Steam burns hurt. Like really, really hurt. The small mark on my left forearm begs the question every day: Maurizio, was it really worth it?
But before we talk about my new baking badge of honor, let’s concentrate on overcoming the challenges of baking good bread at home. While many of these challenges present themselves early on in the two-day process (fermentation, flour selection, mixing, shaping, and so on), there is that key component at the end of this whole ordered procession: baking with steam in a high-temperature home oven.
For your bread to rise to its potential that outer, taut skin on your loaf needs to be able to expand and stretch before hardening off. Steam in the oven, and subsequently on the surface of your loaves, helps keep that skin pliable and stretchy during baking. If your dough dries and cooks too quickly on the exterior, the interior force generated by yeast/bacteria rapidly consuming food at high temperature will be dampened and never cause enough rise to attain that awesome open crumb, that fantastic fissure on top and that nice gringe that makes us grin.
So how can we get enough steam in the oven to keep those loaves rising? There are certainly methods abound and each person has a different approach, but arguably the most popular choice at the moment, and the one I started with, is baking bread in a Dutch oven. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, and his excellent book Tartine Bread, was my first introduction to the method and it will make an excellent loaf with a wonderful crust. However, there comes a time when you might want to bake two (or more) loaves at a time, or perhaps your loaves are scaled larger than your Dutch oven can comfortably hold. An alternative to baking bread in a Dutch oven is bake directly on stones and generate sufficient steam in your home oven by some other clever means.
Professional baking ovens have steam on tap. Press a button and in goes a wave of steam over decks of newly loaded dough. I’ve never had the pleasure to work on one of these ovens (yet), but I’m sure there are other unknown challenges just the same. Now there are some home ovens that are “steam ovens” but the ones I’ve looked at are incredibly small. You might be able to fit two loaves but I could also fit two Dutch ovens in my current home oven; no advantage there. Some other alternatives can’t inject steam at a button press but they are sealed to trap steam and have a method for generating steam1. These look very promising but are on the expensive side.
Since most of us bakers out there do not have one of these fancy ovens, we have to make do — read on to learn how baking with steam in your home oven can be a pretty easy process.