The Importance of Steam

Steam is a crucial component in the bread baking process, helping to create a soft, chewy crust and a tender, moist crumb. Whether you use a baking stone or Dutch oven, a spray bottle, or a tray of water, be sure to add just the right amount of steam to your bread baking process for the best results.

Baking bread is a timeless tradition that has been passed down for generations. A warm, crusty loaf of bread straight from the oven is a comforting and delicious treat, but achieving the perfect bake can be a bit of a challenge. One key factor in baking bread to perfection is the use of steam.

Steam is a crucial component in the bread baking process because it helps to create a soft, chewy texture in the crust and a tender, moist crumb inside. During the initial stages of baking, the steam helps to prevent the surface of the bread from drying out and cracking, which can result in a hard, inedible crust. Additionally, the steam allows the bread to rise properly and attain its desired shape.

So, how can you add steam to your bread baking process? There are a few different methods to consider:

  • Preheat a baking stone or Dutch oven: Preheating a baking stone or Dutch oven in the oven helps to create a warm, moist environment for the bread to rise in. Once the dough is placed in the oven, the heat from the stone or Dutch oven helps to create steam, which is then trapped in the oven, providing the perfect environment for the bread to rise.
  • Use a spray bottle: A simple spray bottle filled with water can be used to mist the surface of the dough before baking. This will create a layer of steam that will help to prevent the surface of the bread from cracking and will encourage a soft, chewy crust.
  • Place a tray of water in the ovenwhen: Placing a tray of water in the oven is another effective way to add steam to the baking process. As the water heats up, it will create steam that will be trapped in the oven, helping to create a warm, moist environment for the bread to rise.

No matter which method you choose, it’s important to remember that too much steam can be just as detrimental as too little. Too much steam can cause the surface of the bread to become soggy and may even cause it to collapse. The key is to find the right balance, so be sure to experiment with different methods and techniques until you find what works best for you.

King Arthur contributor Maurizio Leo has a new book coming out November 8: The Perfect Loaf: The Craft and Science of Sourdough Breads, Sweets, and More. Today, he’s sharing one of his book’s most surprising tips: how (and why) to bake your bread with towels.

(Heads up: At King Arthur, we only recommend cookbooks and products that we, as bakers, truly love. When you buy through external links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)

As a home bread baker, I’m obsessed with steam. Specifically, how to get the most steam possible in my run-of-the-mill home oven when baking bread.

A healthy dose of steam at the beginning of baking helps promote a tall, golden, and shiny loaf with a brittle crust. The steam we work so hard to introduce in the oven helps keep the surface of the dough moist and elastic while baking, allowing it to rise fully for maximum volume.

The challenge is that the typical home oven isn’t designed to bake with steam inside, whereas a commercial bakery oven has optimal steam at the press of a button. Home ovens encourage dry roasting, resulting in food with a browned, crunchy crust (case in point: that wonderfully crisp-skinned Thanksgiving turkey). To ensure dry heat is circulated, the vents in a home oven allow the moisture from roasting food to escape, making it hard to steam well.

With bread baking, we want this dry heat too, just not so early. If a loaf starts baking in a dry oven, the crust dries prematurely and can’t optimally expand, resulting in less rise and a dull crust. So there’s a balance: ample steam at the beginning (usually about 20 minutes in a home oven) and then finish baking in a dry oven.

So now that we know we want steam when baking, what’s the best way to get it?

Crisp, golden brown loaves are the goal.

Baking inside a Dutch oven or combo cooker

Over the years, I’ve tested myriad ways to add more steam to the oven when baking bread. The simplest approach, popularized by many notable bakers, is to bake bread with an “oven inside of an oven.” Using a lidded pot, like a Dutch oven or combo cooker, traps the moisture escaping from the dough inside, providing just the right steamy environment. While this method is easy and effective, there’s just one problem: What if we want to bake more than one loaf at a time or a loaf that’s a shape other than that of our pot?

Provide continuous steam with a pan and towels

My love of a long and tapered bâtard — which won’t fit in a round pot — prompted me to search for a different approach to steaming when baking bread at home. Instead of baking in a pot, a well-known method for steaming home ovens is to put a pan on a lower rack (or at the bottom) of the oven, beneath the baking bread, and throw ice or water into it. This creates an initial blast of steam that fills the oven and moistens the dough.

But back to the problem of home ovens: They have vents. So that initial blast of steam, while beneficial, quickly dissipates and the dough is left back in a dry environment sooner than optimal.

So for an even shinier crust, I like to place a second pan in the oven next to the pan where ice is thrown: one that holds a few tightly rolled kitchen towels saturated with boiling water. Before loading your dough in the oven, place that wet-towel-filled pan in there alongside the pan where you throw ice or water.

Slide your towel-filled pan next to a second pan where you’ll throw water or ice at the beginning of baking.

This approach continually steams the oven even after the pan with ice/water uses up all its liquid. The towels create steam slowly but continuously as they bake in the oven, turning the absorbed water inside the towels to steam. The steady steam results in loaves with more volume and a crust that’s shiny and delightfully crispy.

I know what you might be thinking: towels in the oven — won’t those burn to a crisp? I typically use two to three towels, and as long as they’re completely saturated with boiling water, they never get a chance to bake completely dry. Additionally, the pan with towels is removed after the initial 20 minutes in which steam in the oven is beneficial, so there’s no danger of burning the towels. And to be safe, I always use towels that don’t have any exposed tags.

(One note: If you have a convection oven, I prefer not using it with this steaming method. The fan blows around the steam in the oven and tends to prematurely dry the dough.)

Equipment you need

  • Baking steel or stone
  • Roasting pan (with optional culinary-grade lava rocks or ceramic briquettes), or another oven-safe pan like a cast-iron skillet
  • A second roasting pan (or any oven-safe pan or shallow pot)

How to steam your home oven with towels

If your baking surface (such as a baking stone or baking steel) is wide enough, you should be able to bake two oval loaves side by side using this method. If you’re baking two smaller rounds (boules), they might fit catty-corner to each other.

Regardless of how many loaves you bake, I find it helpful to get everything ready before you score your dough.

Step 1

Place a baking steel/stone on an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and an empty roasting pan at the bottom of the oven to one side. (If your oven has exposed heating elements at the bottom, place a rack as low as possible to hold the roasting pans, then use another rack above for the baking steel/stone.) I like to fill this pan with culinary-grade lava rocks or ceramic briquettes to increase the hot surface area, but this is optional. Preheat your oven to the temperature specified in your recipe. (Here, I’m making Pain au Levain.)

Step 2

To a second roasting pan add two to three cotton kitchen towels rolled tightly and placed snugly against each other in the center of the pan. Turn a kettle on and boil about two cups of water (to completely saturate three towels).

Fill a container with two cups of ice and set it next to the oven.

Step 3

Before scoring your dough, pour the boiled water over the rolled-up towels in the roasting pan until completely saturated, then slide the pan into the bottom of the oven, next to the roasting pan already preheating in the oven.

Step 4

Transfer your dough from its proofing basket to a parchment-lined pizza peel (or inverted baking sheet or cutting board). Score the dough. Slide the dough with the parchment paper directly onto the baking surface in the oven.

Step 5

Carefully pour the container of ice into the roasting pan without the rolled-up towels and shut the oven door. Let the dough bake according to the recipe. For free-form loaves, recipes typically indicate baking with steam for the first 15 to 25 minutes in the oven. After this time, remove both of the roasting pans used for steaming from the oven. Continue baking the dough for the remaining time specified in the recipe.

The resulting crust from baking Pain au Levain with towels for steam.

I know: It’s strange placing kitchen towels in your oven to bake bread. But while this approach is different, it’s incredibly effective. Once you see the results from this extra steam, what once seemed strange might now be your go-to approach to baking bread.

The Perfect Loaf was named one of our best baking books of 2022 — find the full list in our Holiday Gift Guide.

Artisan bread still warm from the bakery is one of the world’s simple pleasures. Seeing the shiny, golden-brown crust of a baguette peeking out of the paper bag is a sign that there’s some true joy in your future. So, why is it so hard to produce the same quality of bread at home? Besides years of training and practice, one of the lesser-known reasons is the role that steam plays in bread baking (via King Arthur Baking). It’s so important that those big commercial ovens are able to inject steam directly into the baking chambers. That steam is the key to creating the perfect crust on every boule that makes its way out their door.

Commercial ovens aren’t typically accessible to the average home baker. Besides being incredibly large, they’re expensive and don’t make much sense for someone who only bakes a couple of loaves a week. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get the same effects from a conventional home oven.

What role does steam play?

Steam plays such an important role in baking bread for several reasons, but essentially, it’s helping your bread with its last stage of fermentation (via Slate). Fermentation is what makes the difference between good bread and great bread and can be one of the hardest aspects of baking to master, according to Food Network. The yeast that is added to your bread feeds on the sugars in the flour and produces gas that causes your bread to rise and loads it up with flavor as well (via BAKERpedia).

Slate explains that the last stage of this process and the first stage of baking is called the oven-spring. This is the point where the last of the yeast is producing gas rapidly thanks to the increased heat, and the bread gets its final lift before the yeast is killed off. The moisture helps the yeast and prevents the final crust from forming too soon. Slate notes that the surface of the bread stays elastic, which lets the dough further expand, and opens the interior or crumb to make it chewy and soft.

Once the yeast has died off and the steam evaporates, the dry heat of the oven causes a Maillard reaction as the crust forms. This adds even more sweet, caramelized flavor to the bread, and gives it that shiny, appetizing crust.

How to steam bread at home

King Arthur Baking recommends three methods to inject steam into a home oven. The first method is to take a simple spray bottle filled with water and spray the loaf lightly before it goes into the oven. The loaf will need a second spray about five minutes into the baking. This method is fairly easy to do, but King Arthur Baking found that it doesn’t affect the final bread.

The second method the site recommends involves putting a preheated cast-iron pan on the tray under the loaf and fill it with about 1 cup of boiling water. That water should quickly evaporate, fill the oven with steam, and dissipate quickly enough for the loaf to finish under dryer conditions. King Arthur Baking also recommends placing a large metal bowl over the bread to keep the steam in close proximity. Just remember to leave a portion unsealed to let the steam in.

The method that King Arthur Baking found most effective is to bake your bread in a preheated dutch oven. This traps the natural steam released by the bread nearby and produces the most desirable color and blistering on the bread’s crust.

Steam is just one step in perfecting the art of bread baking. Practicing these methods with a classic boule is a great first step before moving on to something like this delicious no-knead rosemary bread.

Bread and buns are staples of the bakery — they can be found on shelves in supermarkets, at local cafes, tucked away inside restaurant rolls baskets, or cooling off after a hot morning bake. But what goes into ensuring these baked goods turn out perfectly every time? The answer lies in controlling steam during production. Steam plays an essential role in creating top-quality bread and buns; it has the power to influence texture and flavor for gorgeous produce customers won’t be able to resist. Ensuring you can effectively control steam in bread and bun production lines is critical in producing consistent, delicious baked goods across every commercial or industrial oven.

This is why solutions have been designed to provide your ovens’ most detailed thermal profile for controlling steam in bread and bun production lines. Our technology provides superior accuracy compared to commercial-grade pressure valves: it reads steam at every point along each loaf, allowing you to accurately measure, adjust and control the amount of steam used during baking. This means that bakes are consistently even across all your ovens, providing a reliable production process with consistent results.

What Is Steam Injection?

Steam injection is a standard feature in most industrial baking ovens. It provides a quick and efficient way to ensure that dough products receive proper moisture during baking. By using short bursts of steam before and during the baking process, moisture levels can be directly controlled by your bakers. With the right amount of steam, you can control the final product’s crust color, softness, and springiness.

Considering that steam injections directly affect the humidity levels of your oven environments, it is important to have complete control over how steam impacts the quality of your baked goods. To do that, you must accurately measure the humidity levels throughout your baking process. To yield the desired effect, steam injections have to account for the steam’s temperature, the spray’s duration, the amount of moisture added, and the time of injection.

How Reading Thermal Can Help You

Reading Thermal built our SCORPION® 2 Digital Humidity Sensor to provide pinpoint accuracy of humidity levels between 32 and 662 degrees Fahrenheit, providing perspective and insight into your oven’s dew point, relative humidity, dwell times, and absolute humidity ranges. With this precise data, you can ensure that the right amount of steam is injected into your ovens at the right time.

When working with high dew point environments, such as steam injection, you need precision to make the proper adjustments. The SCORPION® 2 Digital Humidity Sensor retains an accuracy rating of +- 5% across all oven platforms, so you can be sure that your steam control will remain consistent.

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