The more I’ve learned about bread baking, the more I’ve realized that I need a few essential tools for really good bread. Not just decent bread, but melt-in-your mouth, fluffier-than-clouds, oh-my-gosh-I’ve-eaten-a-whole-loaf kind of bread.
Fortunately, most of these tools are relatively affordable. You don’t need to spend $300+ on a fancy standing mixer. You don’t need an expensive bread oven that injects steam into your bread while it cooks . And you don’t need exotic ingredients and spices from around the world.
You do, however, need a Dutch oven, a dough scraper or pastry cutter, and a bread basket.
If you plan to make some artisan-style loaves, your Dutch oven will be your secret weapon. A quality Dutch oven will lock in steam for a crispier crust, and it will help your loaf hold its shape while baking. Without a good Dutch oven, your loaves may likely fall flat and have a lackluster appearance.
A lot of the recipes I’ve tried and will share on my blog require a 4-quart Dutch oven, which you can find on Amazon for about $30 to $50 depending on which brand you choose. I recommend Lodge’s Cast Iron Dutch oven since that one comes pre-seasoned, and it’s versatile enough to cook in the oven, on the grill, or even over a fire. I also have a Lodge 5-quart Dutch oven that cooks beautiful (albeit slightly flatter) loaves.
I haven’t tried any enamel Dutch ovens or large casserole dishes with oven-safe lids, but if you decide to use those, make sure to check their temperature limit. Some dishes can’t handle the higher temperatures that certain recipes require.
For the longest time, I used the old-fashioned stretch and pinch method to separate my dough. While this method works to some extent, it squishes out a lot of the air bubbles that make your bread nice and fluffy. Furthermore, it’s hard to determine exactly how much dough you have to work with when everything is stretched and misshapen.
A pastry-cutter or dough chopper will make separating your dough a breeze. I found one on Amazon for less than $10, and if you catch it on sale, you can snag an AmazonBasics Multi-purpose cutter for as little as $6. As a plus, it’s dishwasher safe, so you can focus more time on baking and less time on washing.
If you’ve ever wondered how artisan loaves get their fancy swirls and designs, you’re looking at them. Banneton Baskets support your dough while it rises, and the baskets give your dough a pretty shape when cooked.
Of course, with many recipes, you can improvise and use a small bowl lined with a towel. However, you’ll have a lot more cleanup on your hands, and your bread might not look as professional. With a Banneton Basket, you simply have to shake out the flour and you’re good for the next loaf.
I found my Banneton proofing baskets on Amazon for about $10 each. I chose 8-inch baskets with liners, and I prefer the circular shape for the recipes I’ve tried so far. Eventually, I’d like to buy some oval proofing baskets to switch things up, but I know the resulting dough wouldn’t fit in my Dutch ovens. I’d need to invest in some oval-shaped, oven-safe casserole dishes, too.
Bonus Item: Thermometers
The rising process is one of the hardest things to master for beginning bakers. Fluctuations in room temperature can have a big impact on whether your dough expands or falls flat. If your room is too cold, the dough will take forever to rise. In contrast, if the room is too hot, the dough will rise too quickly and won’t gain any flavor.
With a general kitchen thermometer, you can take more precise measurements of your room. And with a probe thermometer, you can see how your dough is coming along and adjust your baking accordingly. If your room is too cold, you can use warmer water to ensure your dough rises at a good rate. Similarly, if your room is too hot, you can use cooler water to slow things down.
Of course, you don’t have to take such a scientific approach to making bread. As you practice baking and try new recipes, you can get a good feel for the dough and a general understanding of your kitchen. Eventually, you can do things by touch and feel and achieve great results. These thermometers are nice to have, but they’re not a must-have.
I hope these items help you in the kitchen – Happy Baking!