I promised that I will share more about bread baking. I hope I am not too late, I guess better than never.
Somehow, I feel that I have come a long way from where I started and have a hard time recalling how it all was. What I remember was I was driven. I wanted our apartment to be perfumed by the toasted dough, to tear off a warm piece from a loaf and slather it with butter.
First, I needed to know that I had the kitchen arsenal. I couldn’t just start baking bread without the essentials. And I mean it when I say essentials. I have a minimalist principle I try my best to abide when it comes to kitchen tools.
The most important tool: oven. It doesn’t matter if it is electric, wood fire or gas. One has to have an oven to bake bread. I am not sure if you can bake with a toaster oven, but maybe if your toaster oven can handle temperatures as high as 500F, then you’re fine. I thank our semi-furnished apartment for making the oven available for use.
Here are the other tools you will need:
- Large mixing bowl/s – For mixing the dough. I started with just one extra large bowl and made do with our soup bowls. So if you have just one, you will do fine.
- Baking sheet (at least two) – I also started with just one. But if you plan to bake crustier bread like sourdough or French bread, you will need two baking sheets. One where you will bake the dough and another to help create steam in the oven.
- Cooling rack – This rack that creates space between the bread and the pan or counter, helps cool down the bottom of the bread without creating moisture, retaining the crispiness of the crust and preventing further cooking of the bread bottom.
- Loaf pan – Definitely a need if you plan to bake loaves of bread.
- Bowl scraper – You will need this to help mix and scrape dough sticking to the sides of the bowl. Minimal, if possible zero, waste when baking.
- Dough cutter – It is tool to help you cut your dough into smaller shapes, whether it be a shorter baston or buns. And it also is very useful in scraping the craggly bits of wet dough that stick to your kitchen counters / table
- Kitchen towels and / or plastic wrap – Kitchen towel can be used to cover your dough during the fermentation process. I usually only use plastic wrap in ferments done inside the fridge.
- Measuring cups and spoons – To measure the ingredients, of course. In cups, tablespoons and teaspoons.
- Parchment paper – To help to keep your dough from sticking to the baking sheets and burning.
- Spray bottle – Some recipes will require you to spray the sides of your oven to help with the steam. No biggie on this one as you can get one for a dollar.
- Last, but not the least, your hands! – To mix and knead and shape.
Here are things that are nice to have a.k.a. want:
- Stand mixer – If you have the means to buy, by all means, yes. Could you buy me one too? But if you’re purita like me, then your hands would be your workhorses for mixing, kneading and shaping.
- Weighing scale – If you are a stickler for accuracy, an ideal situation with baking, and if you plan to scale up your baking, this piece of equipment is a great investment. I have one and is most useful when I bake a big batch of the same recipe.
- Whisk – Maybe if you are to be whisking on a large scale. But if you’d be whisking one or two eggs, then an ordinary fork would do the job.
- Digital thermometer – To measure internal temperature of bread for doneness. But if you follow recipe directions and use your sense of smell well, you could do without this. I invested in a Thermapen, which I also use when cooking and maybe candy making in the future.
- Dutch oven or cast iron double cooker – If you have the resources to buy, go! You don’t just get to use these babies for baking, but they can also be used for a number of kitchen projects. But if you don’t, the two baking sheets would do.
- Master proofing baskets / banneton – Nah. You can use any bowl, cover it with a dish towel and sprinkle with flour. At least I do.
- Silpat or silicone baking mat – I invested in one of these and would love to get another one. They really make a difference in how the underbelly of the bread (or cookies) cook. But when in purita mode, parchment paper will do.
- Bread lame – Instead of this, I use my serrated bread knife to do the job. Or if you have a razor, that should do the job as well.
- Bakers’ couche – You use this when you’re shaping baguettes. I bought one, but I still have not used it. Whooopsie. Until my next batch of French bread!
Isn’t it obvious that I ended up buying a lot of things I just wanted? -_- Once you have your hardware, you can start learning 🙂
THE LEARNING RESOURCES
I tried looking for a class, but, strangely, there are none here in North Texas. And so I headed to our library and borrowed books that would teach me how. The library and its treasure trove of books would be my teacher and my kitchen the classroom.
The first book I read was Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery San Francisco fame. I burrowed deep into studying, scribbled down pages upon pages of notes, even drawing diagrams on how to fold the dough. I felt I was a student again, reviewing for the midterm exams, preparing a study guide to help drill down the theories in my head. But somehow Mr. Robertson’s book did not work for me. He was thorough alright – describing the smell, the texture, the weight of the dough – and the chapter on the basics even included photo instructions. Despite the note taking, I was still very much overwhelmed and all the more confused on where to start.
And so I tried another book.
Based on research, Peter Reinhart was one of the better authors for bread baking beginners. And so I checked out the library archives and the only available book was “Crust & Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bakers”. I picked it up and went back to studying. I read page after page, scribbled page after page of notes.
Peter Reinhart was the best teacher! His writing was so simple and clear. It gave me the confidence to say that I understood and I can start baking my first successful loaf.
But I wasn’t 100% confident, especially with kneading by hand. Good thing I have a bread baking angel, who whispered in my ear to Google “Richard Bertinet”. I finally got a hold of tutorial videos by him on YouTube and watched it again and again and again, trying to mimic his hand movements in the air. Other very useful hand kneading videos include this one and this other one. Click, watch, repeat.
Time came for me to return the “Crust & Crumb” book to the library. This was when I decide to purchase “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” and its been a permanent fixture on my kitchen counter ever since. I highly recommend this book if you really want to learn how to bake bread and not just follow recipes.
Okay, got the hardware, learned the principles and time to get to the ingredients. Some of which you can easily find in your existing kitchen pantry.
Of course, ingredients will differ from recipe to recipe, but here are the basics to have:
- Bread flour
- All-purpose flour – But I really use more bread flour when baking bread.
- Instant yeast – I use this one as recommended by Peter Reinhart. I used to buy the packets of 3, but I realized that I end up spending more. So I recently bought a big batch.
- Kosher salt – Or maybe ordinary un-iodized salt would do?
- Sugar – Depending on the recipe, I sometimes interchangeably use white or brown sugar.
- Large eggs
- Oil spray
All set? Now go and bake!