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Article

Choosing Bread-Baking Tools You’ll Really Use

Get advice from a seasoned baker on equipment that can really make a difference in your baking

Fine Cooking Issue 23
Photos : Ben Fink
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I’ve always been an impassioned baker, even when I didn’t have much room to work. I started in a tiny student-housing kitchen with not much space for anything, and bread baking, which required so few tools, turned out to be entirely feasible. My very first yeasted bread didn’t turn out too well, but I vowed to get it right. My determination prevailed—and I fell in love with breadmaking.

I’ve long since moved out of student housing and into a bigger kitchen. Through years of baking, I’ve learned which breadmaking tools are useful and which are superfluous. To decide what you really need (as opposed to what will just end up looking impressive on a shelf), consider this: your bread-baking outfit should expand with your commitment.

You can bake good bread with just a few basics

Measuring cups and spoons will get you going. You don’t even need a big bowl—you can mix and knead bread dough on any work surface.

Start out with a loaf pan or even a castiron skillet or a gratin dish to bake the bread in; just be sure the container is food-grade and ovenproof. I’d advise against coffee cans—the lead sealants in the cans can leach into the bread.

Add some useful peices as your skill develops

A big mixing bowl made of metal or plastic is lightweight, sturdy, and easier to maneuver and wash than a heavier ceramic bowl. A long-handled wooden spoon makes the initial mixing neater.

Oven mitts provide thorough protection for your hands, making it easier to rotate breads and move hot baking stones and oven racks.

A baking stone provides an immediate rush of heat to the dough so it expands fully before the crust sets. Only with a baking stone can you get hard-crusted, professional-caliber bread at home. In theory, preheated metal baking sheets will also jolt the dough, but because metals quickly conduct intense heat, they can end up burning the bottom of the bread. Be sure that the stone is at least 4 inches narrower than your oven width to allow for proper heat circulation.

You don’t have to spend a lot on a baking stone: unglazed ceramic tiles can work. The tiles must be unglazed because sealants can produce toxic fumes. And some ceramics can contain high levels of lead. Be sure to buy American-made tiles; they’re lead-free by law.

While many bakers will tell you to leave the baking stone in the oven all the time, I like to take it out when I’m not baking bread. An oven uses more energy and takes longer to heat up when the stone is in it.

Use simple tools for polished detailing

A fine sieve will sprinkle flour evenly over shaped breads for a rustic look.

Pastry brushes clean excess flour off the dough and evenly apply glazes and water before baking. Buy the best quality— a brush that sheds is really annoying.

A good kitchen scale measures ingredients more quickly and accurately than cups and spoons, and it portions doughs equally—especially useful for professional-looking rolls.

Single-sided razors make clean, beautiful cuts. A professional-style lame—a razor with a handle—is nice, but it isn’t worth the expense. (The main benefit is speed. The handle makes it easier to slash lots of loaves quickly, which is helpful for production bakers.) Scissors expand your cutting repertoire even further. Any good stainless-steel pair with sharp points is great for snipping little cuts for interesting edges, patterns, and other decorative effects.

A long, heavy, ball-bearing-type rolling pin will help you to roll out dough quickly and easily for layering with butter or shaping into filled buns, fancy rolls, and coffee cakes. This kind of pin is easier on your hands than the simpler dowel-type when you’re bearing down hard to roll out dough.

Water spritzers are handy for spraying the loaves just before baking, though a pastry brush or even your hand works just as well. I find that spritzing water into the oven is a waste of time; it won’t give you nearly enough steam to improve the crust. Instead, spray the loaves directly.

A dough cutter, also called a bencher or a pastry scraper, is a baker’s proverbial right hand: it scrapes, divides, and shapes—you can even use it to knead. A metal-bladed cutter with a wooden or metal handle is best because it won’t buckle under stress as a plastic one can.

Silicone-coated baking liners work just like kitchen parchment except they’re reusable. Best of all, nothing—not even baked-on egg wash or pastry cream—sticks to them.

Professional equipment can spiff up your breads

A raw-linen proofing cloth or couche is a naturally nonstick cloth used to support the dough as it proofs. In France, it’s the most common way to proof baguettes. You can buy an imported couche, but raw linen from your local fabric store works almost as well, even if it isn’t quite as stiff or as hefty as the imported cloth.

Special rising containers are unnecessary. Bread can be put to ferment in any container at all, as long as you can cover it. I usually let my dough rise in a covered pot; a stockpot is good for a really large batch.

A planchette or wooden flipping board easily moves proofed dough from the couche to the peel. The thin, light, wooden board helps you gently maneuver the fragile dough without deflating it.

Fancy oven peels are a pretty self-conscious piece of equipment—any light, strong, rimless sheet will shift breads into the oven. A rimless baking sheet is good, or try a similarsize piece of masonite board from the hardware store.

Heavy-gauge metal baking sheets and loaf pans won’t warp, and they offer more even heat distribution. They’re especially good for soft-crusted breads as well as pastries. Heavy molds for sweet breads are beautiful, too. These pans will last a lifetime if you wash and dry them thoroughly right after baking, and if you season the pans that need it.

Baguette pans are fine if you have them, but I wouldn’t rush to buy any. I prefer the handmade, artisan look you get from proofing bread in a cloth or a basket and baking it on a stone. Baguette pans tend to give more of a molded, massproduced appearance.

Bannetons or proofing baskets are used to support the shaped dough in its final rise. They come in many shapes and sizes, some lined with raw linen. The unlined baskets—especially the coiled wicker versions from Germany—will imprint the pattern of the weave onto the surface of the bread, which I think is a lovely detail.

Add some power to your kneading

Food processors can mix perfect bread dough very quickly. They can only handle a loaf or two at a time, so buy the biggest capacity you can afford, and use the metal blade. Not all processors have motors powerful enough to mix bread dough, so check the box, which should tell you if the machine will handle bread dough. I’ve had good experience with Cuisinart.
Heavy-duty mixers work best with breads that have some eggs or fat (or both) in them, such as sandwich bread or cinnamon buns. They’re also great for the whipping, creaming, and blending that cake baking needs. They don’t do as good a job with doughs that contain no fat or eggs, such as European-style peasant bread.

An oblique mixer may be for you if you bake in large quantities and have the oven space to do so. The revolving, twopronged fork will mix up the most gorgeous dough imaginable, but you’ll need a little practice to operate this mixer: you have to “break” or maneuver the work bowl as the dough is mixing. (The machine mixes one area of the dough at a time, which allows you to monitor more closely but does require maneuvering.) Oblique mixers are easy to clean and very sturdy. And they ring in at about $1,250.

Equipment sources

Prices can vary considerably, so shop around before you buy.

For proofing cloths, proofing
baskets, and flipping boards:
FBM Baking Machines,
2666 Rt. 130, Cranbury,
NJ 08512; 800/449-0433.

For a huge selection of
professional-quality kitchen
equipment and bakeware:
Lamalle Kitchenware,
36 W. 25th St., New York,
NY 10010; 800/660-0750.

For the Santos Brand French
oblique mixer:
Bakery Equipment Service,
118 Nevin Ave., Richmond,
CA 94801; 800/842-4005.

Good all-around home breadbaking
sources:
The King Arthur Flour Baker’s
Catalogue, PO Box 876,
Norwich, VT 05055;
800/827-6836.
Sur La Table, 1765 Sixth Ave.
South, Seattle, WA 98134;
800/243-0852.

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