What are we getting all steamed up about

Editor’s Note:  Another great blog post from home bread-baker, Alan Fishman

When you stop by a bakery, especially a French bakery where the baguettes are fairly authentic, the breads that you’ll see, by and large, are going to have a sheen on the surface of the crust.  Why is that?  The glistened surface is the product of steam.

Most professional bakeries have a steaming device built into the bread oven.  Baguettes are loaded into the oven, door closed and steam is injected into the oven.  Steam cools the surface of the dough long enough so that the crust doesn’t set too quickly.  This allows the scored dough to expand and bloom open to create the ear or (French) grigne.  The secondary effect is to allow the surface to caramelize.  And this is what gives the bread that characteristic sheen.

My wife overheard someone at work talk about liking “tender bread”.  Not my cup of tea.  I like a dark bake with a crusty crust and a crunch to the exterior of the bread.  And maybe that’s why I love toast so much.  I once told my sister-in-law that if she didn’t know what to get me for a present, she could give me toast and I’d be happy. With reference to people’s individual tastes, my father used to say “that’s what makes the world go ‘round”. Okay, now that I’ve covered most familial bases I can move on…

There are different ways to introduce steam into a home oven, some of which provide adequate steam.  As many ways as I have fingers and toes (still 20 as of last count).  An efficient and popular way these days is to form a boule (ball) and drop it into a Dutch Oven which has been heating up in the ~480F–500F degree oven for 45–60 minutes. Quickly cover and bake for xminutes, then removing the cover to let the bread “set” and complete baking.  The moisture from the dough will create its own steam.

I like to shape baguettes, and tend to stay away from the Dutch Oven. So what to do, what to do? As you can see from the first picture, I use a metal pan loaded with lava rocks, which has been heating up with the oven all along.  After loading the baguettes, I pour ~2 cups of very hot water into the pan and close the oven door immediately, not to be reopened for ~12 minutes to allow the steam created to do its work. Words of caution: place a towel over the oven door window so that the relatively cool temperature of the water doesn’t create a cracked glass door, do wear an oven mitt that covers at least your wrist, and finally – do not open the oven door to peek at your masterpiece, else all of that hard earned steam will scamper away!
Bread 3
Picture 2 demonstrates a properly steamed baguette.



Picture 3 illustrates what happens when there isn’t sufficient steam and the surface doesn’t caramelize.



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