These will make your task easier, more efficient, and altogether more pleasant.
Have you ever wanted to start baking your own bread? It's one of those tasks that feels delightfully old-fashioned and wholesome, reminiscent of times gone by when there was always dough rising on top of a wood cookstove and a fresh loaf at every meal. While most of us don't live in such rustic settings anymore, baking bread remains a wonderful way to feel more connected to one's food supply.
While I cannot claim to bake all of my family's bread, I do try to make a batch of 2-3 loaves a couple times a month. I like it because it eliminates the plastic bags that most store-bought bread comes in, and it's cheap compared to buying good artisanal loaves, which are hard to find in my small town anyway. Plus, it's fun and easy once you get the hang of it. There are brief moments of action, separated by long hours of waiting, but even those can be stretched out with refrigeration, so bread-baking can fit around most schedules.It's possible to make bread with no specialized equipment whatsoever – and I encourage you to do this for a while before making any big purchases – but if you're serious about it, then it's worth investing in a few key pieces. What follows is a list of equipment that I use and that makes the bread-making process much easier.
1. Digital scale
Measurements are more accurate when using a scale, rather than dry measuring cups. Because bread dough is about getting the right ratios of flour to water, there's a lot of wiggle room, and the amount of flour needed on one day will differ from another, depending on the humidity. The best thing is to keep an eye on your dough and add what's needed to get the right consistency. This takes practice, but having a scale will help you to get it right at the beginning. You'll also use the scale to measure quantities of dough for shaping into rolls or loaves.
2. Heavy-duty stand mixer
I used to knead dough by hand, but it was such a long tedious process that I felt discouraged from baking unless I had lots of free time – a rarity in my busy life! Now the stand mixer does all the hard work and I just have to monitor it, so I'm inclined to bake more often. A mixer allows you to work with stickier, wetter dough and helps to avoid adding excess flour, which makes a loaf tough.
Buy a heavier-duty mixer because bread dough is dense and takes a lot of power to knead. Comparing a 450W and 970W motor, the former could do the job in theory, but would likely be redlining the whole time and is more prone to breakage. A bigger motor will place less strain on the parts and it will last longer.
3. Bench scraper or sharp knife
You'll be dividing dough into pieces for shaping, and you need to be able to cut through it with precision. As Rose Levy Beranbaum explained in The Bread Bible (my literal bread bible and a book I think every baker should own), "Pulling or tearing it will weaken the gluten." I've actually never bought a bench scraper, but I use a good chef's knife.
4. Bowl cover
You have to cover the dough while rising to prevent it from drying out. Some bakers have special containers with lids and demarcations on the side to indicate how high a loaf has risen, and most cookbooks will tell you to use plastic wrap, but I have neither. A beeswax wrap stretched over the mixer bowl, a large dinner plate, or a clean tea towel does the job just fine. If I'm leaving the dough to rise overnight, I'm more careful about sealing it up than if it's out for just few hours. If a dry crust forms, I fold it in during shaping and never notice it in the finished loaf.
5. Oven stone
Oven heat is tends to be uneven and every time you open the door to check on the bread, it will take a few minutes for the temperature to rise again. Having an oven or pizza stone on the bottom rack helps greatly with this. Beranbaum wrote, "[It] absorbs the oven's heat and helps to maintain constancy of heat during baking. The stone helps to compensate for normal oven heat fluctuation and also helps the bread to bake more evenly." The hot stone will crisp up the bottom nicely.
6. Instant-read thermometer
As you get better at baking, you'll learn to identify the signs of a baked loaf, but a thermometer still makes that job easier. (Beranbaum's book gives all the required internal temperatures.) You can also use it to measure water temperature to ensure it's ideal for yeast.
7. Baking sheets
Baking sheets are all you need to make free-form loaves, which I find easier and less finicky than greasing (and washing) loaf pans – unless I'm making oatmeal bread, in which case I always use pans. I line the baking sheets with parchment paper and shape the dough however I want – baguettes, round boules, or torpedo-shaped bâtards. I find longer, thinner shapes to be less prone to burning and uneven baking than the boules are (but maybe that just means my oven is crappy). Sometimes I just toss the dough onto the hot pizza stone in the bottom of the oven.
8. Good recipes
Finding recipes that you like takes years of trial and error, but it's a fun, tasty process. I tend not to experiment much these days because baking bread has become a highly streamlined, utilitarian process for me. The goal is to churn out loaves to fill my kids' insatiable bellies! So I go back to the same few recipes over and over again – Beranbaum's basic hearth bread, oatmeal bread if I'm short on time, and occasionally Jim Lahey's slow-rise no-knead bread made in a Dutch oven.
I highly recommend Beranbaum's book as a fantastic reference. The woman has encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to baking and explains every single process in great detail. I sat down and read it cover to cover when I bought it years ago, and still reach for it weekly.