How to get good crust on your bread: oven spring and steam

Two things contribute to form a loaf of bread with a chewy satisfying crust: oven spring and steam. Oven spring and steam are notoriously difficult to recreate for home bakers because home ovens are not as well insulated as professional bread ovens. Oven spring is the name for the initial tumultuous activity - the bounce, the jump, the spring - yeast undergo when they are confronted with high heat. By adding steam, the outside of the loaf is softened sufficiently for the expanding yeast on the cooler inside to expand beyond what would be possible if the outside were a rigid shell.

Yeast dies at 140 degrees. Therefore, the yeast on the outside of the dough die from the heat of the oven before the yeast on the inside of the loaf. Once the yeast in the outer shell is dead the steam prevents the crust from burning as the interior of the loaf steams and cooks. The intense heat on the outside of the loaf caramelizes the proteins and the sugars in the wheat, sweetening the loaf and adding complexity and savory nuances of flavor. The outside of a crusty loaf should be dark, much darker than Wonder Bread, darker than you think you want - because a dark outside means more of those savory flavors have seeped into the internal crumb of the loaf.

Similar to the setup at Mill Pond Bread, the bread area at Zingermans Bakehouse revolves around the large brick ovens. Two smoldering behemoths sit placid and benevolent, spewing forth hundreds of light airy, crusty loaves a day (thousands during the holiday season). The bakers load the dough onto the 480-degree stones and then quickly push a button releasing water, “injecting steam,” onto the springing yeast of the loaves. After the first 20 minutes of baking, bakers open a vent, releasing the steam.

There are several suggestions professional bakers give home cooks to recreate the action of a professional steam-injected bakers oven. First you must preheat the oven beyond the bell. An oven is not hot when the bell goes off. The bell goes off only when the air inside is heated, not the walls, so the moment you open the door, whoof! - all of your heat escapes. One can add a pizza stone to your oven and pre-heat for 30-45 minutes to make sure the stone is thoroughly heated - the extra mass helps retain the heat.

Borden - Loaf of Lahey bread

To create steam, you can put a cast-iron pot on the bottom of your oven and splash in water when you put in your bread or even throw ice cubes onto the hot oven floor. There are various gadgets available online people have cobbled together to create a steam injected oven.

The difficulty is that steam does not stay in your home oven. Most ovens have vents that quickly dissipate the moisture you want to stay near the cooking loaf. There is no way to remove the steam when you want to, as professional bakers do when they open the oven vent - for home bakers the steam is already gone.

Jim Lahey states in his book, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, that he has solved this problem in one brilliant coup, he calls it, “an oven within an oven - the pot.” By preheating a Dutch oven and cooking the bread inside of that, one gets both the intense heat needed for oven spring and steam. The moisture emitted from the wet dough stays within the pot as steam, until you take the lid off after 25 minutes of cooking.

Initial experimentations with his method are promising.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Food as Luxury?

Borden - Zingermans Bread

Zingerman’s Bakehouse has won the Luxist Readers’ Choice Award for Best Bread Bakery! Looking through the Luxist weblog (sponsored by Cadillac) I was reminded of that quote from Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams, where he describes a certain space ship as one shown “in the sort of magazines that were designed to provoke civil unrest.” My snarkiness aside, I was captivated by several of their articles, among them a description of wellies for royalty, pictures of Halle Barry’s home in Beverly Hills, and even pictures of the annual Nantucket Island’s Christmas stroll.

As I continued to devour descriptions of palatial homes in the Bahamas, I became sad.

Sad because I feel I am being told in order to choose traditionally made food, which often goes hand in hand with sustainable harvest practices, you have to live in a $15 million home in Atherton, CA. Certainly there are items at Dean and Deluca that are a special treat, but again, why are people choosing to believe that making bread with unbromated flour, a banned carcinogen in Europe and Canada, is a luxury? I am not sure when it became everyday to devour bags of Doritos mostly created in a flavor factory in New Jersey and brown rice, beans, and real cheese became a luxury but I don’t think the nation’s health has been helped by the shift.

It returns again to what I spoke about in my first Farm to Fork, you vote with your wallet. For me, that means choosing food that I feel is healthy: healthy for the earth (will that land be able to sustain my grandchildren?), healthy for all of the people involved with the food chain (do the tea pickers in China have health care?), and healthy for me (do I know what the ingredients look like?). If these food establishments lauded by Luxist are raising our nation’s consciousness about where our food comes from, I would like to redefine their definition of luxury.

Other Luxist Reader’s Choice winners include Dean and Deluca for best online gourmet, Dorothy Lane in Dayton for the best gourmet grocery store, Farmstead in Rhode Island for the best cheese shop, and Petrossian for best caviar.

Here is the link for the article on annarbor.com!