Creating steam in regular oven is what separates a boring loaf of white bread shaped into a skinny oval and a real baguette. Steam slows the caramelization process on the outside of the loaf, enabling the entire loaf to continue expanding during the first few moments of baking. That gives you the holes and the wonderful texture that we all like in real bread. Also, steam gives the crust of your bread the shiny, crackly texture that everyone loves. When you take a real baguette from the oven and it starts to cool, you can actually hear the crackling sound of the crust shrinking back to its final size. Image a supermarket a “French loaf” doing that.
Commercial ovens have steam injectors and tightly closing doors that create a hot, pressurized and steamy environment for bread to bake in, while wood fired brick and refractory ovens naturally produce a moist cooking environment, where it is easy to add the steam necessary to bake great bread.
The good news is that you can effectively copy the steam effect of high-end ovens in your ordinary oven at home. In addition to your Pizza Stone, you only need three things: a heavy-duty roasting tray, a plant sprayer with water and 1-2 cups of hot water (an electric kettle or microwave will do fine at making the hot water). Make sure you use hot water, which will immediately boil and steam when the water hits the roasting tray.
I use the bottom of the broiler that came with my oven as my roasting pan. It seems to hold up to the heat, and it holds its shape. I tried using regular baking pans, but they would buckle under the heat, would not immediately vaporize the water, and I could tell they would not last. I have also experimented with adding a broken pizza stone to my broiler tray, in order to retain more heat and throw out more steam. It seems to work be for me, but you can do it your own way.
The task is actually very simple once you get the hang of it.
Place your pizza stone in the top half of your oven and the baking tray in the bottom half. Pre-heat the oven to 550ºF for 60 minutes, or while your final proofing it taking place. When the steam cooking bread is ready to go in the oven, you know the oven will be ready.
Slide your shaped loaves onto your pre-heated pizza stone — make sure you have a little flour under the loaves so that they slide easily.
Pull the baking tray out a little, and pour in the not water. Be careful, as it will boil and steam immediately, and will be extremely hot. Slide the tray back under the pizza stone.
Spray the walls of the oven with water from the sprayer. Close the oven. Wait 30 seconds and repeat. Wait 30 seconds and repeat again, for a total of three sprayings.
That’s it. Bake your bread according to the recipe, and you are done.
After the first few minutes, the crust of your bread will set, and you do not need to worry about steaming again. I have read that professional bakers do not like getting the loaves wet, as it can give them an irregular appearance, but my experience is that my bread likes the moisture, and it helps establish the shiny crust that I like. You can experiment for yourself.
I know it sounds like a lot of work for a little bit of crust, but it is the essential step in creating bread that you want to eat, and share with your friends and family. Once you have done it a couple of times, and it becomes a ritual that you understand and can do in your sleep. When I first started steaming, it seemed labor-intensive, and almost threatening, but as I have continued on, I have found that it has faded into being just being another step in the process.
One thing to note, I have heard that you can crack the hot-tempered glass in your oven door, or oven light, by hitting them with cold water, so be careful to not hit them. You can lay a towel over the oven window if you are worried about your oven.
You should also experiment with putting the pizza stone on the bottom and the top of the oven, alternating with the baking/steam tray. I found that my oven tended to get hot at the bottom and burn the bottom of my loaves before the tops were done when I have the stone on the bottom.
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