We get a fair amount of spam comments on this blog. Exterminators, search engine optimization purveyors and even, this morning someone promoting gossip news about Beyoncé and Jay-Z (a bit off topic for an appropriate technology blog, perhaps?).
One spam comment that came in last week fascinated me. The website had an extensive collection of bread baking how-to videos. Within a few minutes, on the first video I watched, the instructor was already selling a ton of equipment I’ve never heard of: strange $800 mixers, bread machines, dough conditioners etc. Even with the aid of all those gadgets and industrial ingredients, the instructor went on to describe a method of bread baking that involves a whole lot of unnecessary work to produce loaves that looked to me like squishy supermarket bread.
The ingredients you need to make bread are elemental in their simplicity: water, flour and salt and you can make a perfectly good loaf of bread with no equipment at all. But there are a few inexpensive pieces of equipment I like to use:
1. A digital Scale
Measuring flour and water by volume is so inaccurate that both of the professional bakers I took classes with last year refuse to give cup equivalents in their recipes. Using a digital scale solved 90% of my bread baking problems. The scale pictured above is not the scale that I own, unfortunately. The one I have works just fine, but the OXO Good Grips Scale has a really great feature: a pull out display. This makes it easier to read the scale when you’ve got a big bowl on top of it. It’s inexpensive, and I’ve seen it for sale at my local Whole Foods. It’s also the scale we use when I teach classes at the Institute of Domestic Technology.
2. A proofing basket
If you want to make a boule, you need a proofing basket. The one on the right is the economy option: a nine inch bowl from the 99¢ store with a piece of canvas or linen from a fabric store. The one on the left is a 8-inch Round Banneton Basket on Amazon. It works just as well as the much more expensive German bannetons I picked up at a restaurant supply store.
3. A loaf tin
On Josey Baker’s recommendation I’ve been using a loaf pan a lot lately. It’s a lot less trouble and a lot more forgiving than trying to shape a boule. Plus you get a good sandwich loaf. The loaf pan I’ve been using is a enamelware hand-me-down that measures 8 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches. Baker recommends one made by Chicago Metallic. I don’t like Teflon and you don’t need a non-stick pan. Use some oil and flour and your loaf shouldn’t stick.
4. A Dutch oven or combo cooker
Mark Bittman popularized the practice of baking boules in a Dutch oven. The technique simulates the humid environment of a commercial bread oven. It works great. For years I used a regular Dutch oven. Just recently, however, I purchased a Lodge Combo cooker, essentially a Dutch oven with a skillet instead of a lid. To bake bread in it you use it upside down. It’s easier to slide a loaf of bread into the pan than it is to plop a loaf down into a Dutch oven.
These few items, plus a plastic container large enough to ferment your dough in, are all you need. If you get fanatical about baking like I have you may want to consider a mill, but that will have to be the subject of a longer post. That said, I could make a decent, rustic looking loaf with absolutely no equipment at all (except, maybe, the scale). Bread is the most elemental of foods. It can be made with just our two hands.