The Fresh Loaf

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poor spring/dry crust in restaurant oven -- ideas?

toddvp's picture

poor spring/dry crust in restaurant oven -- ideas?

Hi folks! I work for a local cafe that has been shipping in expensive baguettes for their sandwiches. I made a batch of Italian rolls from BBA as a potential alternative, and have been appointed the official baker of such rolls from now on (hooray!). However, I'm having some predictable challenges with their ovens, since they're not designed for bread baking.

What I'm working with is an electric, convection, fan-never-turns-off oven that I can fit 3 or 4 full-size sheet pans into at once. I've done my due research; leaving the fan on High dries out the crust, and Low gives inconsistent heating, so I've been doing the trick with such ovens where I turn it off for the first part of baking, then return to heat once the bread has had time to spring a little.

It's still not ideal though, so I could use some help. The Italian loaves aren't as picky, since the crumb is softer and more closed, although I'd like them to look a little nicer if I could. But I tried baguettes today that usually give me great grignes at home, with disappointing results. I've been doing a small cast iron pan that I add hot water to right before shutting off and closing the oven, and I've been spritzing the loaves with water after scoring to add a little extra moisture. But it doesn't seem to do much.

So here are my ideas, and please add to the list:

-better steaming: I'd like to use Sylvia's towel technique in some form for the steam, but I'm a little hesitant to put a cloth towel in a commercial oven that is going to be baking for awhile (in case I forget and it dries out, burns down the building, etc). My only idea is that I could potentially have the wet towel in a pan while the oven heats, with a lid on the pan so it doesn't lose moisture until I want it to. Do you think that would work, or would the little "mini sauna" keep itself from heating up enough? (And, will it make enough steam once I open the lid?)

-longer shut-off: I've only done a shut-off of the ovens for about 3 or 4 minutes so far, because it looks like the loaves aren't doing anything after that time. Should I steel my nerves and go longer? I know even at home, I give up on oven spring after 5 minutes, only to have the loaves blossom beautifully by around 10. I think I'm worried that the oven temperature will decrease too much if I leave it off too long. What's better-- to have a well-steamed environment with falling temps and then kick them back up, or consistent temps at the expense of a little of the steam?

-any more ideas? obviously it's impractical/impossible to cover the actual loaves to let them steam themselves, so I need a fairly practial, low-fuss, high-volume solution in these cranky ovens. maybe someday the owners will fall in love with bread enough to get a deck oven, but I'm up for the challenge of MacGyvering it for now.

Chime in, thanks!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

before opening the door to load.  

Although I've never worked with commercial ovens, I do know it takes 5 minutes for the temp to even out after having the door open so I'd bite my tongue and wait out the 7 -10  minutes before turning on the oven again or give it just 10 seconds of power at the 5 minute mark to circulate the heat inside the oven before stopping the fan again for a few minutes.   Oven spring finished in 5 minutes?  Ridiculous!  You might try raising the temp soaking the oven in more heat before you pull the plug and load.  Towels... other alternative might be soaked lava rocks used for grills.   Rocks prevent sloshing of any water and clean rocks won't catch fire.  Make sure they are very porous for lots of surface area.  Something rough with smaller diameter is also sold for aquarium filters.    

That's all I can offer you without handing you my Swiss army knife,   Mini   :)

pmccool's picture

1. If the headspace between shelves is enough, you could cover the loaves with steam table pans for the first 10-15 minutes of the bake to trap the moisture from the bread.

2. As Mini noted, start with a higher temperature, say baking temperature+50F for the preheat.  Load the bread, turn off the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes before turning the oven back on at the intended baking temperature.

3. Line the oven racks with some cheap tiles before preheating to provide some additional thermal oomph to drive the oven spring.  They can easily be removed for other oven users.


SylviaH's picture

I'm not very good with words.  I will try to explain..the way this is done 'Microwaved Towels for Steaming Bread', my favorite  way to steam loaves... and why I do not have a problem or fear of my towels burning up.  Do it properly and you won't either.

If the TERRY bar towels are properly 'Microwaved, (Soaken Wet), rolled up with about an inch of boiling water added in the their holding pans.  I get plenty of steam for any type, batch, size of loaves I bake.  I have no fear of breaking my glass oven door now.  Scalding myself.  Lugging heavy iron pans and rocks around and tossing water.  I have nearly every apparatus used for steaming...even the pie pan with holes in the bottom.  I baked my pumpkin pie in it this didn't even come out any browner on the bottom..'lol'  now I'm venting 'lol'.  So I can't tell you about steaming with the convection turned on..mine is turned off when I steam.  I can tell you maybe, just maybe all that steam running through your convection fan might do harm..but I'm not sure, Im not an electrician, just a homebaker.  67 yrs. young and I haven't burnt down my kitchen yet : ) 

In my personal experience.   The bread would burn up long before the towels are dried out.  I don't forget I'm baking bread.  At least not long enough to leave the house or smell the bread burning.  Anyone with a problem with the towels drying up, must not be soaking the towels enough, using skimpy towels or not adding boiling water to the loaf pans, before putting them into the oven to steam.  Or have left the house.  

I prepare my 4 hot microwaved water soaked towels, put 2 each into two loaf pans, sometimes 3, but I've found two fill up my loaf pans just right, and I add about an inch of boiling water.  (Loosen the towels), open them up some with tongs.  They go into my oven with the convection turned off.  They are left in to pre-steam my very hot oven and stone for 10 minutes.  Without removing the pans I add my loaves.  The loaves are steamed and the pans are left in sometimes for 15min. still containing water and the towels are still soaking wet.  My oven is preheated 500F to it very hot with the stone when the steam pans are placed in the oven.

I have steamed my breads this way numerous times.  I have steamed loaves for as long as 20 min. and still the towels were wringing wet with plenty of water still in the bottom of their holding pan, and when removed there is plenty of steam coming out of them.  When cleaning up I have to dump water out of the pans and wring the towels out.

Do use 'Terry' type bar towels, at least 2 in a single loaf pan.  Roll them up, microwave them soaking wet, there will be water in the bottom of the glass dish holding the towels, use this hot water also.  When they go into the oven, open them up some so you see steam escaping.  I use 2 loaf pans with 2 towels each... you must thoughly soak the towels add boiling water to at least an inch if your paranoid about the towels drying out.  I've never had a problem with towels drying out.  My bread would burn up first before the towels or water would dry up in my pans.  That should give you an idea of how wet the towels should be...also please don't use skimpy little dish rags..use the terry bar towels.  Clean white ones are nice.  I a neat my ovens today and santizing my counters :)

I also use 'My Favorite Way to Steam' in my Wood Fired Oven.


toddvp's picture

Thanks Sylvia! Great to have in-depth insight about steaming. I'm going to try a few of these ideas/encouragements from everyone and take another shot at it in a couple days.



Janetcook's picture

I have a convection only commercial oven at home.  (Cadco)  After a summer of experimenting I do the following:

1 - Baking stone on bottom shelf or middle shelf depending on how much bread I am baking.

2- Pre-heat to 425° for enriched breads/rolls.  (450°-475° for lean loaves)

3 - Turn off the oven and load breads.

4- Give the breads 3-4 'shots' of steam. (My oven has steaming capacity.)

5- Leave oven off for 10 minutes.

6- Turn oven back on but lower temp. to 350° or 325° depending on size and amount of enrichment.  (Larger and more enriched get the lower temp. )  [Lean loaves lower temp. to 400°]

7- Bake until done.  Which depends on size...

I find that if I try to bake with 3 sheet pans all at once the baking isn't even.  I have to turn trays and change shelves but I don't usually load my oven that full.  I mostly use just one shelf - the one with the baking stone.

It took me awhile to find what worked.  I took a lot of notes and experimented with the oven on while steaming and baking under clay pots....So far this method is giving me the most consistent results without tying me to the oven while the bread bakes.   I still tend to check up on things every 10 minutes.

Good Luck,


pezking7p's picture

Load the oven up with thermal mass on top and bottom, either steel sheet or stone tiles/bricks.  This will hold temp and radiate more heat into your loaves while the fans are off.  Then you can finish with the fans on if you need more heat/crust.

You should also get a second oven themometer so you can monitor oven temp while you're "soaking". 


With enough practice and thermal mass, you can actually turn your oven in to a hearth oven, just needs to be heated up every hour or so. 

toddvp's picture

I had better results with a longer coast time and a pan with soaked towels in the oven. The best batch I had was actually a small batch of baguettes I threw in at the end. I had to leave so I told someone to turn the oven back on after a few minutes, but they misheard me and reset the timer without turning on the oven.

By the time I noticed, the oven had been off for almost 20 minutes. I turned it back on with little hope of saving the batch, only to see the scores pull into half-decent grignes and the loaves still have a little kick in them. Pretty surprising, and definitely a confirmation that it's safe to let the oven coast for a pretty good amount of time (although probably not 20 minutes in the future) before turning it back on.

I'll keep posting in the future if I get more results. Pezking, I may try the thermal mass ideas, although since it's a shared oven I have to be as minimalist as possible so it can convert back to all purpose at pretty short notice.

Thanks everyone!

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Restaurant- and cafe-environments are notoriously hard to produce good bread in, and that is because their prep-, labour- and oven-schedule is almost the exact opposite of those required for bread.  Whenever consulting for either type of business, I stress to the management and staff that bread should be seen as a secondary objective, unless the bread-line sales can offset the increased need for specialised labour, ingredients, oven-time, schedule, mise-en-place, and so on.

With fan-forced convection ovens (a bench-top model, I'm assuming), retained heat and humidity are the biggest challenges, as everybody else has already pointed out.  Steam-generation is easy.  If you have the shelf-space or a speed-rack, I'd recommend proofing your rolls in-shape on full sheet-tray-sized parchment on an over-turned tray.  Preheat the sheet trays that they] are to be baked on for 30 minutes, at least, and then slide the entire parchment sheet onto the already-hot tray from the over-turned one.  Baking on two doubled-up, preheated trays per parchment sheet will also significantly increase thermal mass.

Not knowing the model of your oven, most bench-top models used by cafes are notoriously bad for lacking an air-tight seal.  This will obviously affect the outcome of your bake, as humidity is lost very quickly in commercial fan-force ovens that open downwards.  So, this would be another area I'd look into.

Lastly, do not choose your recipe, and try to fit it to your oven.  Evaluate the primary cafe needs (scheduling, labour, cost of making bread [much more difficult to truly calculate in the type of environment you are in], etc.), and then tailor the formula to those limits.  One thing I can say, you'll want plenty of yeast activity!

Hope this could be of help.

Also, congrats on being named the cafe baker.