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In baking, sometimes we run into a problem: how do we get the center of the bread to bake while not forming a hard crust? This is something I've struggled with for a while. Recently, I was rereading an old favorite, Secrets of a Jewish Baker by George Greenstein, and came across a reference to steam in baking. It seems that industrial bakeries pump steam into their ovens to keep their crusts soft during the baking process.
How do you do this in your own oven? Well, after a little experimenting, I came up with two ways. First, Greenstein suggested using a metal pan full of water at the bottom of the oven. This is an outstanding way, since the wide surface area gives off a lot of vapor. The only trouble is that you must frequently recharge the tray (since the water evaporates rapidly) and so you must be willing to mind the bread constantly during the baking process. Another thing to be careful with this is that cold water poured into a hot tray will cause the tray to twist and spill some of its contents, so add the water slowly and try to use warm, hot or boiling water.
Second, I took a tin can and baked it on high until all the wrapper glue and the adhesive lining over the inside seam burned away, then scrubbed it out and filled it with water. This lets off less steam but takes up less space in the oven. While the crusts come out a little harder than with the tray method, my experience is that the can does not run out of water as easily, nor is their any problem with recharging it (use tongs or a glove please!). Be sure to place the can or tray (with water) in the oven the moment you turn the oven on. This way, the containers will reach temperature with the rest of the oven.
Another word of caution: do not stick your face or any other part of your body near or in the oven when you open the door. Think about it...hot steam! Give the oven a second to release the steam cloud, then reach in and do your thing. Remember to add more water before you close the oven door again to replace what is lost.
While I add straight warm water to the tray/can, George Greenstein suggested that you use either boiling water or ice cubes. I have not tried the ice cubes or boiling water out of shear laziness. I will update this page if I get any results. The boiling water should make more vapors when poured into the tray, but I found that if the tray is already heated (and there is some water already at temperature when you add more), there is still quite a bit of steam in the oven from the preheating and only a slight decrease in vapors from the hot pan.
In the short time I have been doing this, I have seen a great change in my baking. The color is not as dark, nor is the crust as hard and brittle. There does not appear to be any need to adjust baking time, but you may need to adjust the time if you open the oven door too often. You can use this method with most bread recipes.
31 March 2001