For bread with a spongy holes (all the better for catching ricotta) and crackly-crisp, dark brown crust (the kind that splits apart with such a creak, you’d wake someone sleeping in the next room), you need to crank your oven way up. (Warning: that’s how my oven knob got fused into the 500° F position, where it stayed until we disconnected the gas.)
But intense dry heat is not enough! In the first 5 to 10 minutes of baking, you also need the power of steam heat. (Because what’s better than a sauna? A steam room and a sauna!)
Why is steam such a powerful ingredient? In the first part of the baking process, the yeast grows like crazy and the bread expands (this frenzy is called “oven spring"). When steam is added during this period, the water vapor condenses on the surface of the dough, lowering its temperature. This delays the evaporation of moisture from the loaf, as well as the development of gluten, so that the dough stays soft and stretchy for longer. In other words, with a crust that's soft and expandable, the bread can rise to its maximum volume, achieving the beautiful, air-pocketed that many bakers dream about.
Steam is also the key to a dark but not too dark crust. It dissolves the sugars on the surface of the bread so that when the loaf stops rising and the steam begins to evaporate, the leftover sugars caramelize, giving you a glossy crust with a rich color and flavor. At the same time, the lower temperature of the dough's surface (thanks to the water vapor from the steam) gives the inside of the loaf enough time to cook all the way through without the outside burning.
And because the crust takes longer to form, it ends up being thinner than it would be otherwise. Moisture can pass more quickly through a thin crust, so you're less likely to get a dense, soggy inside when the loaf is cool.
So you know when (and why) to use steam, but how about when not to? Well, after the yeast has died and the loaf has stopped growing, you’ll want to finish baking the bread in a dry oven so that you can achieve crispness. Too much moisture will lead to a thick, gummy crust (like a giant, much less appetizing version of a steamed bun). You also don't want to use steam with enriched doughs that contain eggs, dairy, fat, and sugar; as Nadia Arumugam explains on Slate, these extra ingredients increase the temperature at which the starches gelatinize, thereby delaying crust formation and doing the same work that steam otherwise would.
Bread bakeries are equipped with steam ovens that enable the bakers to harness the power of steam at the exact right moment in the bread's birth. But if you don’t have a steam oven, there are still several ways you can replicate the effect at home. The bakers at King Arthur Flour tested and compared a few methods and found two to be most effective:
What's not so effective? Spraying the loaf with a mist of water. It's a low-maintenance method, but it yields minimal results.
What's your biggest challenge with baking bread at home? Tell us in the comments below!
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