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As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: Josey Baker makes delicious bread (and famous toast) at The Mill in San Francisco, he wrote the idiot's guide to bread-making, and his last name is really "Baker." Suffice it to say, we want to know what tools he's using to make his loaves.
There's not much in this world that compares to a fresh baked loaf of bread. In fact, I think the only thing that beats a fresh baked loaf of bread is a fresh baked loaf of bread that you made yourself. If you've never baked bread before, I heartily suggest that you give it a shot -- you really don’t need that much equipment and you may just fall in love. But watch out, you may fall in love so much that you end up quitting your day job so that you can bake bread all the time … that's what happened to me.
Here's what you'll need to get started:
1. Fresh whole-grain flour
First things first: You can’t make good bread without good flour. Of course, you can make delicious bread with white flour, but to make the most delicious and nutritious loaf, you gotta go whole. Most people start out with whole-wheat flour, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Flours made of rye, spelt, einkorn, emmer…the possibilities are endless. Regardless of which whole-grain flour you choose, the more recently the flour was milled the better, as flavor and nutritional value decrease with time. Do keep in mind that whole-grain flour will need more water and will ferment faster than white flour.
2. Sourdough starter
A sourdough starter is nothing short of magic: The combination of wild yeast and bacteria can create the most scrumptious breads around. Wild yeast (like the commercial kind) makes the bread rise, and the bacteria produces various acids that help the bread taste wonderful and stay fresh longer. Also, a starter is extremely easy to cultivate: Mix together some flour and water and just leave it alone. Sounds too good to be true, right? It’s not, but it is needy: You need to give your starter some love and maintain it every day for the first 2 weeks. Otherwise, it may not grow to be healthy and strong and good for making bread. I like to use whole-grain rye flour for making starters because I’ve had good luck with keeping it alive.
3. Mixing bowl/tub
You gotta mix that dough in something! In the olden days, bakers would mix their dough in wooden troughs. These days, most bakers use plastic buckets or tubs. If you get one that you can see through, you can monitor the dough’s rising activity and really hone in on your perfect loaf over time.
4. Bench knife/dough scraper
Just like a chef is helpless in the kitchen without a chef’s knife, a baker is helpless in the bakery without a bench knife. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but a bench knife is a super useful tool when it comes to making bread. Use your bench knife to divide your dough after bulk fermentation, to pre-shape your loaves, and any other time you want to scrape dough off the table. In due time, it will become an extension of your hand. I’ve also been known to use mine to cut up apples during our daily apple break.
More: Take inspiration from Josey’s daily apple break and make some apple butter for your fresh bread.
Fermentation is greatly affected by temperature, so keeping close track of the temperature of your room, the water you mix into your dough, and the dough itself is very helpful. Once you have a basic understanding of how your bread dough behaves at different temperatures, you can easily fit bread baking into your life.
When most people start baking, they’re intimidated by weighing ingredients. Well, as soon as you do it, you realize that weighing your ingredients actually makes everything much easier. When you measure dry ingredients like flour by volume, you can actually end up with drastically different amounts of ingredients. Depending on your technique, 1 cup of flour can weigh as little as 100 grams, or as much as 175 grams, whereas 100 grams of flour is 100 grams of flour -- no matter how you scoop it.
7. Proofing basket
After you’ve shaped your dough into its final shape, you have to give it a nice, cozy spot to relax and mature so that it’s ready to transform into bread in the oven. Some proofing baskets are lined with linen, others are not -- what you go with is really a personal preference.
8. Loaf pan
While not what most people think of when they think of “artisan bread,” pan breads are a very useful form for your loaves to take -- not to mention that using a pan allows you to work with grains that form a weaker dough, such as einkorn and rye.
More: Use your loaf pan to make a versatile, chewy, nutty whole-wheat loaf.
9. Razor blade
Right before you load your unbaked loaf into the oven, you perform a final swift act of violence: slashing it with a razor. If done well, with grace and confidence, this cut allows your loaf to puff to its full potential while in the oven. Your slash will make for a beautiful finished loaf, while also providing a variety of flavors and textures that wouldn’t otherwise come to be without your handiwork. Double-edged razors are much sharper than their single-edged brethren, so get those -- and be careful! (You can make a little handle for it out of a wooden coffee stirrer.)
10. Bread knife
I don’t mean to stop you from tearing into that hot loaf with your bare hands, but having a good bread knife is really nice as well.
More: Go forth and bake bread. Here are 12 yeasted breads you can conquer.
What kind of loaf is first on your list? Inspire us in the comments! As Josey says, share the loaves.
All photos except the following by James Ransom: photo of apple butter by Carey Nershi, photos of razor blade by Erin Kunkel, photo of whole-wheat loaf by Sarah Stone, and photo of cherry-hazelnut bread by Emily Vikre.