Improvised Brick-and-Steam Oven for Bakery Quality Bread at Home

I like to call this the bread “spa” method. Ever wonder why bakery bread gets that crunchy crust and meltingly moist interior? Professional bakeries use professional ovens which the home cook can mimic in a regular home oven. How do we treat our bread to an afternoon at the spa’s sauna? It’s as easy as bricks and water!

Treatment I: Massage and Gentle Dough Sauna for Rising

Don’t turn on the oven! I mean, you haven’t even made the dough yet, right? So use that cool oven as a draft-free space for rising your dough. As you finish kneading (massaging) your dough, set some water to boil on the stovetop. Put your dough in a bowl large enough for the anticipated rise and place it in the unheated oven. In a separate dish, pour the boiling water. Close the oven door and allow to rise in the warm, steamy, spa-like environment you’ve just created. If they could talk, the yeast would thank you. Just remember to take out the rising apparatus and dough prior to preheating! Oh yes, preheating is the perfect time for shaping your dough according the style you are baking.

Ok, before moving on, I hear some purists shouting that a long, cool rise is the best for developing flavor. Yes, I get that, but I also know that I’m look for volume and that in my experience the yeastie-beasties seem to just shut down in cool temperatures and the height and texture is not attained. Perhaps an accord can be reached with mixed methodology? Ah, an ideal for future home bakers to reach for… but, until then…

Treatment II: Intense Swedish Sauna for Baking

Ok, you’ve removed everything in the oven from Part I, right? Good. Then it’s time to set up your faux brick oven. The rack for the intended bread needs to be in the middle. If you’re using a pizza stone, you can put it there now. You’ll also need a rack towards the bottom. Why? Because it’s time to go hunting… for bricks! So get up, go outside, and find some boring unglazed bricks. What? You don’t have any lying around your backyard? That is strange as they seem to multiple like some extra terrestrial being here. Don’t fret if the brick aliens haven’t invaded your town, you can use any unglazed terra cotta pots or a pizza stone — anything that will go “sizzle” when you splash it with ice water without breaking will work. Also remember that bricks and stones and stuff hold heat nicely, so don’t be shy about adding them. Once you’re set up, turn that oven up to 500F. Did you hear your oven beep indicating that it’s up to temperature? Well, I hate to break it to you, but your oven is lying. Ouch. It’s not its fault, really. It thinks it’s telling the truth and I want to have faith that the inside air temperature truly is 500F. But once that door is opened, bye-bye air. So keep it closed and let it truly come to temperature, walls, bricks, and all, which will take about 20 minutes.

Now the fun part. You want to work quickly to keep the oven door closed and maintain temperature. Have your dough ready to bake and set aside some ice-water and an ice-water transfer apparatus (i.e. small measuring cup with handle, bulb/turkey baster, etc.). If you’re baking on a pizza stone or the like, it’s already ready to go, and you can just slide your formed dough on it. If not, place your dough on a baking sheet and place it on the middle rack. Get some ice water ready and splash some on your bricks. Poof! It’s a steam sauna! Close that oven door quickly and allow it to work it’s magic. Repeat the sauna method every 10 minutes or so until the bread is finished. How do you know when to take it from the oven? When finished, bread will sound hollow when tapped.

Treatment III: Towel Wrap

I learned this additional technique from my husband’s Portuguese grandparents, who used to own a bakery. Not all breads need this treatment, but it works particularly well with very thick-crusted bread, such as pao caseiro (Portuguese homestyle bread) and broa (Portuguese Cornbread). After removing your bread from your oven, wrap it in a towel and then a blanket and let it cool before cutting into it. The moisture in the bread continues to steam the interior whilst maintaining that amazing crust. The texture created is unsurpassed. If you make a very large loaf in the afternoon, it’s still warm when dinner comes around. Just be sure to cool it completely prior to putting it in anything airtight.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I love trying new ways to achieve the magical crackle crust.I usually bake this kind of bread using an instant read thermometer and baking until it gets to 200-210 degrees. When wrapping the bread, does the crust soften? But it stays warm and moist inside?
    I look forward to digging through my yard for those illusive bricks I know are lurking out there.


    • I think this Portuguese bread is incredibly crusty, so much so, that it really benefits from a long wrapping. It manages to remain crackly because the towel isn’t airtight and allows the bread to breathe. In other recipes, I imagine it would help because it mimics the final steaming in professional bread ovens. Oh my, I guess I’ll have to do some more experimentation 😉 Please keep me updated if do some experiments!


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