutch oven or a cloche. Take the lid off about halfway through baking (or as the recipe prescribes). That’s it. Continue on your efficient way.
Advantages: Incredibly simple. And proven to produce amazing bread.
Drawback: This will only work for loaves of a particular size (at most medium-large) and of a particular shape (round).
Baking bread with steam in your home oven will always be slightly dangerous and slightly awkward, but the results are truly fantastic. If you have a method that you like or that you think is far superior to the ones I have described here, let me know in the comments!