I spent yesterday afternoon reflecting on John 13:21-38 in order to write a reflection for a blog that my church runs. In this passage, John describes Jesus’ final meal with his disciples where Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.
I was struck as I read it by the intimacy and closeness Jesus shared with the two men who were about to betray him. He looked Judas’ deeply in the eyes as he offered him a piece of bread. “Love one another, as I have loved you,” he tells his disciples as Judas’ runs out the door.
It’s a love that is about to cost Jesus’ his life, but he doesn’t rescind the command. He doesn’t say, “Wait, I’m about to get killed. This love your enemies thing isn’t working out like I planned—never mind, let’s arm ourselves.” He uses his impending death as one last opportunity to remind others of the radical love he expects of his followers. That’s how the world will remember him, and that’s how the world will know who follows him, he says. Through their love for one another.
After your bread finishes its final rise, it heads into the oven to bake. The yeasts continue to feast on the sugar present, but as the bread heads towards the oven, they realize their time is about up. They feel the heat pressing in on them. All around the water that has not been absorbed into the starch begins to turn into steam.
In the face of impending death, the yeasts could lock in and hold on to one another. They could try and prevent moving on. But if they did, the loaf they leave behind would be dense and sticky. It would be awkwardly shapen. Unwilling to use the building pressure for good, the dough would explode in its weakest places.
But when the baker carefully scores the top of the dough, the yeasts and the steam work together to give the loaf one final push. They take the coming death and use it to say, “We have to go. We know you’re about to kill us. But we’re going to leave behind a story of our love and our beauty anyway.” This oven spring gives bread its open crumb and robust shape.
Creating the right environment for a good oven spring is difficult in a home oven. The temperature must be high enough for the steam to build quickly and the surface of the dough must be moist enough that it doesn’t gelatinize before the steam escapes. A traditional deck or wood-fired oven captures the steam within the oven so that the crust stays moist during the final spring until the baker opens the damper and lets the steam escape and the crust dry out.
The easiest way to replicate this action at home is through the use of a Dutch oven. The Dutch oven holds its heat, the lid seals in the steam, and the confined space creates an added bit of pressure to lift the dough.
While this might yield the most consistently beautiful loaf, it’s not necessary for good bread. Until this weekend, I’d actually never used a Dutch oven to bake bread before.
The two most important things you must do are bake your dough on a piping hot tray and create some kind of steam. After a Dutch oven, a cast iron pan or a baking stone are the next best options since they retain their heat well. But if you don’t have either a metal baking tray will work too. Place the tray in the oven as soon as you turn it on, allowing it to pre-heat with the oven. This will ensure that it is as hot as possible when you turn our dough onto it to bake.
Once you’ve turned the dough onto the piping hot tray, there are a few different ways to create steam. You can brush the loaf with water, which is the simplest method, although that steam will cook off very quickly.
Another method is to spray the inside of the oven with a spray bottle of water. This allows the most steam, but it requires that you open the oven a few times. When I spray, I typically spray generously as I remove my pre-heated pan and again as I put the bread into the oven. I’ll let it bake 3-4 minutes then spray one more time for good measure.
A third method is to keep a tray of water on a lower rack of the oven. When you place the pan in to preheat, place a pan filled 1 1/2 inches high with water. As the oven heats, this water will create steam. After the bread has been baking for 10-15 minutes, you’ll want to remove the pan of water so that the crust can begin to dry out.
One final method is using ice cubes. Place 2-3 ice cubes in the bottom of the oven when you remove your pre-heated pan. These will slowly melt and release steam. Add a few more when you return the bread to the oven, and another few 5-7 minutes into baking.
Each of these methods will cool the oven down considerably, which is why it is so important to pre-heat the oven fully before baking. I typically pre-heat to 25° higher than I want the bread to bake so that I can spare the oven dropping a lot during the loading process. Once the bread is in the oven and you are done opening the door for extra ice cubes or sprays, drop the temperature down to the desired baking temperature (usually 425°F).
Scoring your dough is necessary to give the steam a place to escape. One or two straight cuts down the center are all that are necessary, but many bakers use the score to add a more artistic touch to the dough. If you’re looking for some ideas of fun scoring patterns, there are so many ideas on Instagram. Check out #breadscoring for inspiration.
As you bake today, reflect on John 13:18-38. Consider the model for love that Jesus chose to leave behind in his final moments before his death. Reflect on his words after Judas’ left, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples: if you love one another.”
Pray that you will have the capacity to love your enemies as intimately and as deeply as Jesus did, knowing that your love cannot save you from their wounds. Examine how you might better love those who could betray or disown you. Question whether or not others see your love, whether or not they can see Christ behind your radical capacity to love. When the heat begins to close in, will you remain insular and attempt to avoid it, or will you use the pressure to give one final push, leaving something beautiful in the wake of death?