Excellent oven spring is what every baker aspires to when baking sourdough bread. During my own journey of successes and failures, I’ve learned over time what makes or breaks a good oven spring. Although part of it comes from experience, a lot of it can be learned through understanding what affects oven spring.
How do you get better oven spring on your sourdough bread? The secret to a good oven spring is contained not only in the way sourdough bread is baked, but also in many of the steps that lead up to baking. The following can all affect oven spring:
- Strength of the starter
- Type of flour
- Bulk fermentation & kneading
- Shaping technique
- Scoring technique
- Baking method
Let’s get into some more detail on exactly what affects the oven spring, and most importantly, what you can do to get that perfect oven spring in your sourdough bread.
What is Oven Spring?
What exactly do we mean when we say a ‘good oven spring’?
‘Oven spring’ refers to the growth of the bread during its initial baking phase where the loaf is growing before the crust hardens. A ‘good oven spring’ is when the loaf expands to its full potential both by volume and shape to produce an airy crumb texture and an open balanced shape.
You’ll know when you’ve had a bad oven spring. And don’t worry, we’ve all been there. It’s when you have a loaf of bread that comes out of the oven looking a flying saucer. Dense, heavy, maybe a little wonky, and…..well…..like a flying saucer.
Once you understand what affects oven spring though, you can hopefully say goodbye to flat, dense, wonky breads. We’ll go through 10 practical steps you can take to get a better oven spring.
But first, what causes a good oven spring, and how can you tell if you’ve achieved it to its maximum potential?
Signs of a Good Oven Spring
Different breads are going to have different rates of ‘spring’ during the bake, so it’s important to understand how to judge the success of your oven spring.
For example, a 100% whole wheat sourdough bread is not going to expand as much as one made from strong white bread flour. It’s just not possible. So having realistic expectations is a must when it comes to understanding your bake.
(If you’re interested in learning about using different flours in your sourdough bread and how it affects the bake, check out my flour guide.)
What we are talking about here is the potential that each loaf has. We want to get the best oven spring for each loaf we bake. Here’s a list of characteristics we can look for in sourdough bread after it’s baked that shows a successful oven spring.
- Blisters on the surface of the loaf
- A pronounced ear
- A uniform shape with balanced expansion all round
- An open crumb interior that has holes which are more or less evenly placed around the whole loaf
- A loaf that whistles or crackles as it cools
As we mentioned earlier, it’s kind of obvious when you’ve a ‘bad’ oven spring, because your loaf will look as flat as a pancake! But using the above list will give you ‘clues’ as to how well your loaf sprung in the oven.
BONUS TIP: Keeping notes every time you bake can help you to improve with every loaf you make. Observe the look of your final loaf and what you did to help troubleshoot and improve.
What Affects Oven Spring?
Here, I’ve listed out very briefly the theory behind what actually affects oven spring. It helps to understand the practical steps I’ve listed below, and how they contribute towards getting that springy loaf. A bread that rises well, and to its full potential in the oven needs the following things:
- Good gluten development – This will help hold up the structure of your bread.
- Strong natural yeast presence in the dough – Both lactobacillus AND yeasts are needed for sourdough bread, but it’s the yeast that will contribute more in helping the bread rise.
- Sufficient strength in the dough – A ‘strong’ dough will hold up its structure far better.
- Enough energy left in the dough before baking – the dough still needs some remaining sugar and starch from the flour to give it enough rising power once it hits the oven.
- Sturdy shape with even, balanced fermentation – this will help provide better shape as it expands during baking.
- Sufficient surface tension on the loaf with strategically scored areas – this will help to control how your loaf will look.
- Sufficient heat in the beginning of the bake – this is important for the bread to rise quickly before the crust is formed.
The trick to a good oven spring is to be able to have all of the above things included in your bread making process, and at the right level.
10 Steps to A Better Oven Spring in Your Sourdough Bread
Now that we know the theory, let’s talk about the practical things we can do to make sure we get good oven spring in our sourdough bread.
As mentioned earlier, there are several factors that go into making this happen, and each step will contribute a little extra towards that desired result.
NOTE: Remember that for some of these steps, you will get better at them only through experience. So practice, practice, practice and soon you’ll be nailing a superb oven spring every time!
Here are 10 practical steps that you can take today in your sourdough bread baking process, that will hopefully contribute to the best oven spring you’ve ever had!
Step #1: Use a Super Strong Sourdough Starter at its Peak
The condition of your sourdough starter is a really important factor in determining how successful your oven spring is. There are 3 aspects to think about when it comes to your sourdough starter:
- The strength of the starter
- The temperature at which you keep the starter
- The stage at which you use the starter
The Strength of Your Sourdough Starter
Your starter needs to be strong and active to be able to produce a good oven spring. Along with regular feedings, the best way to get your starter strong and ready, is to increase the ratio of flour and water you are giving it during a feeding.
A ratio of 1:2:2 is a good rule of thumb when you want to increase its strength to prepare it for baking bread. This means for every part of sourdough starter you have, you should feed it 2 parts flour and 2 parts water.
Or in practical terms, let’s say you have 20 grams of starter. Feed it 40 grams of flour and 40 grams of water. This ratio will help build up its strength when preparing it for baking.
The Temperature at which to Keep Sourdough Starter
If it’s oven spring you’re after, then the temperature you keep both your starter and your dough can make a difference.
Yeast likes to grow at a temperature of between 75F – 82F (25C – 32C) and work most efficiently at 80F – 90F (27C – 32C).
So sticking to these temperature ranges (especially between 80F – 90F if you can) will ensure you have the best yeast development in both your starter and your dough. Why do we want more more yeast? Because it’s the yeast that give your dough the most rising power. More yeast means better oven spring.
How can I Control the Temperature of my Starter and Dough?
But if you don’t have a dough proofing box, the best option is to keep your starter and dough in a warm environment that is away from drafts. This will be different for everyone, but here are some ideas that might work:
- Above your refrigerator
- Inside your microwave or toaster oven
- Inside a cupboard that is in a warm area of your kitchen
- Inside your oven with the light switched on
It’s handy to keep a food thermometer or room temperature thermometer around so that you get an idea of what temperature you are working with.
If you’d like more detailed information about how different proofing temperatures affect sourdough, check out my Proofing Temperature Guide for Sourdough.
The Stage at which you Use your Starter
As well as giving it extra food and keeping it nice and cozy, try as far as you can to use your starter at its peak. Most starters will rise and deflate in between feedings, and if you get it at its peak, then this is when:
- it has the most yeast developed
- it is at its highest strength in terms of rising power
For more information about when to use your starter, check out my article here where I discuss the differences between using your starter at different stages i.e. before and after peak, and how this affects your bread.
Step #2: Use a Leaven
A leaven, (which is also called levain, poolish, biga, and probably more names that I haven’t yet discovered) is a good way to boost that oven spring. You are essentially giving your already strong sourdough starter even more strength by feeding it a much larger amount of flour and water. This will prepare it well for your dough and give it the best chance for a good oven spring.
And again, catching the leaven while it is still on its way up to rising is the best time to use it. It will have strong yeasts developed at this stage and will be primed and ready to eat up the sugars and starches in your dough.
Step #3: Choose your Flour Wisely
If oven spring is what you are going for, consider the type of flour you are using. Strong white bread flour will give you the best gluten development to be able to hold up a strong tall structure (which gives you good oven spring). But whole wheat flours, rye, or freshly milled flours will give your sourdough starter extra nutrients and boosted fermentation.
Consider using mostly strong white flour, with a smaller amount of rye and whole wheat (and if you can, freshly milled too), to get the benefit from different flours.
In my experience, using about 5% rye, 10% whole wheat, and the rest strong white works well. This will be different for every person depending on which flours they are using, including which brand. So a little experimentation can go a long way with this knowledge.
For further information about the different characteristics flours have, check out my guide to choosing the best flour for sourdough.
Step #4: Do an Extended Autolyse
An autolyse is not a necessary step in sourdough baking. But if you’re after a good oven spring, an extended autolyse is a good idea. It prepares your dough for good gluten development.
I have an article explaining the ins and outs of autolyse here if you’d like more detail. But essentially, doing an autolyse on your dough will help build up the extensiblility of your dough, and prepare it for strong gluten development.
Autolyse is done in different ways, but for good oven spring, it’s important to do a ‘pure’ autolyse, where only the flour and water from the recipe are ‘soaked’ together for a period of time before adding the salt and starter. Leaving it to soak for a few hours will give you best results, but even 30 minutes to an hour will do wonders for your dough strength.
Step #5: Agitate the Dough for Extra Strength
‘Agitating’ the dough during fermentation, while allowing it to rest between agitations helps to develop strength in the dough. This can be in the form of:
- coil folds
- stretch and folds
- slap and folds
With sourdough, I’ve found that gentle folds are best, because they help to keep the gentle gluten structure in the dough intact as it grows in size.
QUICK TIP: Less is more when it comes to stretch and folds. If you over handle the dough, you can cause it to lose its strength. A handful of stretch and folds is enough to do the trick.
Step #6: Proof your Dough for the Right Amount of Time
To get the best oven spring, you should aim to still have enough fermentation time left in your dough to have that final push of growth once it hits the oven.
Proofing your dough for just the right amount of time to give it the best oven spring will take some trial and error at first.
- Under proof it, and you will get an unbalanced interior crumb because the fermentation did not reach enough of the dough as a whole.
- Over proof it, and you won’t get much of an oven spring at all because the yeasts have already used up all of their food sources and won’t have enough strength to rise.
QUICK TIP: If you are unsure, then it is better to slightly under proof than to over proof, because having an uneven crumb is better than having a flat loaf!
How Do I Know How Long to Proof my Dough?
Again, experience will play a big role in this step so expect a little trial and error. But here are a few pointers:
- Make sure it has visibly grown in size – Not necessarily doubled as is commonly known, because this is dependent on which type of flour you have used.
- The ‘look’ of the dough will have changed – You should be able to see larger bubbles either on its surface, or on the sides or bottom of the bowl.
- The ‘feel’ of the dough will have changed – It should feel lighter and be ‘jiggly’ if you move the bowl from side to side.
For more details about proofing sourdough to perfection, check out my article here.
Step #7: Pre-shape, Rest, and Shape Again
Shaping is an important step in your oven spring, because without giving your dough a tightly formed shape, it won’t be able to contain its oven spring in the right way. Proper shaping produces a proper surface for your loaf and ensures that your dough will have balanced growth in the oven.
Pre-shaping dough is not necessary. But again, if you want that awesome oven spring, then pre-shaping will help the bread to stand taller.
QUICK TIP: Allow the dough to relax between shapings for 20 minutes to an hour. This will help make the second shaping far easier, and will help increase your oven spring even further.
Step #8: Retard the Dough after Shaping
Retarding the dough simply means placing it in cold storage to firm up. For most of us this equates to placing it the fridge. Doing this after shaping will benefit the oven spring in 3 ways:
- The dough will become stiffer, which helps the loaf to stand tall when baking.
- Due to the temperature change from cold fridge to hot oven, the oven spring will be more dramatic.
- It takes longer for a colder dough to form its crust, so there is more time for the loaf to continue to grow.
TIP: There’s no need to bring your loaf up to room temperature. Place it straight from the fridge in to a steaming hot oven for the biggest impact to your oven spring.
Step #9: Score Strategically
The way you score your bread will have an affect on which way the loaf will ‘spring’.
The purpose of scoring, is to produce weak areas on the surface of the loaf, which directs where the bread expands during its oven spring.
Your loaf will grow in the oven according to how you score it, so be mindful of how and where you slash, in order to maximize growth. Here are some useful points to remember when scoring, to help you get a good oven spring:
The deeper the slash, the more open the loaf will be – Don’t be afraid to go in deep when you slash, as this will help the loaf open up more.
Having less slashes is more effective – Making one big, deep slash means all the growth will be directed to that area, giving the illusion of a ‘better oven spring’ due to it all being in one spot. If you make lot’s of smaller slashes, the oven spring will be distributed all over, which can appear less open.
Slashing at an angle – Scoring the loaf at an angle rather than straight down (so ‘/‘ rather than ‘|‘ ), will not only open the loaf up more, but will also help to produce an ‘ear’. More experienced bakers will slash using a curved blade rather than a straight one for this very reason.
Use a proper lame – Using a knife simply won’t do the job effectively. It’s important to invest in a decent lame to slash cleanly and deeply enough. (This one on Etsy can be used curved or straight).
FUN FACT: Scoring the loaf is also known as a bakers’ signature. Bakers used to slash their loaves in a unique design as a way for others to recognize that it was their bread.
Step #10: Bake it Right for the Best Oven Spring Ever!
Possibly one of the most important steps to a good oven spring is the way it is baked. The focus should be on two things:
- Steam – The more steam you can retain during baking, the longer your loaf will have to grow in the oven.
- High heat – The hotter your oven can get during the initial bake, the faster it can grow before the crust hardens and the shape is formed.
The easiest and most effective way to do this of course is to use a good quality Dutch oven. (Check out my article here for information on which Dutch oven I like to use). You simply bake the loaf of bread inside the Dutch oven, and you have the perfect environment of steam and heat to get the best possible oven spring.
If you don’t have a Dutch oven, the other option is to use plenty of steam. Blast your oven to as high as it will go and preheat it for a good hour before using it. If you have a baking stone or two like these (Amazon link), even better, as this will help to retain the heat even more.
Once the oven is super hot, Place your COLD loaf straight from the fridge, into your oven. Going from cold to hot will give your bread the best chance of getting a super strong oven spring.
BONUS TIP: Investing in a new seal for your oven is a good idea if you are finding that your bread is not rising well. A new seal ensures that your oven is working as efficiently as possible, and that there no unnecessary steam escaping.
Adding Steam to Your Oven
There are several ways that you can add extra steam to your oven for the initial part of the bake. Here are a few popular ways:
- Heat up a shallow roasting pan in your preheating oven and add boiling water to the tray as you put the loaf in to bake.
- Add ice cubes to the baking stone next to your loaf and cover with a large pot.
- Spray water liberally onto the loaves once you have placed them in the oven.
Using a combination of steam addition methods is best. If you’d like to learn more about baking bread effectively without a Dutch oven, check out my article “3 Ways to Make Amazing Sourdough Bread, WITHOUT a Dutch Oven”. I’ve packed the article full of plenty more ideas on what can be used to get extra steam and heat.
BONUS TIP: Get to know your oven by experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. Most ovens manage to give enough oven spring by the 15 to 20 minute mark, but my oven needs a good 25 minutes before I turn the heat down to give the inside of the bread a chance to cook and the crust to darken.