How correctly using heat and steam improves your bread
I’m sure this has happened to you. You’ve taken time over your bread dough but when it’s baked, it’s not quite as you hoped. In the 4th in my series Bake Better Bread, I share some bread baking tips on heat and steam. Follow these and you’ll see an improvement in your bread!
Domestic ovens are not designed to bake bread. You might remember back to domestic science/cookery lessons at school when you were told not to open the door of your oven once the cake was inside. This is because as soon as you do so, the temperature will go down very quickly. You want a consistent temperature for your bread too.
Commercial bread ovens can bake 260°C (500°F) or higher – not generally achievable with a domestic oven. Most have a stone floor that retains and distributes the heat.
Don’t rely on the dial on your cooker. It’s a great idea to check what temperature your domestic oven actually reaches, you might be surprised. An oven thermometer is a useful tool and costs from only £3.99 from Amazon.
If you have the option, turn off the fan, it will work better without and add steam (see below). If you can, aim to bake your bread at 230°C (450°F).
Use a cast iron casserole dish or dutch oven
Introducing a method of retaining the heat and maintaining a constant temperature will also improve the crust and bottom of your loaf.
Baking your bread in a pre-heated cast iron dish gives excellent results. The dish provides a constant temperature and you can add some steam. Consider a Dutch oven or a cast iron dish. A Dutch oven has a shallow flat lid. For bread baking the Dutch oven “lid” is placed at the bottom then the upended dish on top. Whilst you can use a cast iron casserole dish with a domed lid, you’ll need to use a strip of baking parchment so you can get the loaf back out.
Janet Waugh, based in Los Angeles explains: “I preheat my cast iron dutch oven for 45+ minutes at 500° (260°C or as hot as you can). I then bake cold scored dough for 20 minutes covered at 450°F (230°C), then 20-25 minutes uncovered to desired darkness. I use the “lid” as it’s easier and safer to get the loaf onto, then cover with the “base”. It works very well”. Some bakers add a squirt of water before shutting the lid.
Using a cast iron casserole dish is feasible, but remember to place a long wide strip of baking parchment at the bottom then place the bread dough on top so you can get it out easily. Just remember the pot will be fiendishly hot!
Use a baking stone
Whilst using the method above gives great results, it is not ideal if you want to bake more than one loaf at a time or bake other yeasted items. It’s well worth acquiring a baking ‘stone’. Ideally, this should fit the entire shelf in your oven – whilst round pizza stones are fine, they will limit your options.
A baking stone will cost from around £18 for 30 x 30 cm. I have had great results using a granite tile purchased from B&Q (you can often buy them singly in store) and a fireclay plate from Pepita which handily is available in a larger size if you have a range cooker. Other varieties are available.
The key is pre-heating. Set your oven to the desired temperature and put your stone in for at least an hour before you bake.
When you add steam when baking, it gives the bread a chance to expand and heat to penetrate the interior – often called oven spring. Most large commercial bread ovens are fitted with steam injection operated by button. To make a great crust, you want replicate this button and introduce steam into your domestic oven. Adding a pan of water is one method. This works fairly well and is most the suitable method for gas ovens. After experimenting, I discovered that putting the tray of water above the bread rather than below gives better results.
You can add steam in an electric oven by simply spraying water in using a spray bottle you might use on plants. A few short blasts can make all the difference. Spray your stone before the bread goes in then just spray liberally after you’ve put the bread on the stone.
Of course, you should be very careful when carrying out these moves.
I bake my bread for 35 minutes at 450°F (230°C)
Just a brief mention here of scoring your loaf. This is done just before you bake the dough using a sharp serrated knife or a lame (a sharp blade). This enables the loaf to expand and rise well.
Check out my other tips on How to Bake Better Bread