Bread

Josey Baker’s 10 Essential Tools for Baking Delicious Bread

February 11, 2015

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.

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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. 

More: Starting out with whole-wheat flour? Here's a primer to navigate your options.

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. 

More: On maintaining a sourdough starter.

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.

5. Thermometer
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. 

6. Scale
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.

More: How to check the accuracy of your kitchen scale.


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.

9 Comments

Jade B. September 21, 2016
I would love to know more about how to find success when making bread. It is good to know that using a loaf pan can be a helpful step. I did not know that this pan allowed for a person to work with grains that form a weaker dough. Something else to consider would be to seek professional help to learn other tips and secrets. http://www.klostermanbakery.com/about/history.php
 
Robert M. October 19, 2015
I an 86 years into this life and I have been making all kinds of bread, not only for my family, but others for years. I have given lessons on bread making to others. The process is simple, flour, yeast or starter,water and salt. In all that time I have had nothing from rave reviews. So I wonder just why people buy what I call store bread which is full of toxic poison which is approved by your corrupt government for payola that greases their palms??? Of course you might like the taste of plastic foam, coal tar, wood saw dust, dirt and many other substances of poison allowed by your corrupt Government. So, eat it as I will not as bread is easy to make and it taste great. Chef Robert
 
Elizabeth M. October 3, 2017
Love your comments. Have been making quick breads for years. Just getting started with yeast, hoping to have success with my new venture, wild yeast, making my own starter, Thank you for your inspiration.
 
mtncook October 19, 2015
Wow! This would be really intimidating if I didn't already make bread. You don't NEED any of these things--some are nice to have and some are just not necesssary; they make it easier to make a reproducible loaf, like in a bakery. I make almost all the bread in our house and I use cheap ($1) plastic bowls, a wooden spoon, yeast and flour. And other ingredients, depending on the type of bread I'm making. I use a sharp serrated knife to cut the loaf; I use a scale, now, but didn't for 25 years.
 
Ruthlessmess October 19, 2015
I think it's worth mentioning that good quality water is as important as good quality flour
 
Julie March 18, 2015
Love my Folding Proofer, it makes rising predictable and stows away nice and small!
 
laurelei235 March 12, 2015
Danish dough whisk. They're genius.
 
SJ February 17, 2015
Holy cow!! I've just spent two hours (wasted time?!) on this page and relative links- maintaing sourdough starter, whole wheat primer, etc., which kept leading me to other wonderful links- yogurt molasses bread, yogurt biscuits, mail ordering Carl's sourdough starter... I need to get in the kitchen right NOW and start making something!! I've been wanting to make bread for years, I think this is the impetus to finally do it;). Thanks so much for so much great info in one place. I love Food52!!
 
Nanda D. February 15, 2015
I really need to make some bread by myself again. Thought about it tonight, but didn't have any yeast :(