Friday, April 11, 2008

This will get you steamed

When you make hearth breads like the pair in the picture above. It's very important to be sure that the oven is very humid during the early stages of baking. Making sure there is plenty of water will prevent the crust from hardening before the dough has fully expanded (i.e. completed oven spring) and will assure that the starch granules have gelatinized enough so that the bread develops a nice shiny, crispy crust.

Commercial bread baking ovens are equipped with valves that fire bursts of steam to get the job done, but conventional ovens need to be gamed to make sure that there is adequate humidity. I'm sure that I have tried more ways to get water into my ovens for baking than I can recall. But I'll give it a go; over the last 3 decades I have
  • Sprayed the walls of the oven with a spray bottle
  • Soaked rags in water and put them in a bread pan in the back of the oven
  • Rigged the milk steamer from an espresso machine
  • Put a pan, a skillet in the bottom of the oven with ice cubes
  • Placed a sheet ban with water in the bottom of the oven
  • Soaked bricks and placed them on the oven floor
All of these tricks worked with varying degrees of success . (Although the spray-bottle routine ruined an oven by causing the walls to weaken and buckle.) However, nothing worked as well as the technique I adapted from Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice."

The photograph directly below shows how I set up my oven to bake hearth bread following Reinhart's technique.

A sheet pan is placed on a rack that is as high up in the oven as it can go. The oven is then preheated to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. When the oven reaches the preset temperature I slide the dough in from a bread peel, pour 6 ounces of hot water into the sheetpan, slam the door shut and bolt away to avoid getting a steam burn.

After about 8 minutes I drop the temperature to 450 degrees -because by that time oven spring is finished and there's no point in keeping the oven cranked- and let the bread "bake out."

Okay, so why put the pan of water in the top ot the oven and not at the bottom where the heating element or, if you have a gas oven, flame is? Well, the answer turns out to be pretty simple. Heat rises, so as long as you have good seals on your oven doors, the ceiling of the oven will usually be hotter than the floor. I've proven this many times to myself and my students by shooting the oven with my surface reading thermometer (seen in the photo below and here).

Note: Temps are for ceiling and floor of oven. I did not heat the oven to full bake temp. to conserve energy.

Putting the water at the top also gives a more forceful production of steam because when the steam that is generated in the pan hits the top of the oven it gets super-heated and then forced down towards the bread by the oven roof and walls.


Valerie said...

Thanks for posting these tips; I will have to try that here and then again after we move to Colorado--should be an interesting experience there since the air is drier not to mention the high altitude!

Jennie/Tikka said...

Interesting technique! I've been using a half sheet with ice cubes on the bottom of the oven when I bake at home. It's an okay technique but not great. I'll try your way.

Deborah Dowd said...

What a neat trick- I knew I read this blog for a reason (besides for the ascerbic humor!)

Sean said...

What are your thoughts on the no-knead/high hydration/closed container bread baking technique that has been making the rounds the last six months or so? I've yet to try it myself but my brother has used it to great success, achieving an airy crumb and good crust in a normal oven. Seems easier too than most other methods (and he agrees since he tried most including the method you detailed Bob).

Scotty said...

Sure, if you had posted this a week ago you would have saved us both time on e-mails as well as that check I owe you ;-)

Seriously, the toughest part to wrap your brain around is the "how does the steam circulate to the bottom of the oven" thing. Bob explains it well, and I can attest that I tried it at a commercial bakery last week and it works well!

Linda said...

The no-knead bread is fine and I occasionally make it with sourdough plus a pinch of yeast for flavor because it's easy. But I don't feel that it lasts very long, nor does it have the depth of flavor that I want in my bread. I prefer Bob's bread recipe and I love the ice cubes on top trick because with an electric oven I can't put them on the bottom. I consider myself very lucky that he teaches us so much here at his blog. The infomation and experience are priceless.

tyronebcookin said...

What Bob?!?!

You never chunked a piece of dry ice in a pie tin on one of the shelves in the oven as a technique...?

And here I thought you almost had a complete list.


Bob del Grosso said...

I have never tried the no-knead technique, but based on my understanding of physics and chemistry (and the wisdom of my gut) am convinced that it can produce good bread with all of the characteristics that you -and many others- have described. Thing is, I like the bread that I make now and because I have a plan for how I should modulate the process and vary the proportion and composition of the ingredients to bring it up to where I would like it to be, I don't have much interest in changing course now.

Also, if the no-knead process is supposed to be simpler and easier I do not see how trading the kneading step for having to put the bread in an iron pot makes it easier or simpler than working the dough in a machine and baking it on a stone.

Finally, as a production oriented chef with years of experience making relatively large amounts fo food on a regular basis I have a knee-jerk aversion to cooking methods that cannot be easily scaled up to produce large amounts of food. This may be a failing on my part, but I cannot imagine how to make more than one or two loves of bread at once via the "no-knead" method.

Can anyone?

tyronebcookin said...

Nope, and I would know...400+ people are easier to feed now with mixer kneaded bread at large volume...

(on original topic) plus we have some European Lainox combi ovens that can combine bake, steam, or bake & stam or we can just push the button for a few injections of water to the dual convection fans...although we are missing the stones.

Linda said...

Yes, a problem with no-knead bread is that only two large cast-iron pots fit in my oven, but I have filled them with several "rolls" and I also have a long, narrow, cast-iron pot, about 6" wide and just short of oven width which can be used for different sizes.

But I like your recipe and the La Brea bakery recipes that only use sourdough instead of yeast. And that I have to make in order to keep feeding the sourdough baby that lives on my kitchen counter (with the occasional vacation in the fridge)....

Sean said...

Ah the La Brea Bakery cookbook. I've only perused it but it is a fantastic read from the little I read. My brother who owns it has made many a sourdough from recipes and techniques inspired by the book.

Thanks Bob for the comments. Like you I still rely on a stone but I find the no-knead, high hydration recipes to be interesting since I don't have a stand mixer and usually make small batches of dough. I've recently found great success making whole wheat, high hydration pizza dough for deep dish pizzas using a "no-knead" technique and 24 hour room temperature rise time.