Essential Bread-Baking Equipment | Serious Eats

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Bread-baking is one of the oldest culinary traditions on the planet, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a culture that doesn’t make one sort of bread or another. But just because our ancestors made do with elbow grease and crude tools doesn’t mean we need to follow suit.

A handful of tried-and-true essentials can make the bread-baking process far easier and more reliable. Whether you’re a newbie to our Simple Crusty White Bread recipe and Breadmaking 101 series or an experienced baker looking for trustworthy recommendations with which to upgrade your basic equipment, here’s what you should plan to have on hand.

We’ve also added specific recommendations for those looking to make sourdough. Sourdough is a very specialized area of bread baking that involves many of the same tools for general bread baking. The difference? Sourdough breads rely on a starter–a culture of microbes used to leaven bread. While making a starter doesn’t involve too much extra equipment, there are some certain pieces of equipment that will assist you in making and maintaining one.

Editor’s note: This article was written by multiple contributors. Max Bernstein wrote the general bread-baking recommendations, while Tim Chin authored the sourdough-specific tips.

For General Bread-Baking

A Digital Scale

Accurate scaling is an important first step toward baking with confidence. This eliminates all of the questions about whether to sift or pack our flour, whether to measure out a heaping tablespoon or a packed one, or how to estimate a pinch versus a smidge. If you don’t have a scale already, there’s no need to spend a ton of money on one—just make sure it’s accurate down to the gram, since that’s the unit we’ll be dealing with.

At Serious Eats, we’re partial to the winner of our digital-scale review: the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale With Pull-Out Display, which lets you check measurements easily, even when the scale’s topped with a big fat bowl. It scales up to five kilograms (much more bread than you can bake at once in any home oven), and it’s accurate to the gram. Scales will help keep you consistent, which, in turn, will help you to refine your technique and recipes to make what you want, when you want it.

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A Bowl and Bench Scraper

A bowl scraper is my best friend when I’m transferring the dough between bowls, and it’s my preferred tool when mixing doughs by hand. Meanwhile, a bench scraper is essential when dividing and shaping loaves, and will make clean-up much easier. (For those unprepared, you’ll get flour everywhere during the baking process if you do it right. This is part of the fun. Wear some shoes you don’t care about, and save your black clothes for a different date.)

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Proofing Materials

Once your loaves are shaped, it’s time for the proofing and fermentation process. I like to proof bread dough in baskets lined with undyed cloth. Baskets help the loaves keep their structure and shape during the final proof. If you have bread-proofing baskets already, use them; if they’re well seasoned, you won’t even need the cloth. You can find bread baskets and cloth, or couche, on the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) website or Amazon.

In place of baskets, you can use medium mixing bowls lined with undyed, unbleached linen and sprinkled with flour. That said, the porosity of the wicker basket is ideal, since it will keep our loaves from sweating, which in turn prevents sticking. The cloth is yet more insurance against sticking, and the dusting of flour on that cloth is our tertiary insurance.

Why undyed cloth specifically? Any chemicals used to treat the cloth will seep into the dough during proofing, which means you’ll be eating them later. Which basically undoes one of the best reasons to bake at home—to know what’s in our food.

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A Large Heatproof Dish

To actually bake your bread, you’ll also need a Dutch oven of some kind. Taking the excellent advice of Tartine Bread author Chef Chad Robertson, I use the slightly unorthodox Lodge Combo Cooker to bake bread at home. Not only does it cost under $40, its dimensions are perfect for making classic hearth-style bread.

If you’re using a more traditional, deep cast iron set, just try not to burn yourself on the edges when removing the bread, and don’t use anything that’s enameled unless it specifies high-temperature resistance—most enamels aren’t designed to endure such high temperatures for so long (that means none of our recommended Dutch ovens are ideal for this task, folks!).

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Baking Stones or a Baking Steel

For my basic country-style white bread, a Baking Steel or baking stones aren’t strictly essential, but they can measurably improve the performance of your oven by adding thermal mass. Home ovens lose a lot of heat when they’re opened, which is bad for bread because we need that heat to get the full rise out of our loaves. Any extra stuff you can shove in your oven to help it stay hot will make for better bread.

The Baking Steel and the Baking Steel Griddle have long been Serious Eats favorites, thanks to their hardy construction (no more broken pizza stones, thank you very much) and impressive heat retention.

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An Oven Thermometer

While we’re on the topic of ovens, ensuring that yours is hot enough to begin with is a good idea. Many ovens are incorrectly calibrated, meaning that what you’re seeing on the dial may not be the temperature your oven’s reaching inside. A good, basic oven thermometer is cheap; having an accurate oven is priceless. You can read more about how to calibrate your oven in our post on common variables that affect baking.

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A Stand Mixer

When making dough, I almost always start with my stand mixer and a dough hook. Not only does it guarantee consistent results, it’s a lot easier than using your hands. That said, a stand mixer isn’t strictly necessary; the biggest mixing bowl in your house will also do in a pinch. You can read more about how to mix and knead bread dough here—I’ve included instructions for both approaches.

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A Spray Bottle

Grab yourself a spray bottle of virtually any size, and fill it with water. Professional bakery ovens release steam, which has a twofold effect: It keeps the crust from forming too early in the process, and it ensures that the crust that forms later on is as crisp and burnished as can be. You can read all about the hows and whys in my post on the science of baking bread; for now, just know that a spray bottle will work wonders on your crust.

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A Utility Knife

Finally, you’ll want to have some sort of razor to score the bread. You can use a box cutter with a fresh blade, a utility knife, or a razor blade; even a sharp paring knife will do. If we haven’t already convinced you that every kitchen needs a utility knife, now’s the time to take our words to heart.

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A Bread Knife

So this one isn’t really necessary for baking bread, but after all your hard work, you deserve beautiful, even, easily attained slices of your loaf. After extensive testing, we found some great bread knives that slice so smoothly, they’ll have you wondering why you’ve been battling crusts all these years with the dull knife you inherited from Grandma.

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For Making/Maintaining a Sourdough Starter

Containers

Sterilized glass jars are the gold standard for many bakers. Weck jars, Ball jars, or any mason jars with lids are good options. Plastic works too—I maintained my own starter in reusable restaurant deli quart containers for years before switching to glass.

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A Spatula

A sterile, small, flexible silicone or rubber spatula is ideal for scraping the sides of your jar and fully incorporating ingredients.

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Thermometers

Maintaining your starter at a consistent temperature range will go a long way toward its development over time. So it’s prudent to keep a couple thermometers handy. You could use a digital thermometer to measure the temperature of your starter directly. Or at the very least, it’s helpful to keep an accurate digital indoor thermometer to keep track of ambient temperature.

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A Temperature-Controlled Environment

If you really want to go the extra mile (and don’t want to leave anything to chance), investing in a temperature-controlled proofing box is a good idea. You can store your starters in this box without worrying about massive fluctuations in ambient temperature. Plus, you can use this box to proof bread (of course). If you don’t want to invest in a proofing box—but still aspire to some form of temperature control—you can opt for the more DIY approach. There are plenty of tutorials online for temperature controlled boxes: All you need is a beer cooler, an electric blanket or similar heat source, and a PID temperature controller. As long as you know your way around some hardware, it’s a cheaper alternative to a proofing box.

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Cheesecloth or Coffee Filters

The jury is out on porous materials. Some bakers claim that fastening a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter to the top of the jar (instead of lightly screwing on a lid) allows the starter to “breathe” and enhances the probability of inoculation in the initial stages of starter development. I’d guess that exposure to more air means increased exposure to potential microbes (but that’s best left for another post.) Anecdotally, I’ve had good results making starters without using these methods too. But it can’t hurt.

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Rubber Bands

Beyond fastening the cheesecloth to your jar, rubber bands provide a helpful visual aid to gauge the development of your starter as it matures. To do this, simply fasten a band to the jar directly after feeding, making sure to level off the starter mixture to determine its starting level. At your next feed, you can measure how much the starter has risen relative to the starting point indicated by the band. This method has a low footprint, and I’ve found it more reliable and cleaner than using a marker to indicate the starting level.

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