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Our Resident Bread Baker's Must-Haves for the Perfect Loaves

Crusty, chewy, butter-ready bread awaits.

December  4, 2020

The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a gift guide to make the bakers in your life mighty happy.


As is most often the case, having the right tools makes any task at hand that much easier, and this is undoubtedly true in bread baking. Sure, it’s possible to bake bread with only a bowl, a few containers, and an oven, but having a few essential tools can help you take your baking to the next level—or at least help you keep your kitchen clean, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The following list of baking tools includes some of my go-to items for bread baking and a few newer things I’ve picked up this year. From a new scale to dough scrapers to bowls to fresh flour, it’s all here. And whether you’re buying for someone special or treating yourself, the baker in your life will surely thank you!


A Bread-Baker's Gift Guide

A Super-Hot Surface

One of my favorite baking items has to be my trusty Baking Steel. It practically lives in my oven, and because it’s essentially a large slab of steel, it’s indestructible. It gets scorching hot when fully preheated, and not only is it great for baking bread directly on its surface, but it’s also fantastic for pizza (like my Pizza Romana!). Any time I’m looking to add extra color to the bottom of any food or bread I’m making, a quick minute or two on the steel will get me there.

A Very-Precise Scale

If there’s one gift I’ve given most often for the holidays, it has to be a digital scale. Weighing your flour, salt, and other ingredients is far more precise than trying to scoop ingredients consistently from bake-to-bake, and a thin and sleek scale like this Zwilling one not only helps to that end but looks great at the same time.

The best bowl scrapers out there

I feel like I’m always scraping wet, sticky dough—scraping it off the counter, off my hands, off mixing bowls, and out of mixers. These KitchenAid silicone bowl scrapers are so good I bought a second set to keep in reserve—just in case. The larger, curved scraper fits the curve in most bowls, and the smaller one is handy for scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl to keep ingredients in the mix. Bonus: They clean up incredibly easy.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

A Place to Mix all the Things

I recently got these nesting stoneware mixing bowls, and they’ve quickly jumped to the top of my most used kitchen items list. I use them to mix all types of doughs and batters, and they even pull double duty and are great for serving salads. The handy pour spout is nice for pouring out wet mixes, and the thick stoneware means for just the right heft, keeping the bowl sturdy on the counter when mixing.

The perfect dough container

I’ve been using this Heath Ceramics Large Serving Bowl to bulk ferment my dough for almost ten years. Because it’s ceramic, it’s virtually nonstick, which means it’s easy to fold the dough and remove it cleanly from the bowl when it comes to dividing and shaping. The bowl’s thickness also helps keep the dough temperature constant, and when covered, it is the perfect insulated container.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

Fantastic, fresh flour

With their new online store, Cairnspring Mills now allows anyone to order flour from the Pacific Northwest and have it shipped directly to their doorstep. Their stone-milled flour is packed with flavor and added nutrition, which directly translates to incredible-tasting bread.

A Spatula to Stir Things Up

Refreshing my sourdough starter twice a day means any improvement to the tools involved compound into massive savings over the long run (and I’ve been maintaining the same starter for almost ten years). This Oxo spatula is just perfect for reaching down and stirring up your sourdough starter. It’s firm, which means it won’t bend around in the jar, and the tapered point allows you to easily scrape any flour stuck in the corners of your jar. It can also be washed in the dishwasher, although I usually just give it a quick wipe in the sink.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

Something to Keep Your Dough (& Starter!) Warm

Temperature is such an essential factor in bread baking, and it can be challenging to keep your dough warm and active, especially in the winter. This Brod and Taylor dough proofer is small, folds up for storage, and is the perfect little chamber to keep your sourdough starter, levain, or a batch of dough. My sourdough starter lives in this proofer set to a warm 76°F, which means it’s always vigorous and ready to use.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

Simple, Savory Seasoning

Sourdough bread only has three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. While I don’t always splurge on high-quality salt, when making that special loaf for the holidays, I like to go all out with the highest ingredients I can source—and Jacobsen Sea Salt is always on the list.

A tool for just-The-right proof

My pantry is stocked to the brim with dough proofing baskets of all shapes and sizes. I have several of these cane brotforms, and they’re my go-to baskets for round boules and oblong batards alike. I use the 10-inch round size for doughs around 800 to 1000 grams and the 12-inch rectangle baskets for a batard (oval loaf) weighing 700 to 1000 grams. If you’re looking to bake a large miche, the 11-inch round basket is just perfect. These baskets can be used without any liner by merely dusting them with a thin layer of flour, but you can also line them with a tea towel to keep them extra clean.

What are your go-to bread-baking tools? Let us know in the comments.
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  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • Maurizio Leo
    Maurizio Leo
  • Brinda Ayer
    Brinda Ayer
Maurizio is the software engineer-turned-baker behind the award-winning sourdough website, The Perfect Loaf. He grew up in an Italian household and spent many summers in the back kitchen of his family's Italian restaurant, learning the beauty of San Marzano tomatoes and the importance of well-proofed pizza dough. He went on to get a master's degree in computer science and co-create the stargazing app, SkyView, before eventually circling back to food and discovering the deep craft of baking sourdough bread. Since that first loaf of bread, he's been obsessed with adjusting the balance between yeast and bacteria, tinkering with dough strength and hydration, and exploring everything sourdough.

13 Comments

Liz S. December 4, 2020
A Perfect Loaf's ciabatta and focaccia recipes are my go to recipes/technique (with personal modifications) for both types. But, I make rolls (sandwich size and hot dog buns) from the ciabatta recipe and I use the focaccia for pizza as well. Anyway, a Maurizio fan here! As far as tools, I am pretty minimalist: bowls (glass and stainless steel), silicone scraper, bench knife, silicone spatulas. I know it is likely on the order of blasphemy, but I do not get excited about temperature. I live in NW Montana with a year round cool kitchen (62-68F) and I pay attention to look and feel of dough. I like my results. I do however lust after a Grainmaker mill (made in Montana :) the big red mill in the photo) ... so far I have resisted, but gosh it is beautiful! I'd go for the smallest ... someday! I do have 2 "hot surface" tools: a Lodge cast iron "platter" (it is small, but I am a 1 person house) and an Emile Henry pizza stone. They both do well for me. I have a smallish (3 qt) Lodge enamel Dutch oven which I like. I tried a Lodge Cast iron DO and like the results from the enamel best. I also have an oblong clay baker which produces a "sandwich loaf" bread and crust can be crispier or softer depending on temp/time covered/uncovered. Flour ... YIKES, I am fussy about flour and use a Montana grown AP with the protein content of a bread flour for my "bread flour". I also stock some '00, spelt, whole rye, whole wheat ... and I like KAF "french style" and also their "soft flour", but the soft is more for biscuits/pie crust. I generally like to hand mix, but some shoulder injury led to more stand mixer use and I've adjusted method to get the results I like. Currently, I am making bagels (4-8 at a time) once a week ... no fussy tools or ingredients: mix in the evening, shape in the morning, boil and bake. I love them. Would they stand a NYorker's test ... ???? don't know: tools = bowl, scraper, bench knife, stand mixer, pot to boil them, sheet pan to bake (TheCleverCarrot's Artisan Sourdough Made Simple recipe/technique).
 
Liz S. December 4, 2020
Oh ... brotform, etc. I have used bowls I have, "foil" bread baking things pulled into batard shape, etc., etc. I now have 2 brotforms that match my oblong baker and a mini batard.

Overall, I think I am a proponent of keep it simple, use what you have, adjust as you learn ... for your kitchen and your preferences.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. December 5, 2020
I've been playing with making ciabatta style rolls for a while; they're great! It sounds like you have plenty of tools, and as you suggested, lots of tools really aren't necessary to make great bread. You really only need a few things to get going, but all the rest are "nice to have." I'm pretty strict about temperature control in my dough, but it's not mandatory, either; just go with the flow and adjust timing as necessary. Like I say in many of my posts, lots of things aren't necessary; attention and intention are really all you need 🙂
 
Liz S. December 5, 2020
Temp ... I did read your "why temperature matters" posts, though :) !
 
Smaug December 4, 2020
For proofing doughs, I find the same equipment I use for starting seeds and cuttings very useful. Seedling heating mats (about $15) produce a steady, low level of heat; they can either have bowls set directly on them or use a tray with a plastic cover for a chamber. There are thermostatic controls available, but I've never invested. The equipment I use is from either Hydrafarm or Park Seeds, but there are others. The spatula looks like one of my favorites, which has a nearly rectangular head and straight sides, that was sold as a "jar scraper". I object to the characterization of breads as "vehicles for butter"; good bread does not in any way need it. I go through tons of butter baking, but I don't look for excuses to scarf it down by the spoonful.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. December 4, 2020
Yes, seedling mats (and an optional insulated cooler) are also great!
 
Brinda A. December 4, 2020
The butter-readiness was my add, Smaug—I believe strongly in the ways good butter can make good bread even better! To each their own.
 
Brinda A. December 4, 2020
Also, I'm pretty much always looking for excuses to scarf butter down by the spoonful (growing up, I was very literally inspired by the antics of the mythological Lord Krishna—http://www.bhagavatam-katha.com/krishna-bala-lila-krishnas-pastimes-of-stealing-butter/). So I suppose to each their own in that way too!
 
Smaug December 4, 2020
That's the second time in a few weeks that I've run across that- a pretty good ""Serious Eats" recipe for sourdough English muffins characterized them as "the best vehicle for butter". If people want to butter bread it's OK by me, and if they want to pile it on it doesn't hurt me any (though I find the general tendency to brag about how much butter one eats a little off putting), but characterizing bread as "a vehicle for butter" seems greatly disrespectful to the wonder that is bread (no, of course that wasn't meant as a pun, I'm not totally without conscience)
 
Brinda A. December 5, 2020
Guess one person's "off-putting" is another's "ideal"!
 
Smaug December 5, 2020
Perhaps so- always reminds me of a line from a Howlin' Wolf song that (among other boasts) goes "I can eat more chicken than any man you've ever seen"- just really don't know what to make of that.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. December 5, 2020
I'm with you; a good butter makes great bread even greater! Butter isn't 100% necessary with bread, of course, but why not 🙂
 
Smaug December 5, 2020
Why not? Pointless to argue it on aesthetic grounds, of course, although it might be nice to keep in mind that we have a sense of taste more to help us feed ourselves properly than to persuade us into indiscretions. Butter is not very good for you, especially in large quantities, so that would be a pretty good reason to avoid overdoing it. Of course most of our modern breads fall a bit short on the whole "staff of life" thing too.