When properly performed, the techniques of scoring and steaming both serve to improve the quality and esthetics of the finished bread. Scoring provides a place for the controlled expansion of the loaf during the oven spring phase of baking, thus contributing to the lightness of crumb and visual attractiveness of the loaf. Steaming during the first few minutes of baking serves a dual purpose; it delays the setting of the crust so that maximum oven spring can be achieved and it helps gelatinize the starch at the surface, giving the loaf a beautiful, shiny crust.
As I see it, the condition of the dough immediately prior to scoring has as much, if not more, of an impact on the ability to perform a proper scoring as the baker’s scoring technique itself. If the dough is too strong, the gluten strands at the site of scoring will not give during the oven spring and the cuts will not open properly. Interestingly, poorly opened cuts can also result from an insufficient or overabundant use of steam during the bake. If the dough is too weak, the blade will snag on the dough and the baker runs the risk of deflating the dough as he or she is performing the scoring.
The manner in which the scoring is performed is dependent upon such factors as the dough composition, the loaf shape and the effect the baker wishes to achieve. To score a typical boule, the blade should be held perpendicular to the surface of the loaf and drawn quickly, in one motion, across the surface of the dough. I find a lame fitted with a double-edge razor blade to be ideally suited to the task. For a baguette or batard, the blade should be held at a slight angle to the dough surface so that the blade lifts up a small flap of dough when the score is made. During baking, this dough flap produces the well-known and much sought after ”grigne” of a properly scored baguette or batard.
Steaming has always been problematic for the home baker. Without the steam injection systems available in commercial deck ovens, the home baker has had to resort to any one of a number of different techniques to generate steam. These techniques have included spraying the walls of the oven with a water mist just prior to and after loading, as well as throwing ice cubes into the oven at the time of loading, either directly onto the oven floor or into a pre-heated pan.
For ovens which don’t have a tight seal (such as mine), I find both of the above techniques to be deficient. The clouds of steam released by my oven whenever either of these techniques was employed led me to look for other, more efficient means of steam generation and usage.
The recent resurgence of “no-knead” bread helped provide me with a clue. This bread is baked in a covered dutch oven, thereby confining the steam released by the dough during baking. In essence, the dough acts as its own steam generator. A cover placed over a free-form bread while baking should serve the same purpose.
At about this time, I was made aware of the Steam Bread Maker, a product offered for sale which consists of a metal cover with a small inlet hole and a hand-held steamer. The idea here is to not only cover the dough but also to inject steam into the cover through the cover’s inlet hole. It was easy enough to put together my own steaming system, especially since I already owned a hand-steamer. An inverted buffet serving tray, inexpensively obtained at my local restaurant supply store, proved to be ideal for use as the cover.
The entire scoring, loading and steaming sequence can be seen below: My scoring of this loaf could have been better; I needed two passes to give the desired cut where it should (and normally does) take only one. The final loaf resulting from this procedure can be seen here.