Simulating a Professional Baker’s Oven - Techniques
A Discussion of Humidity & Heat
We have treated the information included below much as we did the information base contained in the Flour Treatise and have, therefore, quoted liberally from existing sources. We cite the original source whenever possible. We invite you to utilize the following data to develop your own favorite technique(s) to simulate a professional baker's oven. If you have techniques that work for you, please let The Artisan know about them, and we will consider adding them to this page of techniques.
Julia Child and Simone Beck were two of the first authors to write of a system by which a home baker could simulate a professional baker’s oven. In Volume Two of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", Alfred ‘A’ Knopf, New York, 1983, they state: "Bakers' Ovens are so constructed that one slides the formed bread dough from a wooden paddle right onto the hot, fire-brick oven floor, and a steam injection system humidifies the oven for the first few minutes of baking. Steam allows the yeast to work a little longer in the dough and this, combined with a hot baking surface, produces an extra push of volume. In addition, steam coagulating the starch on the surface of the dough gives the crust it characteristic brown color. Although you can produce a good loaf of French bread without steam or a hot baking surface, you will get a larger and handsomer loaf when you simulate professional conditions. . . Merely providing yourself with the proper amount of steam, if you do nothing else, will vastly improve the crust, the color, the slash patterns, and the volume of your bread; steam is only a matter of plopping a heated brick or stone into a pan of water in the bottom of the oven. The second provision is a hot surface upon which the naked dough can bake; this gives that added push of volume that improves both the appearance and the slash patterns."
Since the publication of Volume Two of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", numerous books have been written stressing the importance of a hot baking surface and humidity when baking bread dough. Authors of these books often present conflicting opinions as to how to use a baking stone(s) and how to increase humidity in the oven. Initially, we considered including specific citations and information from each of the baking books in our collection. Alternatively, we have chosen to provide the following references which speak to the equipment and techniques commonly available to serious home bakers.
The source of the following quotations is: Field, Carol; "The Italian Baker", New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
"You don't need a brick-lined oven that heats to 750' F to make outstanding bread, as long as you take advantage of several secrets of the Italian baker. It makes no real difference whether your oven is gas or electric; what matters is the brick interior. I like to use baking stones or quarry tiles because they distribute the heat evenly, absorb moisture from the bottom of the loaves, and produce crunchy crusts. . . If you own a La Cloche, which is a wonderful replica of a baker's oven, you will find it perfect for any regional or rustic bread. . . If you have neither baking stones, quarry tiles, nor the cloche, you still have good options. The easiest is to let the dough rise and bake directly on a heavy baking sheet. Alternatively, you can set a heavy baking sheet or even a 3/8-inch-thick griddle in the oven, heat it for 30 minutes, then transfer the dough to it. . ."
Following the publication of the above text, we (The Artisan) purchased a La Cloche. It is made of natural stoneware and consists of a dome (the "cloche") and a fitted 2-inch deep base. It was designed to reproduce the radiant qualities of a traditional wood-fired brick oven. The results of its use are inconsistent. This is documented in the available literature and we also have found it to be the case.
"There are several ways to get steam into the oven. You can place a broiler pan with 11/2 cups boiling water on the floor of a gas oven or the bottom shelf of an electric oven 10 minutes before you put in the loaves. Set the bread inside, close the door, and the steam will continue to mist the interior for about 10 minutes. By the time the crust has set, the water will have evaporated, and the rest of the baking will be done in a hot, dry oven. If you prefer, toss several handfuls of ice cubes into a broiler pan as you place the loaves in the oven; they will melt and emit steam for about 10 minutes. The easiest solution is to fill a plant atomizer with cold water and spray the loaves three times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Whatever you do, don't toss ice cubes on the oven floor-it will warp-and be certain not to spray the oven light while you're doing all this humidifying, because it might explode."
The source of the following quotations is: Behr, Edward; "The Art of Eating", Quarterly Letter No. 29, Winter 1994:
"Baking Bread at Home"
"It comes as a surprise to most people that an electric home oven bakes better bread than a gas one. The electric oven holds in more moisture (since it requires no exhaust vent), and it produces a larger amount of radiant heat because the glowing element is inside the baking chamber. A self-cleaning electric oven requires no additional moisture, but, for good crust, humidity must be added to other electric and gas ovens. There's no ideal solution. A pan of water set under, or over, the loaf interferes with the browning of the top, or bottom, crust. Repeatedly spraying water into the oven can work, but spraying directly onto the bread blisters the crust, which is a small defect. I throw six or eight ice cubes onto the bottom of my current gas oven (not possible with electric), which slowly warps and damages the bottom of it, but that part could be replaced. . ."
The source of the following quotations is: Silverton, Nancy; "Bread from the La Brea Bakery". New York: Villard, 1996.
"When shaped dough is placed in an oven, it is surrounded by both top heat – the hot air on the top and sides of the loaf – and bottom heat, from the baking stone or tiles underneath. This heat causes the yeast, in the last gasp of its life, to lift the dough one more time: the process called oven spring, For oven spring to work properly, the oven must be moist and hot. If the oven is not moist enough, the bread will crust over too quickly, preventing it from growing to its full potential; also, the final crust will turn out too tough. Professional bakers use steam-injected ovens--they give the bread what is called bloom, which is the beautiful shine gained from the addition of steam and the full, rounded shape of the loaf. At home, use a spray bottle of water to create steam. A minute before you place the bread in the oven, spritz water heavily onto the preheated baking stone or tiles and around the sides of the oven. Then quickly close the door. Now there will be two forces ready to work simultaneously on the dough: heat, whose drying effect creates a skin on the dough, and steam, which moistens the dough. The bottom heat puts a skin on the bottom of the loaf virtually on contact, like that of an egg dropped onto a hot frying pan. The top heat creates a skin more slowly, but the moisture is needed to slow the process even further. . .After the first 5 minutes, don’t open the oven door for 20 minutes. You want to maintain the steam you've created. In a commercial oven, where many loaves of bread are baking, each loaf naturally gives off moisture, so the oven needs to be vented during the last 10 to I5 minutes of baking; this allows some steam to escape, ensuring that the loaves brown nicely and remain crisp. This is not necessary in a home oven."
The source of the following quotations is: Scherber, Amy & Toy Kim Dupree; "Amy’s Bread", New York: William Morrow & Company, 1996.
"Any serious home baker should invest in a baking stone. A stone helps loaves bake more evenly and gives them a much better crust. . .In a gas oven, place the stone on a rack in the lower third of the oven. In an electric oven, place the stone on a rack in the center of the oven. The stone should be in the center of the rack, leaving at least one or two inches all around to let air and steam circulate. We have experimented with using two stones in a home oven to simulate the intense top and bottom heat we get in our commercial oven. Placing one stone on a rack a few inches above the baking loaf, allowing space for rising, and the other stone nearer to the bottom of the oven has enabled us to bake loaves that spring higher and have a more complex, toasty, crunchy crust. If you try this technique, be sure to preheat the two stones well, and use more steam in the oven, quickly sprinkling a little water on the top stone when you begin to bake." Subsequent to our conducting this series of experiments, we concluded that our bread was slightly improved, but we did not find the level of improvement in the oven spring or in the character of the crust as described in Amy’s Bread."
The source of the following quotations is: Greenspan, Dorie; "Baking with Julia", William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1996. This text includes the following two excerpts:
"Baking the Bread"
Contributing Baker Steve Sullivan
"Position a rack in the lower third of the oven, line it with quarry tiles or a baking stone (leaving about 1 inch free all around), and preheat the oven to 450' F. Put a cast-iron or other very heavy skillet on the floor of the oven if it is a gas oven, or directly on the heating element if it is an electric oven. . .Pour about I cup of warm water into a long-necked bottle, preferably plastic. About 2 minutes before you're ready to put the loaves into the oven, open the oven door, stand back, and pour the water into the hot skillet. Immediately close the oven door to trap the steam. . .Slide the loaves onto the hot tiles or baking stone. Try to do this quickly so that you lose neither the oven's heat nor its humidity. . ."
"Baking the Bread "
Contributing Baker Danielle Forestier
"Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and line the rack with a baking stone or quarry tiles, leaving a border of at least 1 inch all around. You are going to have to make steam in the oven and you can do this in one of two ways: You can either throw water directly onto the floor of the oven -- often a risky business if you have a gas oven -- or pour it into a heavy skillet (cast-iron is ideal) placed directly on the floor of a gas oven or on the heating element of an electric oven. Preheat the oven (with the skillet in place, if using it) to 425' F. . .You need to work quickly now. Humidify the oven by carefully tossing 1/2 cup water onto the oven floor or into the preheated skillet; immediately close the oven door."
Upon reading the above information, we contacted the Whirlpool Co., to confirm our notion that these techniques, noted above in "Baking the Bread" (Sullivan & Forestier) are not recommended. Moisture on the oven floor can cause the floor to warp. Placing a very heavy skillet on the heating element of an electric oven can damage the oven.
News Groups on the internet are often sources of information -- both good and bad. The rec.food.sourdough and other groups devoted to baking are well represented by bakers who try new schemes to improve their breads. This is especially true of serious home bakers who do not have access to professional ovens and equipment. One such baker has developed a unique and effective way to inexpensively mimic a hearth oven...
Simulation of a More "Complete" Masonry Oven
Using both a high quality mercury calibration thermometer and a "contact" thermometer of the sort used to measure the surface temperature of a wood stove, Mr. Sole had determined that he can achieve temperatures of about 700° in a standard home oven set to 500°. How is this achieved?
A ring of fire bricks are stood on end on a soapstone baking sheet. An opening is left in the front wide enough for the peel. The oven heats until the oven thermostat tells it that the air within is 500°. It then shuts off the gas, and start to cool. The air cools much more rapidly than the mass of bricks. Assume that the oven thermostat has a "swing" of 50°. When the air in the oven drops to 450°, on comes the gas to heat the oven once again. At that moment, the bricks would be significantly hotter than the air. The gas keeps cycling on and off in this fashion, each time increasing the temperature of the bricks.
At the point when the bricks and air reach the temperatures defined above, the dough goes into the oven. Mr. Sole states, "...The results astounded me. I have used today's recipe for years, but the spring this time was perhaps 50% greater than ever before..."
The Artisan Baker has built and used this simulated masonry chamber in an electric oven, and it works as well in this situation as in Mr. Sole's gas oven. The photo depicts the setup in an electric oven. As can be seen, the weight of the bricks on the rack causes the rack to sag a bit toward the enter. We suggest that prior to using this setup, a call be made to your oven manufacturer to ascertain the estimated weight load that your rack can handle. Lighter refractory brick may be used to obviate this problem, but they are more difficult to obtain. Half thickness brick are available, and would probably work as well if they are not thinner than the spacings on the rack itself. For example, in the oven depicted here, the rack spacings are approximately 1 inch, but the thinner bricks are about 1/16" narrower, and fall through the spacings.
The fire bricks used in the oven on the photo were obtained from Pacific Clay Products, Inc., located in Lake Elsinore, California. They may be contacted via email at Pacific Clay, or visited on the Internet at http://www.pacificclay.com.
Simulation of a Hearth or Masonry Oven
Tom McMahon - Founder - The Bread Bakers Guild of America
The following questions and answers are excerpts from a newspaper article entitled "Hearth Breads and Home. Use a simple stone to bake hearty, rustic loaves in your oven." The article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday, January 27, 1999, via the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Marlene Parrish, is the reporter who interviewed Tom McMahon, the founder of The Bread Bakers Guild of America.Q: I don't have a hearth oven. so how can I bake hearth bread in my home kitchen?
A: Anyone can make good rustic hearth breads in a home kitchen by following a few guidelines. Some of them may surprise you.
Q: Do I need any special equipment?
A: Three things will insure success. Invest in a one-piece, rectangular baking stone. It becomes your hearth. My hearth stone is 17 by 14 inches. Look for one in the Housewares section in department stores. Prices range from $20 to $30
Q: How can I simulate a hearth oven?
A: Here's an easy and effective way to get professional quality: Take an old metal pie pan or square metal baking pan and fill it with small, clean stones. Stones out of your yard or driveway are fine. Place the pan of stones on the lowest oven rack. It will hold the heat, simulating a brick "> oven. Position the second rack on the shelf above it and place the hearth [baking] stone on the rack.
Q: How long should I preheat the oven?
Preheat the oven for 11/2 hours. That's right, 11/2 hours. It takes that long for the hearth stone and the rocks in the pan to get to the proper temperature. This is very important. You can use some of that preheating time to bake potatoes.
Q: Why should there be steam?
A: A hearth oven needs to have some steam. Some people think the steam is introduced to give the bread a shine. It does, but that's a secondary reason. The main reason to add steam is to have moisture condense on the surface of the bread dough. You'll know you've got the right amount of steam if you see a glistening surface on the dough.
This keeps the surface soft, allowing the crust to expand and the dough to rise for its final time in the oven. If there were no steam, the high heat would bake the crust too quickly and the bread would be unable to expand as much. When you put the bread into the oven, pour 1/2 cup of water onto the hot rocks to get about the right amount of steam.
Q: Does it matter if I have a gas or electric oven?
A: No, either is fine. But the trouble with modern self-cleaning ovens is that they are too air-tight. They don't have any cracks to allow moisture to escape. Here's a trick. When you put the bread in the preheated oven and have poured the water over the hot rocks, leave the oven door closed for the first 5 minutes.
Then, for the rest of the baking time, prop it open just a crack, about half an inch, to give the steam an escape hatch. A small magnet stuck on the oven door works well. The handle of a wooden spoon is not a good prop because it's too big and, anyway, it will fall out every time you peek in to check your bread.
Last updated on: 01/25/2000 08:12:31 PM