When I start reading bread recipes, I was intimidated by all the special tools baking required. A peel? Sounds like something that should be on an orange. A lame? Rude.
As it turns out, baking bread requires little more than flour, water, and salt. Plus all the fancy stuff can be replaced by things you probably already have in your kitchen.
While those of us in the U.S. are probably most used to wheat flour, there are dozens of flours that you can use in your bread. I made my first loaf with nothing but plain old, unbleached, all-purpose, white flour and would recommend that you do too. It’s something you’re likely familiar with, is cheap, and has a solid gluten content. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with white flour, there are dozens of other flours you can experiment with.
Flours tend to be made from cereal grains – members of the Poaceae or Grass Family. The part we eat is call the seed, berry, or kernel and is made up of three parts: endosperm, bran, and germ. The endosperm is the starchy part that feeds plant sprouts before they’re able to photosynthesize their own food. Bran is the hard outer layer that protects the seed; it contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The germ is the plant embryo; along with the bran, it contains the majority of wheat’s nutrients.
In white flour, the bran and germ are milled away, leaving only the endosperm. This refined flour is sometimes bleached to make it whiter. Other times, it is enriched to add vitamins and minerals that were stripped when bran and germ were removed. Bread flour is made from wheat that has been bred for its high levels of gluten. Like all-purpose flour, bread flour has been refined so that only the endosperm remains.
Whole wheat, on the other hand, is milled with the bran and germ – and all their nutritional content – intact. Whole wheat flour is less shelf-stable than white flour and has a strong taste that people either love or hate. Although whole wheat flour contains roughly the same amount of gluten as its white counterpart, whole wheat is considered low gluten for a few reasons. First, most gluten comes from the endosperm; by including the bran and germ, the gluten gets “diluted” to a smaller percentage of the flour. Second, bran is a hard material that becomes sharp when milled. These tiny bran “knives” can slash through strands of gluten during kneading, reducing the strength of the dough. Luckily, a nice long autolyse session can soften the bran and help gluten development.
White whole wheat flour sounds like a marketing scheme targeting people who are trying to eat healthy but don’t want to part with their beloved white flour. Don’t worry though; it’s not! While regular whole wheat is made from hard red wheat berries, white whole wheat is hard white wheat berries. White wheat berries are sweeter and more mild than their red cousins, but contain the same nutritional value.
While wheat is a staple, there are plenty of other flours you can play with. You can try long-lasting rye, ancient grains like barley, spelt, millet, and oat, pseudocereals like amaranth, chickpea, and buckwheat, and gluten-free options like corn and rice.
As I mentioned in my post on growing a starter, any water good enough to drink is good enough to bake with. If you’re concerned about chlorine affecting your rise, you can let your water sit out overnight to let the chlorine dissipate. Setting your water out overnight also allows the water to come to room temperature, which is critical for a good rise.
In addition to bringing out the flavor in bread, salt plays an important component in the chemical reactions happening in your dough. No need to use anything fancy here; plain table salt does the trick.
You’ve been diligently growing your starter and now is the time to let it shine. Make sure that it’s nice and bubbly by feeding it at least twice so that it’s ready to do its job when you add it to dough.
Digital Kitchen Scale
As I’ve mentioned before, there really is no escaping a digital scale. Yeah, you can bake using cups and tablespoons, but your final product isn’t going to be as good and you’re going to drive yourself crazy converting recipes. Shell out the ten bucks and get yourself a scale.
Substitute: Borrow your mom’s or friend’s or neighbor’s kitchen scale because really really is no getting around this one.
Heavy mixing bowl
Sourdough bread is rarely kneaded. Instead, it’s turned. Turning is easier in a nice heavy bowl that stays put when you move the dough around.
Substitute: Whatever large bowl you’ve got is fine. I’ve been using a cheap Ikea bowl and haven’t had any problems.
A bench scraper is a sharp piece of metal with a handle. It lets you divide and shape the dough and scrape dried flour off your work surface.
Substitute: If “sharp piece of metal with a handle” sounds a lot like a knife, that’s because it is. Use any sharp knife to slice your dough, shape it with your hands, and use an old dull knife to scrape your work surface.
Also called bannetons, these baskets help your dough retain its shape during the final proof. Having a dedicated basket means that you won’t be down a bowl or two while your bread proofs in the fridge overnight. The sewn-to-fit liners are also pretty snazzy.
Substitute: Anything bowl-like is great for holding your dough’s shape. I use bowls, baskets, and even colanders. Just line your container with a well-floured towel to keep the dough from sticking.
When it’s time for your dough’s final proof, you’ve got to prevent it from drying out. Putting your basket or bowl in a big bag keeps the dough moist so that a thick skin doesn’t form and prevent the dough from rising.
Substitute: A garbage bag is all you need.
A lame (“LAHM”) is a very sharp blade that you use to score the top of a loaf. Scoring the loaf allows the loaf to rise rully as it bakes and directs the escaping air so it doesn’t blow a big ugly hole wherever it feels like.
Substitute: You can use an exact-o or razor blade to score your loaves. It’s definitely a bit tricky to use because it’s so tiny, but it’s nice and sharp. Just make sure you wash the blade well before using it because they’re usually coated in mineral oil for shipping.
Dutch oven or Combo cooker
Professional ovens have steam injectors that keep the dough moist for the first half of baking so it can rise to its full potential. Since these runs about $5,000, most home bakers replicate this effect by covering their bread during the initial part of the bake. Dutch ovens and combo cookers retain heat and seal in moisture to give your bread an extra boost.
Substitute: Use a baking stone or cookie sheet as a surface and a large, upside-down pot to keep humidity levels high.
You’ve probably seen a peel being used if you’ve ever been to a wood-fired pizza restaurant: they’re the giant, long-handled spatulas that bakers use to get pizza and other breads into the oven. When we bake bread, we use a peel to transfer the dough from the proofing basket to the oven.
Substitute: You can use a cutting board or cookie sheet for the same purpose, just be extra careful not to burn your fingers on the edges.
Parchment paper sticks to your dough so that the peel doesn’t. This lets you quickly slide the dough from the peel into the oven without losing much heat.
Substitute: No parchment paper? Just use a good amount of flour.
Taking the temperature of your dough and your loaf will help you get a better sense of what’s happening. It’s not a super-critical, but is nice if you want to get serious about making great bread.