For now, humans have the edge over machines when it comes to making bread, but only slightly and the robots are coming for us. So let’s make the most of it and get busy making some great bread while we still can. Our hands are our most important tool. We don’t need much else. These essential tools will get us started and be there for us for a lifetime wether we bake one loaf a week or dozens every day.
Put those cups and tablespoons away, you won’t be using them for bread baking. The main reason is that it is impossible to accurately measure flour by volume. You can test this with your new digital scale. Have two people measure a cup of flour then see how close they are in weight (Hint: they won’t be). The other reason is so you can easily scale your production. Bread formulas are written as percentages of the total weight of flour making it possible to determine ingredient weights for one loaf or dozens. My first scale was the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display. I still use it every day at my bakery so I can whole heartedly recommend it to you.
You probably already have a good selection of mixing bowls in various sizes, but make sure you have at least one good large one. Mixing dough by hand requires some room and doing your stretches and folds right in the bowl is a great time saver. So get the largest one you can find, but make sure it can fit in your sink and your refrigerator.
3. Bowl Scraper
Eventually you will have a collection of these and you will not remember how they all showed up. Your collection must begin somewhere, though, so buy a simple bowl scraper or two. It is the tool that will almost never leave your hand.
A long-slow-cold fermentation is perfect for the home baker. You can mix up your dough and then let it go to work in the refrigerator overnight or even for several days. The dough will continue to rise so be sure get a container where it can more than double without overflowing. Trust me, that is not a sight you want to come home to when you are ready for a bake. Round containers are easier to get dough out of and to clean. Be sure to get a lid. The container cannot be sealed completely because the gases from the dough will blow the lid, but a tiny hole in a plastic top can let the gas escape while keeping your dough from drying out.
The bench scraper is used to divide your dough. It is also great for chopping butter or even nuts. I like a wooden handle, but get whatever feels comfortable in your hand. When you are prepping for the farmers market or a big family gathering and you have to turn a mountain of dough into dozens of boules and bâtards, you will be happy to have something nice in your hand. Be careful not to knick or dent the blade and it will do less harm to your table top!
Proofing baskets are known as bannetons or brotforms. They are simple ratan or wicker baskets that help the dough hold its shape while proofing. They are most useful for high-hydration doughs which tend to flatten out when proofed standing free. This takes some practice, however, as a wet dough may stick to the basket tearing the skin when removing and degassing and ending up flat anyway. Some of them come with a linen lining, which can help, but reduces the nice pattern that forms on the crust. Some bakers use rice flower to dust the basket. This works nicely, but I l don’t care for the texture of rice flower or the idea of introducing another ingredients simply for a functional purpose.
The best method is to make sure your dough is properly developed and be sure the surface of your boule is taunt. This will allow the skin to resist tearing and sticking. Practice. You’ll get it, and the results are totally worth the effort!
Raw unbleached French linen has been used for proofing baguettes in France for centuries where they refer to it as a couche. You could probably use any type of linen, in fact I know at least one industrial-sized bakery that uses food-service table cloths but only because the health department insists that they wash them between each use. You do not want to do this. Your couche becomes “seasoned” with a dusting of flour from each use, making it just the right stiffness, and keeping the dough from clinging. This will take just a little bit work on your part.
The job of the couche is to pull some of the moisture from the dough meaning the blanket will be a bit damp after the dough has been transferred, so be sure to allow it to air dry before storing and it will last forever.
Transferring a baguette from the couche, or to whatever you will use to slide it into the oven, is done by simply rolling it onto a thin board and rolling off again. Don’t forget this essential tool. There is nothing more deflating (pun intended) than trying to snatch up a perfectly proofed baguette in your hands and depositing a mangle mess onto your oven peel.
Scoring the dough allows gases to escape from the inside of the loaf as it bakes. Without these cuts in the surface, the loaf will burst in an unpredictable way. Scoring allows us to control the expansion in a controlled and artistically expressive way. A lame is a handle which hold a razor blade curved to give it strength and a proper angle for cutting. Scoring is done immediately before the dough goes into the oven.
10. Bread Knife
Like most cutlery, you can spend as much as you like on a bread knife. I love my Victorinox and it has served me so well at home I bought several for my bakery and they have all been going strong for many years. Don’t skimp on you bread knife, but don’t get carried away either.
I hope this list helps you on your way, and when you get to the last step and slice up that bread to share with family and friends I hope you are proud of what you accomplished and excited for what you will do with your next loaf!