You can see the suggestion in nearly every one of my recipes: bake with steam. The steam keeps the crust soft and elastic in the early stages of baking and allows the dough to expand further than without steam. If the crust hardens too quickly, you might end up with a denser bread than planned if the dough doesn’t have the power to crack the hardened crust open. And I find that with steam small bakes like cinnamon rolls don’t dry out as quickly.
Depending on your experience you might already know how to do a steam bake and developed a favorite method for it. Or, if you’re a beginner at freeform baking, you might never have heard about adding steam. Nevertheless, I’d like to show you how I do it.
I use 2 different methods depending on what I bake: I either enclose my bakes so they steam themselves with the water that evaporates during the baking process, or I actively add water to the oven that then keeps things moist.
Method 1 is especially useful for round loaves, either scored or with rustic rips and easiest to come by: use a pot with an ovenproof lid. Many people use a heavy, cast iron dutch oven, but I actually prefer my everyday cooking pots which are made from a lightweight, enameled steel.
Not only do I have several different sizes to choose from, the fact that they’re so lightweight means they heat up in a pinch and I don’t have to pre-heat them at all. I don’t have the hassle of trying to get the dough into the pot without burning myself or wrestling that heavy, sizzling hot pot in and out of the oven. All I have to do is slide the cold pot with the dough into the hot oven (I place it on the baking steel) and take the lid off after 20 minutes so the bread can brown. Easy peasy. I don’t even need parchment, a little brush of oil to the pot’s insides takes care of everything.
If you’re a curious person like me and would like to watch what happens in the closed pot, there’s a premium version with which you can do exactly that: the Brovn. It’s a swiss made cast iron plate that comes with an ovenproof glass dome. It works great, and your oven suddenly has a built-in cinema, but it’s heavy and needs to be pre-heated and getting the dome off after half time is actually a bit awkward because there are no handles. It comes with special grippy gloves though. Still, it’s awfully expensive. Mine definitely doesn’t get the use it should, and since my oven light blew, it’s only half the fun.
I mostly use the 2nd method: actively adding steam. I bake a lot of burger buns, rolls, and breads that aren’t round and therefore don’t fit into a pot.
The easiest way to add steam is to place an old metal pan at the bottom of the oven where you add some water. It’s important that the baked goods get an initial burst of steam that covers the dough’s skin instead of kinda cooking your bread in the steam for a long time. For that you need a lot of surface area. Add lava rocks or scrap metal to the pan. The more the better. Once half a cup of water hits the hot stones or metal: instant steam burst.
But there’s a downside of that pan: it’s big and takes away a lot of space in your oven and blocks at least some bottom heat. It should be elevated a bit so the oven doesn’t get damaged. You’d have to constantly put it in, take it out, store it somewhere else, whenever you need your oven for something like a big roast.
I saw a really cool method in one of Lutz Geißler’s videos: a slim terrine mold filled with stainless steel BBs. The mold comes with feet, so no bottom heat gets trapped, it’s small enough that it fits into a corner of the oven and can stay there indefinitely without issue, and the BBs have loads of surface area. I use a 60ml (2 oz) syringe to squirt the water on once they’re hot and it’s been an absolute game changer!
The BBs are stainless, but that doesn’t mean they stay pristine. They need a good scrub and a bake to dry out every few months but they’ll eventually succumb to the mineral deposits and rust. Mine have spent 3 years in the oven now and it might be time for a new batch. But I’ve already said that over a year ago, so I guess the current ones will work a bit longer. There’s a replacement batch on standby in the basement for when the time comes.
I hope this was somehow helpful. If you have a completely different method, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear how you guys bake your breads.
Until next time!