The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Pain Au Levain - can't steam the oven too much

varda's picture

Pain Au Levain - can't steam the oven too much

A recent blog post made me sit up and take notice. shows two loaves; one made with steam at the beginning of the bake, the second steamed later in the process.   The first one looks better by a lot.   Lately I've been making batards with two cuts.   The most frequent outcome is that one of the cuts opens nicely and takes most of the bloom of the loaf, and the second opens a bit, and then seals over.   In trying to diagnose this I thought it might be either a shaping or a steaming issue.    So I changed my batard shaping so that instead of rolling toward me (a la Ciril Hitz) I roll away (a la Mark from the Back Home Bakery).   The latter method seems to allow me to get a tighter gluten sheath so I'm sticking with it.   However, it didn't seem to solve the problem.   Yesterday, I decided to see if more steam at the beginning of the bake would help.   I made a pain au levain (almost the same as Hamelman p. 158 but with higher hydration 69% vs 65%, higher percentage of prefermented flour 17% vs 15% and a lot less salt.)   The only change I made to my regular baking process was to add a dry broiler pan underneath the stone during preheat, and fill it with water at the same time as loading the loaves.   This is in addition to my usual loaf pans filled with water and wet towels which I place on each side of the stone.  Here is the result:


Not a perfect loaf by any means, but the first time in recent memory where my cuts opened evenly.   Should I attribute this to the extra steaming at the beginning of the bake?  I think so.



Floydm's picture

Wonderful crumb and, yeah, the slashes came out lovely.

The wet towel idea freaks me out.  They don't catch fire?  Do you pull them out after a few minutes?

varda's picture

Floyd, I take the dry towels and soak them in warm water so they are good and wet.   Then I crumple them up one each to a bread pan, and pour warm water up to the rim of the bread pan - there will still be a lot of wet towel over the waterline.  Then slide them in on each side of the stone while the oven/stone is preheating.   I take the pans out after the steam period is over with a pot holder.   When I take them out the towels are still throwing out a lot of steam and the pans are half full of water.   Once I was sloppy and one of the towels was touching the side of the oven.  My husband (who has a good nose) came running into the room to stop the fire.   I didn't smell anything.   Ever since then I've been especially careful to make sure that the towel is touching nothing but the bread pan.   The thing I worry most about is scalding myself when I take the pans out of the oven, but I'm very careful.  Even though I'm getting a lot of steam with this method, I was concerned that when I open the door to put in the loaves, that a lot of steam was escaping and it was taking too long for the oven to fill with steam again.   When I saw the post with the experiment on timing of the steam I was pretty sure about it.   So I added the preheated broiling pan with cold water poured in before shutting the door.   All I know is it takes a boatload of steam to make things work especially with a gas oven that seems to dry things up as fast as I can get them wet.   In any case, thanks for your comments.  -Varda

Ryan Sandler's picture
Ryan Sandler

@Floyd, I use the towel method with even less water than varda, and I've never had a problem with burning.  I put two rolled up towels in a pyrex pan, half fill the pan with hot tap water, and microwave for 5 minutes.  Then I transfer the towels (with tongs--they're hot!) to preheated loaf pans, which go into the oven a minute or two before I load the bread.  So all that's in the pan is the wet towel.  When I pull them out at the end of the steaming period (10-15 minutes, depending on the bread), they're still gushing steam.  One time I forgot to pull the towel-pans out until the end of the bake (~25 minutes), and still they were fine and steaming.  

The only burning problem I've ever had was one time when I put the towels in the microwave without any water (oops!).  They were a bit scorched, but that's all.

varda's picture

One more quick point here.   Sylvia's method - which I think Ryan is using here - involves preheating the towels in the microwave.    I am just too much of a klutz to transfer steaming towels into the oven without burning myself.   Instead I skip the microwave step and just preheat the towels in the oven (along with the oven itself, the stone, etc.)   Thus the only time I have to deal with hot towels is to remove the pans from the oven without touching the towels of course.   Now of course maybe that variation that I came up with for the sake of my health is the reason my cuts open unevenly, and why I have had to add the broiling pan.   It's hard to keep this simple.  -Varda

ww's picture

Hi varda,

I also commented on the other thread you mentioned. i don't know if you saw david's reply but it was useful in helping me to clarify what my problem was.

initially i didnt understand what exactly you meant by how one of your cuts opened but the other less so because it is the same loaf of bread. Then i realised that it's due perhaps to the position of the bread in the oven and amt of steam, i.e. like how the oven has hot spots, maybe one end gets more steam. If it helps you, i do believe that steam is very important. I think one can't steam enough in a domestic oven - the only problem would be venting the steam when it is no longer beneficial to have too much steam (sticking a small spoon in the door of the oven to keep it veyr slightly ajar is what i do, plus turn the setting to fan, as i think it circulates the steam more evenly). I also use sylvia's towel method. My towel doesnt risk catching fire because i boil it in water so it's soaking wet. Then i put wet towel, a bit of the boiling water and sometimes even ice cubes into a shallow cast iron pan that i've preheated along with the oven. I leave things to get sizzling hot and steaming for about 5 mins then i load the bread. I almost always get good oven spring, which helps me because i sometimes over-proof and always shape badly. So it perks up my otherwise over-proofed and slack loaves. I also get quite good bloom.

what my problem is - just thinking aloud here - is timing. I don't know about you, but what happens for me is that the cuts open up, the grigne forms, then the oven spring catches up and the space closes up. So i feel it's not so much that the grigne collapses, which is what is usually described, but that the rest of the loaf 'catches up' :)) or maybe it's the same thing, i dont know.

I don't know enoug about the mechanics and technicalities of what happens in the first 15 mins or so of the bake - must read up more or the simplest thing to do would be to watch in a bakery. But i should explore the slashing, and to begin with, improve the shaping because it is impossible to slash well on a surface that is not taut.

hope this helps you!


varda's picture

Hi,  I went back and reread those comments on the other thread.    I don't think my "ear" is collapsing.   And strangely I don't think it is a question of position in the oven. Although my observations are not quite careful enough, it seems to me that the sealed over cut can be either in front or back of the loaf depending on the day.   In your other comment, you said that the loaf needs a tight surface to make a good cut, and I agree with that.   That's why I changed my shaping.   I find that when I roll the dough away from me, I can then pull it back on each roll to tighten the surface.   It was harder to do that with the method I was using before.   As for proofing, I have seen loaves collapse due to overproofing, but my usual problem is underproofing because I'm impatient and I run out of time due to poor planning.    I think for the loaf pictured above, that I overproofed it by around 15 minutes - not enough to make it collapse, but enough to make the crust a little dull.  So you may be right that there are other factors than enough steam, and it does irritate me that so much of home bread baking is overcoming the deficiencies of the equipment, but there you have it.  Thanks for your comments and good luck with getting beautiful ears. -Varda

ehanner's picture

That looks pretty nice to me. I went back and looked at the dry/steam comparison thread that thebreadfairy posted. I too sat up and took notice at that comparison. I'm as surprised that the dry loaded loaf performed so poorly as I am that the steamed loaf looked so much better. I think that test was done in a commercial type deck oven so there are other dynamics going on also.

Anyway, your loaf looks great and the cell structure is beautiful.


varda's picture

I appreciate your comments.   I just went back and read the post.   I hadn't realized that was a commercial oven.   I don't suppose anyone makes deck ovens for home use.   Too bad.  -Varda