One of the things I like most about bread is its flexibility: you can bake simple every day loaves using almost no equipment.
I have baked flatbreads on a barbecue using nothing but a cast iron pan and a bowl for mixing the ingredients (see our Summer 2014 issue for the full story). I have also mixed doughs with nothing but a bowl and my hands — I don’t think I even had a spoon to mix the ingredients!
This is great when you are just getting started with bread (you don’t need to go shopping for tools to give bread making a shot) or when the bread making itch gets to you in a time and place where you don’t have your tools with you.
But once you go deeper and start looking for the perfect crust and crumb, having the correct set of basic tools makes all the difference. While most of us will not get to bake in a real bakery oven, there are many tools you can have in your home kitchen that will bring your bread making to the next level.
This is why today, I have collected a list of all the bread making equipment I use in my every day baking as I strive to make great bread.
If you have been baking bread for a while, you probably already have most or all of these tools in your inventory, but if you are just getting started, start going through the list from the top, adding tools to your inventory one by one as you progress in your craft.
1. Dough bowl
In addition to a heat source of some kind (most of the time, that would be an oven), a dough bowl is the only tool you really need to bake bread. Pretty much any bowl will do, but I suggest you go with a round stainless steel one: they are easy to clean, and the roundness helps in mixing the dough when working with a plastic scraper (see below).
I usually proof my dough in the same bowl I mix it in, but I have seen many bakers use a separate plastic container for the step: A square container oiled lightly before placing the dough into it makes it very easy to do stretch and folds during the first rise — and it’s nice to be able to follow the dough development through the sides of the container. That’s why, more and more, I am also transitioning towards this method.
2. Plastic scraper
A plastic scraper is a very simple tool, but also one of the most important.
In his book, Bertinet calls the scraper an extension of his hand, which is a great assessment of how the tool feels. When mixing the dough, you place the scraper in your right hand (or left, if you are left handed). Then, when you rotate the bowl with your left hand, the scraper almost automatically mixes the dough’s ingredients: with the help of these two simple tools, you have become a human mixer!
I have tried two different kinds of scrapers: some are quite rigid and others more flexible. For my purposes, the rigid one works better — and you can also use it to cut the dough, so I think it’s the one you should go for.
3. Kitchen scale
A kitchen scale is often the first tool new bread bakers find themselves shopping for as the get started.
This is for a good reason.
In bread making, small changes in measures can make a huge difference. So much so that bakers around the world have realized that it’s better to just get rid of the often not so precise volume measures and simply weigh everything. Weighing ingredients also makes the calculations related to bread formulas more straightforward.
Finally, there is the practical reason that most bread recipes in good bread making books are expressed in weights. With all of these reasons, having an accurate kitchen scale in your kitchen is a no-brainer.
Get a digital scale that can be reset to zero in between measures. This way, you can use different bowls without worrying about the bowls’ weights. Or, if you have a steady hand and won’t have to pour ingredients out after measurements, you might even measure them all straight into the one dough bowl…
4. Proofing basket
A proofing basket — also known as banneton or brotform — is a handy tool when making slowly rising bread such as sourdough. The basket helps the bread keep its shape during the long final rest, while also giving a nice texture to its crust.
While not mandatory for making great bread, I recommend that you add a pair or two of these to your bread making tool box.
My favorites are wooden cane bannetons but I have also used ones made of wood pulp with good results. If you have trouble with dough sticking to your baskets, you might want to consider baskets covered with linen cloth. This helps especially when working with wet doughs.
5. Baking stone
A good baking stone helps by storing heat in the oven as you open the oven door to place the bread in the oven. It also helps by quickly sealing the bottom of the bread and pushing heat from the bottom into the bread so that the oven spring is directed towards the top of the bread — which is just what we are looking for!
When picking a baking stone, look for a high quality, thick rectangular stone that fits your oven as perfectly as possible. Thinner baking stones, often sold as pizza stones, will not store as much heat — and will break sooner or later.
6. Dutch Oven
While a baking stone is great in storing and directing heat, it doesn’t help with moisture — which is very important when going for a bread with great oven spring. Bakery ovens solve this problem by injecting a big cloud of steam into the oven after the breads are in, but at home, as our regular ovens don’t have the steam button, we need to look for alternative methods.
Many bakers have got great results by heating a cast iron pan at the bottom of the oven and then pouring water on it. Others use a spray bottle to get steam into the oven. While both work OK, I have always had my best results using a dutch oven or combo cooker.
I pre-heat the cast iron combo cooker in the oven and then, when the bread is ready to be baked, I place it in the pan and cover with the lid or pot. This creates a small well-sealed, wood-fired oven like oven inside your regular oven, capturing the moisture that escapes from the bread as it bakes, thus giving the bread more time to expand before the crust starts forming.
The good thing about cast iron pans and pots is that with the right care they can last almost forever. This is why, you can do great finds at second hand shops and flea markets. Just keep your eyes open!
7. Some tool for scoring the loaf of bread
Before you bake your loaf of bread, you have one last chance to turn it from good to great by scoring or slashing the top of the loaf. In some cases, like with the baguette, the right pattern is what differentiates one type of bread from another. In others, it’s just about giving your bread your personal signature — and directing the oven spring where you want it to go.
I use what the French bakers call a lame, a razor blade attached to a stick of some kind. For good results, it’s important to keep the blade sharp, and using a razor blade, you can easily replace the blade when it loses its sharpness.
Some bakers prefer serrated knives and I know some even use a razor blade with no handle at all. I suggest you first try a knife but at some point, also give the lame a try. You might enjoy it!
8. A note book (or a computer)
Deliberate practice, by baking bread over and over while taking notes and analyzing the results is the only way to reach greatness in the craft. I’m still far from greatness, but I think the small notebook I got when I started baking bread has been one of the best bread related purchases I have made so far!
These days, I often use my computer (with the help of the BreadStorm application) to write down bread formulas, but when you have your hands covered in dough, nothing beats a simple paper notebook.
9. Bread tins
I debated with myself whether I should have placed bread tins higher on the list or not: after all, many bread making books start by teaching simple tin loaves — this makes sense as they are easier to make than self standing, more artisan loaves.
However, I prefer the other types of breads: boules, batards, and so on, and thus left this item at the end of the list.
A few good bread tins are great to have, especially if your children prefer a soft sandwich loaf (or maybe you like it the best yourself!).
As a lazy baker, I usually just measure dough temperature by using my hands’ feel.
However, a lot of bakers recommend being careful with temperature, especially if you are looking for consistent results: a good handheld thermometer will help you know exactly how warm or cool your ingredients are and to decide the temperature of the water used accordingly.
11. Flour sift
A flour sift is mostly used together with a flour mill, but even if you don’t have your own mill, you can find some use for a sift. In Tartine Book No. 3, Chad Robertson suggests making your own high extraction flour by buying wholemeal flour and then sifting it yourself rather than buying a bag of white flour. This is definitely an extra item. Nice to have for experiments but not necessary for great bread. So, get one if you like the idea — but don’t worry if you don’t.
What do you use?
Now, I’d like to hear your thoughts: what are your favorite bread making tools, and why? What tools you couldn’t live without.