Steam is an essential component for getting a classic artisan loaf with good oven spring and a crackling crust, like the sourdough loaves we've been baking lately.
Short of investing in an oven with steam-injection, home bakers have developed a few tricks over the years to generate a steamy baking environment. Here's how!
So far, the best method we've discovered is creating a steam "bath." Place a thick sheet pan, hotel pan, or even a broiler pan on the floor of the oven while it's pre-heating.
When you're ready to bake the loaves, slide them in and immediately pour a cup of very hot water into the pan. Be careful because steam will billow up and can burn you. Close the door immediately to trap in the steam and leave the oven undisturbed for at least five minutes.
Next best--or in addition to the steam bath--you can use a spritzer bottle to spray the walls of the oven (careful to avoid the light bulb!) and close the door quickly to trap in the steam. Do this once or twice in the first few minutes of baking.
Also, don't worry about refilling the pan once the water has steamed off or standing by the oven for the entire baking time with your spritzer bottle at the ready. Steam is really only needed during the first few minutes of baking, after which the crust has already formed and you can leave the loaves to their business.
Anyone else have any oven tricks for getting a good crust?
Related: Essential Kitchen Tools: A Baking Stone
(Image: Bread Oven in Sardinia, by Ezioman via Flickr Creative Commons)