bench scraper, bread baking equipmant, bread making, dough whisk, essential kitchen gadgets, instand-read thermometer, kitchen scale, kneading, oven mitts, oven thermometer, USA Pan, water temperature
As I mentioned in my opening blog post, I have a “thing” for kitchen gadgets. I LOVE visiting kitchen stores and especially stores that have lots of baking accoutrements. I admit that I own a fair number of those accoutrements. I figure it’s a far better past time for me than many other habits that I could be plagued with…….drugs, smoking, gambling. I don’t do any of those.things. But I do seem to collect stuff for the kitchen. Thus, the title of this post, “Too Much Kitchen S***” which is an apt description coined by my dear husband, an otherwise kind and tolerant man. I have heard the phrase voiced a time or two (or a hundred– who’s counting?) in my presence and I’m afraid that my only response is to smile knowingly. I point out, however, that this is from a man who is able to produce a very tasty meal using only two pans, a stove, knife, spoon and a fire extinguisher. (Wait, there was only that one time with the fire extinguisher–more on that later). I, on the other hand, could produce the same meal using several other utensils in addition to those few, and could offer very rational reasons for employing each of them. Maybe there’s a “Kitchen Gadget Anonymous” out there somewhere.
Given that I have tried out lots of kitchen products, I think I could do a fair job of making suggestions for the new bread baker about what equipment is really helpful to have, and I can even endorse some specific manufacturers that I think have made notable contributions to the world of worthy kitchen gadgetry.
1) Four Bowls are a must. I prefer the heavier bowls over plastic or lightweight stainless steel, but really any type will work fine as long as they are sturdy. The very nature of bread dough is to gather itself together and pull away from the sides of the bowl as it develops gluten, so flimsy will not work well. My largest bowl is 16″ in diameter. I use it for any recipe that makes more than one loaf of bread. It’s good to have at least three smaller bowls as well, for containing the rising dough, mixing secondary ingredients, etc. Better to have extra bowls than to wish you had another bowl in the middle of things. I don’t think I say that as purely a kitchen “gadgeteer”. (<–I just invented that word). I like clear glass for the ability to see the development of bubbles in the dough as it rises but you’ll see the bubbles on the top as well, so that isn’t necessary. Sometimes I find it helpful to place a piece of rubbery shelf liner underneath the bowl to keep it in place.
2) One mixing spoon. I confess to using my hands more than spoons, but it really is nice to have a good, heavy spoon as well, with a handle that will not break or bend during stressful hand mixing. There are a lot of wimpy mixing spoons out there. Look for one that means business. My favorite mixing utensil is not a spoon at all. It’s a Danish dough whisk. I have two sizes of the whisk. I always use it for mixing the liquid in with the dry ingredients because I don’t get any accidental slopping over the sides when it’s a very wet dough. It’s a very efficient mixing tool and really easy to clean off! I have never actually found a dough whisk in any stores that I have visited, so I ordered mine from Breadtopia.com. Money well spent for such a sturdy tool.
3) Two bread pans. (I’ll talk about equipment for hearth bread baking in a later posting.) Certainly you can get by with only one, but at some point, you’re going to want to bake two loaves at the same time. I have tried many different kinds of pans so I know of what I speak when I say that ceramic pans are not the best for bread. Metal provides the best heat conduction and the better crust. My very favorite bread pans are made by USA Pan. I don’t know how they do it, but nothing sticks to the surface of those pans. Might be a little more expensive than some, but it’s worth it to have heavyduty, easy-to-clean pans.
4) One set each of (dry) measuring cups and spoons I have a LOT of them. You can get by with only one set of spoons (1/8 tsp. through 1 T.) And you can get by with only one set of measuring cups (1/4 c. through 1 c.) for dry ingredients and a microwave-safe glass 2 c. measuring cup for liquid. If you were going to buy only one set of each, I would suggest stainless steel. They’re very sturdy, they won’t melt if you accidentally lay them too close to a heat source and they won’t break. They clean up easily, too. I suggest a glass 2 c. measure for liquid because there are times when you need to bring a cold liquid to room temperature quickly, and the microwave is the fastest way. It’s always good practice to have a separate set of cups for dry ingredients from the ones you use for wet. If you only have one cup for liquids, the 2 c. is the most versatile.
Here are a couple of non-essential, but very neat things which I have found to be really handy to have around. You will notice in my picture of measuring utensils that I have two extra sets of spoons. The smaller, round bowl spoons are “odd-size” spoons — a 2 tsp., 1 1/2 T., and 2 T. Lots of bread recipes call for a packet of yeast or the equivalent, 2 1/4 tsp. Frequently, I can get along using only this set of spoons and a 1/4 tsp for the entire recipe. The other set pictured is a set of larger spoons with long handles. They are a 1/8 c., 1/4 c., and 1/3 c. spoons. I don’t know who manufactured any of these, but I really like them. I got them at one of my favorite local kitchen stores, the Blue Heron.
5) Instant-read thermometer and oven thermometer. You need both. When we read bread recipes, the adjectives describing water temperature are very important. “Tepid” or “room temperature” refers to water that is between 70 and 78 degrees F. and that is perhaps most common in bread recipes. Depending upon the technique used in that recipe, however, it may instead call for “warm water” which usually means more than 78 degrees. “Very warm” water means a temperature slightly warmer than your body temperature, maybe 105 to 115 degrees F and “hot” water requires a temperature somewhere over 120 degrees F but tolerable to hold your hand in it. So, conversely, “cool water” in a bread recipe usually refers to a temperature below 65 degrees but probably not below 50 degrees F. You will want to be able to take the temperature not only of the water, but also the flour at times, particularly when your baking environment is uncomfortably warm or cool for your comfort. For example, if you know that your ingredients or your bowls are quite cold, you may want to bring them to a warmer part of the house to warm a little before using. Be aware that the temperature of the dough will rise with the warmth of your hands and the friction of kneading, so the instant-read thermometer is also important for checking the internal temperature of the kneaded dough. Many recipes want the internal dough temperature to hover between 75 and 77 degrees F. You will also use the instant-read thermometer to check whether the loaf baking in the oven is finished. The internal temperature of a fully baked loaf should generally be 205 degrees F.
Until you get to know how reliable your oven is, you’ll want to use a free-standing oven thermometer to verify whether your oven actually gets to the correct temperature that you have chosen. An oven thermometer will also allow you to monitor how much the temperature is fluctuating during the course of bread baking. Ovens cycle off and on during heating to maintain the average temperature that you want. (That’s why I advocate for adding to the mass (stone or clay tile) inside the oven to help maintain a more even temperature. More on that later.)
6) Kitchen scales may be the most under-rated piece of equipment. Most people probably know that if you scoop a cup of flour, it will contain more flour than if you sift it. The reality is that unless you weigh the ingredients, you won’t really know for sure how much ingredient you are using. If you’re trying to figure out why your dough seems much drier or wetter than the previous time you made the recipe, it might have to do with the variability of the amount of flour that went into the recipe. Weighing the ingredients is the most reliable way of reproducing the result that you want. A kitchen scale should weigh in both pounds and grams. Mine does, but I’m finding that it is not as sensitive with the lower amounts as I would like, so while I can weigh the flours, nuts, whole grains, etc., I cannot use my scale for weighing salt or yeast. There are all kinds of scales on the market. I suspect that if you pay a little more, you will find one that is more sensitive on the lower end of the scale.
7) Rubber spatulas and bench scrapers. You’ll want one of each, at a minimum. Rubber spatulas may have handles, but the ones I like for bread making are the odd shaped ones that fit in the palm of my hand. They’re silicone and very sturdy and the shape closely follows the contour of the bowl. Bench scrapers are indispensable, in my opinion, although I never saw my mother use one. She must have used a knife, instead. I use a bench scraper all the time. I use it to help scoop up sticky dough, to cut the dough into pieces and to clean off my board that I use to knead the dough.
8) A kneading surface. Some people knead right on the counter top and that probably works well for them. There are silicone pastry mats that you can lay on top of the counter to use as a kneading surface, if you like, in addition to rolling out pie crust. If you do that, I suggest wiping your counter with a damp cloth before placing the pastry mat down. It’ll stay put better. My counters are kind of slippery though, and I really like the feel of wood that is dusted with flour. It is quite possible to spend a lot of money on really neat, beautiful large bread boards. (I want to point out that I have not done that; not that I’m looking for a pat on the back, but if you’re so inclined, I’d accept it.) Instead I had a friend with a table saw cut me a piece of plywood (about 16″ X 24″) and sand one side of it so it’s really smooth. I oiled it with mineral oil initially, and voila–a great bread board! I don’t wash it off usually, unless something non-dough-like comes in contact with it. I clean it off good with the bench scraper (see above) and put it away standing up along with tall trays and racks. I did buy a large grippy mat I lay on the counter under the board, and that holds it in place quite well. In my opinion, this is the perfect surface for working with dough.
9) A wire cooling rack. At least one rack; two is better unless the one you have is large. The reason I say that is that the freshly baked bread needs to be allowed to cool completely on the rack, with air circulating freely around it so that it doesn’t get soggy. You don’t want to discover that you need the rack for something else and have to sacrifice the slowly cooling bread in the process.
10) A pair of good oven mitts. Again, I admit that I have a few pairs and I will not apologize for that. For bread baking, I really like a pair of silicone mitts that are plenty large for my hands (and the hands of whomever else bakes or cooks in the house.) The silicone mitts that I use are long enough that when I reach into the oven to pull out a loaf, I don’t risk burning my forearms on the upper part of the oven. It took me a good burn on one arm, and then for good measure, a matching burn on the other arm before I really accepted the importance of these long oven mitts.
You will notice that I have not said that you need an electric mixer to make bread. If you have a heavy duty stand mixer already, you may find occasion to use it for some breads, but for most yeast breads, you can do quite nicely without one.
More later about equipment for hearth baking. Say “Hi” from me when you get to a kitchen store.