The Secret "Ingredient" for Bakery-Style Bread at Home

April 19, 2018

We've partnered with Miele for a special edition of our Change the Way You Cook series, all about the power of a simple, essential technique: steaming.

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!)

A Miele combi-steam oven makes harnessing the power of steam (and getting brown, crackly loaves) easy. Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“I have recently started baking bread at home. I follow recipes to the tee but I still get varying results. One problem that seems pretty consistent is that the dough seems way too wet! It is impossible to knead as it’s just a gooey mess. I use the exact amount of water specified even a bit less but to no avail. What other factors besides the amount of water might be causing this? I have also noticed that the bread doesn’t rise as much as I would expect it to. Please advise. Thanks!”
— Dave G.

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:

  • Cast-iron skillet: Preheat a cast-iron skillet in the bottom of the oven, then pour in boiling water right after you’ve loaded the bread onto a hot baking stone.
  • Cast-iron skillet + metal bowl: To take that method one step farther, cover the bread with a metal bowl—let the metal bowl hang over the front side of the baking stone so that the steam will have an entry point—then remove that bowl after 15 minutes of bake time.
  • Dutch oven method: Preheat a Dutch oven and its lid, then carefully add your risen bread; recover with the lid, which keeps the moisture that rises off the bread close to its surface, then remove the lid after 25 minutes to allow the crust to crisp up.

What's not so effective? Spraying the loaf with a mist of water. It's a low-maintenance method, but it yields minimal results.

Ready to bake? Start here:

What's your biggest challenge with baking bread at home? Tell us in the comments below!

We've partnered with Miele to highlight one of our favorite wholesome, fast, and simple cooking techniques: steaming! Ready to make it even faster and easier? Miele's combi-steam ovens can do it all for you with the touch of a button—including helping you get perfect, bakery-quality bread at home.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • cookingguy
  • Al
  • Dave G
    Dave G
  • Smaug
  • BakerBren
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


cookingguy April 21, 2018
I'm pretty sure that the oven spring has less to do with yeast producing CO2 while in the oven (the proposed "frenzy"), but is rather the result of the expansion of all of the bubbles of CO2 that were produced during fermentation, as well as the conversion of some of the moisture in the dough to steam, further improving the formation of the bubbles/holes in the dough.
Al April 19, 2018
I bake at 4,300 ft altitude, my daughter at sea level. Relative humidity here is often in the teens, my daughter in the 90’s. We use the exact same artisan bread recipes, and flour. We utilize the exact same techniques and multiple folding. We both bake in a preheated Emile Henrie cloche. She gets amazing oven rise bursting through the crust. I get very little oven spring. I have tried to compensate with little success. Any thoughts? Al
BakerBren April 19, 2018
Al, at what temperature and humidity are you proofing your doughs? From your description, the only variables that jump out at me is yeast, proofing procedure, and altitude. Are you using the same yeast or starter? Also initial dough temperature is important for proper fermentation. Are you doing the same thing? If anything, you should be getting improved volume and speedier fermentation at altitude, which makes me think your proofing (especially the final rise) is the difference. As a test, you could try warming up a cooler or just a big tub using a bit of hot water, dry it, then put a mug or two of hot water to the side with your bread in the compartment. Your goal is for a 75-80F environment with 80%+ RH. You could also use a warm oven with a pan of hot water on the floor. That's my best guess from your description.
Al April 20, 2018
Fermentation and proofing are never a problem. I use an instant read thermometer for water temp and final dough temp according to the recipe instructions. Fermentation is always 2 1/2 to 3X starting volume. I use the oven with the light on and door ajar for proofing (Reliably 85 degrees.) never a problem, in fact I have to guard against overproofing. The proofed dough doesn’t have a tough skin and anyway I slash it. My daughter at sea level doesn’t bother and still the oven spring bursts through. When she is here and verifies our techniques and ingredients are equivalent but still no oven spring we are both puzzled. I have thought the humidity factor might be at play but the preheated cloche is supposed to mitigate that. Apparently not. Annoying. Taste is good though.
Dave G. April 19, 2018
I have recently started baking bread at home. I follow recipes to the tee but I still get varying results. One problem that seems pretty consistent is that the dough seems way too wet! It is impossible to knead as it’s just a gooey mess. I use the exact amount of water specified even a bit less but to no avail. What other factors besides the amount of water might be causing this? I have also noticed that the bread doesn’t rise as much as I would expect it to. Please advise.
BakerBren April 19, 2018
Dave G, I think you need to fold your dough! Or if you already are folding, do it more. Even a relatively slack dough (high hydration/wet) can be brought into compliance with extra folding. That will help with both handling and your loaf volume. Rather than just punching down a dough during the bulk ferment, give it a fold or two or three spaced at intervals if it's really wet. Look up "folding a bulk fermenting dough" for the technique if you're unfamiliar with it. Also, I highly recommend the book "Bread" by Jeffery Hamelman for learning more about baking. The book changed my life. Folding makes a huge difference in getting the gluten fully developed. For the sake of flavor and texture, I under develop the gluten in the mixer, then get the full gluten development during bulk fermentation via folding. Flour protein level can also make a difference in your stickiness and gluten development. Higher protein bread flours absorb a little more liquid than lower protein AP flours and bread flours develop more strength due to the higher gluten content. But higher protein flours make for tougher crust. I prefer flour in the 9-11% protein range, but it requires more folding than a 14% protein bread flour to get the same loaf volume and handling characteristics. Another option that makes for slightly lesser flavor and is less preferable but easier is to make sure you're mixing to full gluten development in the mixer via the windowpane test. If you're hand mixing, then folding is the way to go. In fact, the best flavor and texture can be achieved by aoutolyzing your dough, then a quick hand mix followed by folding often during a long bulk ferment and then an extended cool final ferment. That's a fairly typical schedule for artisan sourdough loaves.
Dave G. April 19, 2018
Thank you Baker Bren. I appreciate your thorough response to my question. I will definitely give folding a try!
Dave G
Smaug April 19, 2018
One thing I've never understood- a lot of bakers insist on throwing chipped ice into your preheated container (cast iron skillet, Dutch oven full of bolts, and other such things are often suggested) to make steam- always struck me as silly, and I've always used boiling water, but some pretty good bakers insist on ice.
BakerBren April 19, 2018
I agree with Smaug, use boiling water for a steam burst, not ice! It's already as close to the phase change (liquid to gas) as you can get and doesn't require passing through two phase changes and sapping up all the latent energy requirements from the hot pan. That means you can add more for a second burst without the pan being too cool to steam. My only guess as to why some bakers suggest ice is a delayed action (which I don't want for maximum ovenspring) or some kind of summoning of the leidenfrost effect for an unknown (to me) reason. Bake on!
Elizabeth I. April 20, 2018
I imagine the reason for ice is because you can toss a handful in, without having to pull a 500 F iron pan out of the oven and pour water from a hot kettle, rather than because it is better.
Smaug April 20, 2018
Maybe, but I've never had to do that-I would suggest a saucepan rather than a kettle, which would require much more room to pour.