What does steam do?
Steam is extremely important for breadmaking, and I have spoken about it many times. But I have never made a dedicated video about steaming methods for the home baker.
There are three main benefits of steaming bread. First, it keeps the crust moist preventing it from solidifying too soon and thus helping the bread expand more. Second, it promotes good crust coloration and shine. Third, it makes the crust thinner and crispier.
Steam injection ovens are used in professional bakeries for this purpose. The loaves are loaded in the oven and steam is injected into the chamber. After a while the steam is vented out of the oven to finish the bake.
Unlike commercial ovens, home ovens are not designed to trap steam inside and that is the main struggle for the home baker.
There are various methods that can be used to create steam when baking at home. Some are better than others. The main purpose is to try and recreate the conditions of a commercial oven, but at home. This can be challenging.
Steam is only part of the equation. A hot and heavy base to bake the bread on is also extremely important. Commercial ovens will have a heavy stone floor most commonly.
At home we can use a baking stone, baking steel, thick metal trays or cast-iron pans.
Not all breads require steaming though. Flatbreads like pizza, pita, paratha do not need any steam. Same goes for breads that are glazed. The glaze is what keeps the crust moist.
Method #1 – Cast iron pan with a lid.
This is by far my favourite and in my opinion the best method for baking bread at home. The cast iron pan holds and radiates the heat extremely well. The lid traps the steam inside, so it can not escape. Bread is baked for half the time with the lid on to help it rise and then the lid is removed for the second half of the bake to finish the crust. This is like venting the steam in a commercial oven. Using a pan like this is the best way to recreate the conditions of a commercial bread oven.
The only downside is its shape. A round pan can only loaves of a certain shape and size. There are some speciality pans that are more elongated in shape and can fit demi baguettes, but those pans are quite expensive. Saying that, a good cast iron pan will always be quite pricey, but it is a good investment since it can technically be used indefinitely and passed down generations.
Method #2 – Boiling water in a pre-heated cast iron pan.
Perhaps you have a pan, but do not have a lid for it. It can be used to great effect too. Pre-heat the pan along with the oven. As soon as the bread goes in pour in half a cup of boiling water. A huge cloud of steam will be created, and the remaining water will continue to evaporate and create more steam in the first few minutes of baking.
This will moisten the crust of the bread, but not as well as a pan with a lid on it. There is no need to vent the steam since it will all escape between the vents and seals of the oven all by itself.
Method #3 – Upturned metal bowl.
This could be a great way of trapping steam inside an enclosed chamber. Use a regular metal bowl to cover the loaf for the first half of the bake. The thin metal will not be as effective at radiating heat, but at least it will not let the moisture escape.
In my test it did not work very well, but I think it was because I did not preheat the metal bowl assuming that it was so thin it would heat up quickly along whilst the bread is baking.
If you are going to try this method, then definitely pre-heat the bowl first. The only downside of this method is that a hot round bowl can be quite difficult to handle.
Method #4 – Ice cubes.
I have seen this suggested quite often in recipes. It is supposed to work similarly to pouring water into a pre-heated pan like in method #2. And it is said that because the ice takes longer to melt it will keep the chamber of the oven moist for longer.
I have found that it is less effective than boiling water. The ice cools down the pre-heated tray and sometimes even after the baking time is over there is still water in the tray.
It does not create a big cloud of steam, so the crust of the bread dries out sooner.
Method #5 – Boiling water in a pre-heated baking tray.
Not everyone owns a cast-iron pan, but most of us have a baking tray of some sort. This steaming method has the same principle as method #2. But because thinner metal trays are not great at holding heat the steaming effect is not as good as with cast-iron.
Still, this is better than nothing.
Method #6 – Spray bottle.
I like this method because it is less risky as you can not scald yourself. And it works quite well too. The idea is to spray the surface of the loaf with water before it goes in the oven and spray the chamber of the oven with water to create some steam.
The combination of wet crust and moist oven should let the dough rise well. Some say that spraying the crust directly with water can make it thicker and less crispy, but I have not found that it has hugely negative effect. It is certainly better than baking with no steam at all.
Also, a spray bottle can be used in combination with all other methods described above.
Method #7 – Lava rocks.
I forgot I had them stashed away in a cupboard. Lava rocks can be pre-heated in a tray and have water poured all over them to create a cloud of steam and to continue steaming for a while longer. This method works well, but I personally don’t like it because the rocks are crumbly and dirty and they can be a mess to deal with.
Watch the video here