The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What is wrong?

leslie c's picture
leslie c

What is wrong?

So, I had a sourdough recipe that worked really well for me. The loaves were coming out golden and brown, crusty, a light crumb... I was baking the loaves in a standard oven. Just before putting the loaf in the oven, I would spritz it with water and put a cup of boiling water in the broiler pan. Then we moved to our new house, and it has a vintage 1949 O'Keefe and Merritt stove. I can't put water in the broiler pan anymore. I spritz the loaf with a little water and put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. 

My bread just doesn't seem to be turning out right anymore. The crust is really pale, and sometimes I feel like I don't get the kind of rise out of it that I used to. The loaves feel denser and heavier, but my starter seems healthy. Until now, I've figured it was my oven. Does anyone have any suggestions?

PastryPaul's picture

Get an oven thermometer and check oven temp versus what it is set at. My guess is that it's running cool.

Another thing, though I doubt that it is the issue: Depending on how far you moved, your sourdough may be different, (maybe better, maybe worse, but different).  A new location has new wild yeasts on which your starter depends. You can't make Vermont sourdough in Poughkeepsie, you make Poughkeepsie sourdough.


dghdctr's picture

Putting the pan of water in the oven probably doesn't create enough steam quickly enough.  If there isn't enough moisture in the oven cavity right after you load the loaf, a dry skin forms and -- long story short -- the loaf won't brown very well when that happens early on in the baking process.

If you're willing to spend just a little money, go to WalMart and buy an inexpensive iron skillet (or use one you already might have).  The thing is, this skillet will get rusty, so don't use a prized keepsake.  For 15-20 bucks you can get a new one to dedicate just to this purpose, and that's not a lot of money.

Pre-heat the iron skillet together with the oven, on a rack just below the one which holds your baking stone.  Locate the pan close to the oven door so that it is easily reached.

When you've loaded the loaf and you're just getting ready to close the oven door, throw maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water onto the bottom of the hot iron skillet.  The heavy weight of the super-hot skillet gives it significant "thermal mass", which will convert a large dose of water into a cloud of steam very quickly.  Close the door immediately.  Open the door briefly after about 15 minutes -- not before, or you'll lose the benefits of the moist oven cavity too soon.  You DO want to open the door after 15 minutes for a few seconds, though, because once the crust starts to form, the steam serves no more useful purpose, and its continued presence would only serve to inhibit browning.  A loaf should finish in a dry oven.

BTW, I will tell you that you don't actually need to pre-boil the water you're adding to the pan.  Using room-temperature tap water (or hot tap water if you like) is safer during the process, as spilling a little water won't scald your hands.  At 450 degrees or so, the iron skillet will make plenty of steam upon contact with the room-temp water.  Why risk an accident?

Hope that all helps.

-- Dan DiMuzio

leslie c's picture
leslie c

I think this is exactly the advise I was looking for. I have a cast iron I can try this out with at least temporarily, and if it works then I'll go buy a cheapy from walmart. I certainly did get a lot more steam back in the day when I was pouring the stuff into the broiler, so that's probably what the problem is. Truth be told, I never knew what the purpose of the steam was, anyway. I knew it had something to do with the crust, but I didn't understand it beyond that. 

Question: I started using the baking stone for the bread, instead of the cookie sheet I used in the old house. Will the baking stone have any effect on the moisture/steam? Absorbing it or whatever? 

AOJ's picture

The baking stone shouldn't affect the moisture/steam; But remember to give your stone adequate time to to pre-heat. I usually pre-heat my stone for at least 30 minutes before I load the bread onto it.

Janetcook's picture

A word of caution....

I used to add water to a hot pan until I got steam burns on my face one day last fall.....It was a hotter than usual oven and I was standing over the pan....I thought nothing of it at the time as all that hit me was a bit of steam that didn't feel unusually hot at wasn't until several days later, when sporting large red blotches on both cheeks, that I put 2 and 2 together....took over a month to really heal and the skin is still really sensitive to any kind of heat... :-0

I now toss ice cubes onto the floor of my oven using a looong handled ladle.

Take Care,


Yerffej's picture

Switching from one oven to another can often present (sometimes big) challenges.  I find it best to clear your mind of any preconceived notions about ovens and baking and approach each oven as though it were an entirely new game, because it is.

Happy Baking,


vtsteve's picture

When did you move? Is your new house kept at the same temperature (and are your loaves proofing the same)? "Watch the dough, not the clock." Sourdough is especially sensitive to proofing temperature; a ten-degree drop that would hardly slow the rise of a commercial-yeast loaf can bring a sourdough proof to a screeching halt. If the new house is warmer, it may be overproofing, which could give pale, dense loaves with poor oven spring.

leslie c's picture
leslie c

I moved over the summer, but bread baking went on hiatus for a long time while I was focusing on just trying to get my life back in order. I'm honestly not sure how the temperature of my old apartment compares to the house. Actually, one of the things I worried about was the effect the move may have had on the starter. I got really, really irregular about feeding it because I wasn't making bread anyway, and I was just so busy all the time. Kept the poor thing in the fridge mostly, then would take it out and feed it regularly for a couple days, then put it back in the fridge. One thing I've been wondering: is it bad to do this with the sourdough? Keep it in the fridge for a couple months, feeding it only once per week, then remove it for a week and feed it every day, then put it back in the fridge? Is this off again on again feeding schedule detrimental to the yeasts?

vtsteve's picture

That's pretty much how I'm doing it. I've been on a weekly schedule: I take my (firm) starter out of the fridge a day or two before I plan to bake, do 1-2 feeds, then build up the levain for the bake (I only keep ~20g in the fridge). If I'm converting some to a liquid (or rye) starter, I'll start a little sooner, and do most of the feeds on the converted part (so the yeast/bacteria populations can find their new optimum levels).

placebo's picture

I don't think it's a problem with a lack of steam. Pale, dense loaves sound like the result of overproofing.

Another factor could be the flour you're using, as I recently discovered. A friend asked me to bake some sourdough for her and bought me some organic bread flour. Unlike my usual flour, this one didn't contain any malted barley flour, and that made quite a difference. The rise wasn't as good, and the crust didn't brown as much.

aytab's picture

Amazing Stove by the way I have one I bought that is in my garage awaiting restoration. 

leslie c's picture
leslie c

oh yes, I love it! the wide surface of the stove top is really convenient, and there's lots of room for storage, which I love. The small size of the oven has been an adjustment, but we have a countertop oven that we use as a backup. Really, it's like the coolest thing I've ever owned. 

Wild-Yeast's picture

Try covering the bread with a cloache. Spritz the inside with water before covering the loaf and leave the bread to bake for 15-20 minutes before removing it and allowing the crust to brown - thin aluminum disposable turkey roasting pans work well...,


P.S. Cover the oven window [if it has one] with a hand towel to prevent water drips from chill shocking and posssibly damaging the glass when placing the cloache over the bread in the oven.