I have been baking bread for more than 10 years and have definitely played with my fair share of baking tools and gadgets.
But when you are just starting out on your bread baking journey, it is so easy to become overwhelmed by the variety of utensils and other items that are available to home bakers. And with the pandemic giving rise to a global home baking movement, there has been a great increase in articles pushing the "must have" and/or "latest" baking gadgets.
In this article, I will give you an overview of my favourite and 'go to items', the 'nice to have items', as well as the 'cool but not 100% necessary items'. Ultimately, you can spend as little or as much as you want, but understand this - the expensive and trendy tools are not guaranteed to give you the best results.
In all honesty, as long as you know how to bake, understand the principles and basic steps of the baking process, and give the dough the attention it needs, you can make do with the simplest and most inexpensive of tools.
First off, I am assuming that most of you own a basic mixing bowl or pot that can be used to mix and proof the dough. I would also recommend using a small kitchen scale, but if you don't have one Google will quickly give you the necessary conversions/quantities you'll need to get baking. Remember, the key is to get started and not to wait until you have accumulated all the gear before you even attempt to bake your first loaf. So grab a mixing bowl or pot and get stuck in without further delay. You can use a lid, cling wrap or a damp dish towel to cover your dough.
Now, let's talk about dough scrapers. This simple, unassuming, and wonderfully inexpensive little plastic tool will soon become your most trusted and closest baking friend. When you are new to baking, everything feels awkward. You will be unsettled by the stickiness and texture of the dough. Everything will feel foreign and uncomfortable in your hands - including the dough scraper. But once you have baked a few loaves together, you won't be able mix a dough without it! (I am even considering keeping one in my handbag going forward.)
This magic little piece of plastic will give you the power to control even the unruliest of doughs. It will allow you to effortlessly nudge the dough out of the bowl and onto your work surface; to scrape the sides of the mixing bowl; to remove stubborn bits of dough from your fingers and hands; to easily clean the counter top after the day's bake and last but not least, to fold, shift, lift and transfer the dough with minimal effort. Dough scrapers come in all shapes and sizes. They can be made of hard or pliable plastic. You can opt for one with sharp or rounded edges - I prefer a combination of both. The sharp side can be used to cut/portion the dough (which is useful if you don't own a dough cutter) and the rounded edge can be used to mix the dough and scrape the sides of the mixing bowl.
Next, I recommend using a flour shaker. Instead of flavouring your popcorn or dusting some cinnamon/cocoa over your morning cappuccino, you are going to use this nifty little tool to evenly distribute or dust flour onto your work surface. The flour shaker will allow you to control exactly how much flour you use to make the dough manageable. Remember, you don't want to add too much extra flour to the dough, as this will change the texture and structure of the dough and ultimately that of the final loaf and you may also inadvertently be changing the flavour of the dough (think salt to flour ratio and flavour balance).
Once you have portioned and shaped the pieces of dough, you can use the flour shaker to dust the bannetons/bread baskets or couche (proofing cloth) before allowing the dough to undergo a final rise. Furthermore, you may choose to apply a last dusting of flour before scoring and then baking the dough. This tool isn't necessary on your first day of baking, but once you start making bread on a regular basis, the flour shaker will certainly make for an easier and more efficient shaping process. Your final loaves will definitely also acquire a more professional look, as they won't be covered in uneven clumps of flour.
When it comes to portioning or dividing the dough, the best tool for the job is the dough cutter (aka bench scraper). These stainless steel tools are available in various sizes and you can decide whether you prefer a plastic or wooden handle. As I bake on a regular basis, I have quite a collection of these and the oldest one no longer has sharp edges - it is amazing what continuous use can do even to metal!
While you can definitely use a sharp knife or even tear the dough into pieces, the dough cutter will make your baking life just that little bit easier and less labour-intensive. In addition to smoothly cutting/portioning the dough, the bench scraper can be used to clean the countertop after shaping and working with the dough. They also come in handy when you need to loosen a loaf from a baking tray or pan. Interestingly enough, certain breads like the Fougasse, are made by making very specific and deliberate cuts with the dough cutter.
Once you have a perfectly fermented dough, you will want to shape it and store it somewhere for the the duration of the final rise prior to baking. A simple bread proofing basket / banneton will do the trick here. Please be advised that you REALLY don't have to go and spend a fortune on these items. Out of principle, I refuse to give in to the exorbitant price tags often attached to these - simple cane baskets?! And what for? Just so that you can get a flour spiral stenciled onto your finished loaf? If however that is your thing and you are happy to pay the money - by all means enjoy! But, if like me, you would rather spend that money on a good meal, a new recipe book or seedlings for your vegetable garden you luckily have a couple of alternative options.
If you don't want to spend any money at all, you can use a colander (lined with a floured dish towel) or any other similar sized bowl. My favourite bread proofing baskets are simple, budget friendly and easy to clean (see image above). These handwoven wicker or plastic baskets can be found at most kitchen or catering supply shops. Simply line them with a cloth napkin or cheese cloth, dust with flour and put your shaped dough babies to bed. I really love the fact that you can get 10 or more of these baskets for the price of a single cane banneton. But again - it is a matter of preference :)
Once your shaped dough babies have risen and are ready for the oven (finally!), you will need to score the surface of the dough before allowing them to face the heat. A very sharp kitchen knife, a pair of scissors or a Stanley knife all work well - however be careful, as the blade of the latter tends to rust. Professional bakers and avid home bakers use what is referred to as a baker's lame, baker's blade or bread lame. It is essentially a handle (most often wooden) that is attached to an old fashioned razor blade. The razor blade effortlessly slices through the outer skin of the dough and allows you to create practical, traditional, and decorative cuts. You can easily make your own or purchase one online - but do handle with extreme care, as these blades can cause some serious damage to your fingers!
The secret to baking great bread at home is two-fold. You need very good high heat and you need a whole lot of steam. You can fill a deep oven tray with boiling water and place it on the lowest rack of the oven or you can use a simple spray bottle to provide the necessary moisture for the dough to achieve the optimum oven spring. The steam is necessary as it prevents the crust from forming too quickly, thereby allowing the dough to rise to its full potential before the crust hardens and the final shape is revealed. A lack of steam will cause the crust to form before the dough has risen fully, which will in turn result in the trapped dough exploding in various directions (wherever there may be a weak spot in the dough or a flaw in your shaping technique) and leaving you with a lopsided and rather odd looking bread. It will undoubtedly still be gloriously delicious, but the perfectionist in you will want to do better...
Creating enough steam for the dough doesn't have to be difficult or fiddly. Any oven safe pot (where the handles won't burn or melt or the actual dish won't crack and shatter) will work perfectly. Once the lid is on and sufficient heat has built up, the dough will create its own steam and will easily rise to its full potential. There are some very fancy and rather expensive "Dutch ovens" on the market, but a cast iron or even enamel roaster can easily do the job and you will be churning out professional looking loaves in no time! And if you find you have none of these at your disposal, you can place your dough on a baking sheet and turn a pot over the dough as a make-shift lid. Are you ready to bake yet?
Lastly, it is convenient to have a basic cooling rack that you can turn your piping hot loaves onto as they come out of the oven. This will prevent the loaves from sweating and you losing that wonderful crust. A decent bread knife will also become useful - especially if you are baking on a regular basis and have developed a taste for a decent and rather robust crust.
There are of course a whole lot of other items that may come in handy but you are more than welcome to get in touch with me via e-mail for additional tips, tricks and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy baking as always!