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Steam for baking bread

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What does steam have to do with bread-making?

This is not only a bakers’ secret, it is something you might not think of at all: if you make bread and bake it like a cake, you will end up with this:

pain cuit sans buée

It is certainly bread, but pale and with a thick, hard crust – a long way from the golden-brown crusty loaf you had in mind.

This is because, when baking bread in an oven, it is vital that right at the start, the loaf goes into an atmosphere that is hot, of course, (around 480°F or 250°C), but also very humid: saturated with steam, in fact. Some of the water suspended in the air inside the oven will settle out evenly on the bread and will react with the dough to form sugars (in the chemical sense). These will help brown the crust in the famous Maillard reactions, producing this result:

pain cuit avec buée

We can see how the steam gives the bread a more appetising colour, but that is not all. It also helps to form a thin, crisp crust.

So steam is indispensable: there are no beautifully browned, crusty loaves without it. You should note that once the crust is formed in the oven, after about 15 or 20 minutes, the steam is no longer necessary, so there is no need to keep adding it for the rest of the cooking time.

Creating steam in the oven

Professional bakers have the advantage of a special "Steam" control on their electric ovens. This injects water into the oven, which lands on very hot metal elements and vaporises to create the steam. They simply press a button and “pshhhh!”, that’s it.

For amateur bakers like us, things are rather different, but here are a few ways to achieve a similar effect:

Conventional kitchen oven

For this set up, preheat the oven with an empty oven tray sitting directly on the bottom (oven floor or sole) and leave it in the oven to heat up.

La lèchefrite dans le four


When you put the bread in the oven, before closing the door, pour a large glassful of water into the burning-hot tray (do be careful not to scald yourself),

De l'eau pour faire de la buée dans le four

then close the door quickly.

On ferme la porte du four rapidement

The water hitting the hot tray will vaporise and create the steam in the oven, just as required.
If all the water has evaporated in under 15 minutes, add a second glassful.

Bread oven

If you are fortunate enough to have a proper bread oven, you will need to use a special technique, shown on this page which explains the Steam Machine.

To sum up

Breads cooked with steam

Without steam, no beautiful, good bread. You need to have steam in the oven during the first 15 minutes of baking.

Last modified on: May 22th 2015

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