Equipment That Contributes to a Perfect Loaf
A loaf of bread can be made in two ways, by hand or in a machine.
Work space is perhaps the most important consideration in making dough by hand, but the space need not be overlarge. An area 2 feet square is adequate for almost all bread-making — assembling the ingredients, the mixing, the kneading, and the shaping.
All the loaves in my first bread book were made on a 2-foot-square Formica countertop between the stove and the sink, and on an 18-inch-square board in our trailer while traveling the United States. Later, when I built a new kitchen with two 12-foot work tables, I found that I still centered my work on a small space on one countertop.
Formica is a good surface, but it can be scratched with a knife or dough scraper. A table of maple is my preference, but it must be cleaned thoroughly after each batch of dough. And never allow a knife to get near it. It is not a cutting block!
Stainless steel is very good. While it looks cold and unyielding, for sanitary reasons it is the only surface allowed in commercial kitchens by the health departments of most cities.
The height of the countertop or table is more important than its composition. It should be high enough to allow the palms of the hands, arms extended, to rest on the top surface. If it is too low, it will tire your back; too high, you cannot push with force down on the dough.
By electric mixer:
An electric mixer with a dough hook attachment will take all the toil out of bread-making. And it does it just as well as by hand.
I have used the large-model KitchenAid (K5A) on medium batches of dough with great success. However, a large batch of dough may climb up the dough hook and work its way into the gears. Nothing stops it unless I force the dough with a rubber scraper to remain below the wide metal collar.
In the first steps of making dough, when it is nothing more than a batter, I use the flat paddle-type beater at medium speed and then attach the dough hook only after the batter or dough is thick enough to move with the revolving arm. The KitchenAid people suggest the dough hook for the entire process but I like to start with the flat beater.
A second machine in my kitchen is a Bosch Universal Kitchen Machine, a powerful mixer with an extra-large bowl and a clawlike kneading arm that effectively rolls and tumbles the dough. There is sometimes a point in the mixing process when the dough is slick and slides around the bowl rather than tumbling, but a little additional flour will correct this.
There are many other good mixers with kneading devices; however, don't attempt to mix heavy doughs in a machine that is not guaranteed by the company to handle it. Mixing and kneading puts a strain on small motors, and even my large machines will get hot during the few minutes it takes to knead a batch of dough. Do not use lightweight or portable or hand-held mixers because the danger of damage is too great. They are fine for batters no thicker than pancake mixes, but that is all.
By food processor:
In all the years that I have baked bread nothing has surprised me more than the ability of the food processor to knead dough in 60 seconds or less. I was late accepting the processor as a viable machine because I believed that only a long period of kneading would make a good loaf of bread. I was wrong.
I am not familiar with the dynamics involved but I do know that the force of the whirling blade, steel or plastic, is tremendous and can accomplish in a moment or two what otherwise would take long minutes.
The recipes in the book have been tested on one of the larger Cuisinart models, the DLC-7 Super Pro. It is a rugged model for the home kitchen and I know a number of chefs and caterers who use it as well.
There are a number of other food processors now on the market that knead dough. Some are small and underpowered and should not be used for volumes larger than suggested by the manufacturer. I also have one of the early Cuisinarts, a smaller model in which I prepare only one medium loaf at a time.
In my large machine I use a steel blade for 4 cups of flour or less, and a special stubby plastic blade for up to 7 or 8 cups of flour.
The sequence begins with some of the flour and other dry ingredients, including the yeast, processed with the liquid to make a heavy batter. As more flour is added, the batter becomes dough that is spun around the bowl by the blade. When the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, it is processed from 45 to 60 seconds. The finished dough should have a soft, pliable texture and it should feel slightly sticky. Stretch the dough with your hands to test it. If it feels hard, lumpy, or uneven, continue processing until it feels uniformly soft and pliable.
Food processor instructions for the recipes in this book have been adapted to work with the new fast-rising yeasts by adding the dry yeast to the flour before the liquid is added, rather than proofing the yeast separately, as is suggested by several manufacturers.
There is one problem related to making dough in the food processor that can be exasperating, but is easily overcome. On occasion the blade will stick to the center shaft, held there by a film of dough that has worked its way under the blade and onto the shaft. Once there, the heat generated by the whirling blade creates a bond that is difficult to break. If this happens, take out the dough and pulse the blade in the empty bowl several times. The blade should lift out. If not, pour boiling hot water into the bowl and turn the processor on for a few seconds. Voila!
Note: After having written so glowingly of both the mixer and food processor, I must explain that many of the batter breads in the book are done in a bowl by hand because it is hardly worth the bother of cleaning the blades and hooks and odd-shaped bowls of the machines. I like the bowl-hand method because mixing the batters is so easily done and washing up after is minimal.
Dough Knife or Scraper
One of the handiest implements in the baker's hands is a dough knife or dough blade. The French call it a coupe-pâte. It is a rectangular piece of steel (about 4 by 5 inches) with a wooden handhold that quickly becomes an extension of the arm when you work and knead dough by hand. It is great for lifting and working doughs that are sticky during the early part of kneading. A thin, flexible blade is better than a heavy, stiff one — a 4-inch putty knife is a good substitute.
There are only a few doughs that need a rolling pin. My favorite weighs 6 pounds, has ball bearings in the handles, and rolls an 18-inch-wide swath. The graceful French rolling pin is marvelous for pastry and some bread doughs but too light for others.
Conventional Bread Pans
Don't discard your shiny aluminum bread pan because it doesn't brown bread as well on the bottom and sides as the dark metal or Pyrex pans. When you turn out the loaf and find it less brown than you wanted, put it back in the oven — without the pan — for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. The crust will brown nicely.
The silicone-coated (Teflon) pans are excellent — they will produce a deep brown crust with no sticking. Equally good are those of black steel and stoneware.
Special Bread Pans
French bread in the classic shapes of the baguette, ficelle, flûte, or bâtard is baked in special pans or raised in baskets or between cloths and baked directly on the hot oven floor.
Manufactured in France and now widely available in the United States, the pans are for two to six loaves and pressed out of a single piece of metal. I make my own double pans from black stovepipe that I buy at a country store near my home. The pipe costs about one dollar.
The French banneton is a woven basket, cloth-lined, in which the dough rises and is then turned out directly onto a baking sheet or, as in France, the hot oven floor. It can be duplicated by shopping for a selection among round and rectangular wicker baskets sold in kitchenware departments. Shape a piece of tightly woven cloth to fit into the basket; tie the cloth to the bottom of the basket so it will stay in place when the dough is turned out. Dust the cloth liberally with flour each time you use it.
A pastry cloth or a length of duck or light canvas can become the couche to shape long loaves that will be baked directly on baking sheets, on a baking stone, or on the oven floor. The shaped dough for the final rising is held between folds of the cloth. The ends of the couche are held in place by pieces of wood (to act like bookends) to force the dough up, not out.
To shape the tall cylindrical loaves such as panettone, use a coffee can. It costs nothing extra and the printing on the metal absorbs the heat to give the loaf a handsome deep-brown crust. The can is expendable, so if the bread should stick cut the bottom and push out the obstinate loaf.
For a yeast bread, fill the can a little more than halfway. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise to the edge of the can — no more. "Ovenspring" — the action of the heat on the yeast dough — will blossom it up, out, and over the edge like a mushroom.
Place the can on a lower rack so that the rising dough will not push its way against the roof of the oven.
A heavy baking or cookie sheet, silicone-coated, such as Teflon, is the best because it does not have to be brushed with oil or sprinkled with cornmeal each time before using. Get the heaviest and largest your oven will accommodate, allowing a 1-inch clearance on all sides to facilitate the flow of hot air around it. The heavier the baking sheet the better it will retain heat when preheated, and the better it will duplicate baking on an oven floor. Some heavy-gauge dark steel baking sheets (26 by 17 inches) weigh morethan 6 pounds! Excellent.
There will seldom be a sticking problem if baking sheets and tins are lined with parchment paper. It can be bought in gourmet cookware shops and housewares departments in rolls 15 inches wide by lb feet long. Large 16-by-24-inch flat sheets can be bought, but only in large quantities, at bakery supply houses.
A sheet of pliable Teflon material that is particularly useful to cover dough when it is rising.
A baking stone placed on the lower shelf of the oven is as close as most home bakers can get to baking thick-crusted loaves on the oven floor as bakers have been doing for centuries. The stones are manufactured of heat-retaining composition stone in two shapes — a 16-inch round plate or a 14-by-16-inch rectangle. A stone weighs about 10 pounds and is heavy enough to closely duplicate the baking qualities of the brick floor of a wood-fired oven.
Unlike a baking sheet that can be moved in and out of the oven to receive the dough, the preheated stone is better left in place in the oven and the bread taken to it. Pans or baking sheets with dough can be placed on the heavy stone to produce a thicker bottom crust.
Pizzas and pastries, especially those with moist fillings, can also be baked on the hot stone to get a thrust of heat from the bottom that ambient air can never give.
Assume that the oven thermostat is not accurate until proven otherwise. A good oven thermometer, the mercury-filled columnar by Taylor, for example, is a good investment when you consider just the cost of ingredients, to say nothing of your time. Even though the utility company will usually adjust your oven at no cost, continue to use the thermometer to check the thermostat.
A too-cool oven will not bake bread. A too-hot oven may scorch it. An oven that is just right will produce a masterpiece.
The heat in an oven varies in intensity from side to side, front to back, and top to bottom. Move the pans and turn them at least once during the baking period to compensate for these variations.
I have seven ovens in my studio-kitchen — gas, electric (including one convection oven), and one wood-fired. With the conventional ovens I have found almost no difference between electricity and gas as to the appearance and quality of breads or pastries.
My countertop convection oven works on the same principle of "convection" cooking that many restaurant and bakery ovens utilize. Heat from a conventional electric element is fan-driven to swirl and circulate around foods. It is unnecessary to preheat this oven. Loaves bake uniformly and at temperatures about 50° lower than those of other ovens and need not be shifted during the bake period.
I like the convection oven but I find the so-called portable model limited in capacity when compared with my other ovens.
My wood-fired oven, in which I bake directly on the stone floor after it is swept clean, produces a thick bottom crust on bread and pizza that is hard to duplicate except with a baking stone (see above). My first woodfired oven was built of adobe in my backyard. My second one was built of firebrick into the stone fireplace of the studio-kitchen.
Plans for the outdoor adobe oven are in the chapter "Homemade Oven and Tins."
I have not found a need for a microwave oven in my kitchen to do my kind of baking.
If the new fast-rising yeast is to do everything that's promised, the liquid mixed with the dry ingredients (including the yeast) should be within the range of 120° and 130°. Too hot, the yeast is killed. Too cool, the dough will be slow to rise. An accurate thermometer that can test the temperature of the liquid (usually water) is essential.
An excellent thermometer is the small Bi-Therm from Taylor. It has a stainless steel stem with a 1-inch dial protected by an unbreakable crystal. There are many other uses for it in the kitchen, ranging from testing the doneness of a pork roast to gauging the temperature of the interior of a freezer.
Candy and meat thermometers can also be used if they register low enough.
A timer is as essential to the baking process as an accurate thermometer. There are many good timers on the market and usually one comes as part of the home range. My favorite, however, is a timer about the size of a yo-yo that I hang around my neck. It goes with me to other parts of the house or out into the yard to remind me that something is rising in a bowl or baking in the oven. It is made by Terraillon and sold in most gourmet cookware shops and by catalog.
A sharp knife adds a touch of professionalism that a good loaf of bread deserves. A slice of bread is only as attractive as a knife will permit it to be. A dull knife can torture and wreck the most beautiful bread while a sharp knife can do wonders with a less-than-perfect loaf.
There are a number of excellent knives on the market. I use a stainless steel Swiss knife with a long serrated blade that allows me to cut with a rhythmic sawing motion. Now about fifteen years old, the knife has cut hundreds of loaves and pastries and is still sharp as a razor. The secret is that I respect the blade and use it only for bread.
To Make Steam
Steam has a multiple role in baking thin-crusted, crispy loaves of peasant breads: it softens and protects the dough as it rises for a longer period than would be possible without the added moisture, and it favors the growth of the jet, the slash down the top of the loaf. The moist oven also helps caramelize the sugar in the dough to give the crust a golden yellow color and an overall glossy appearance.
Steam is made by introducing water into the oven lust before the bread is put in. A pan placed on the bottom of the oven before the oven is turned on will be sizzling hot when a cup of water is poured into it about 3 minutes before putting in the loaves. (Be careful — the steam erupting out of the pan can burn.) A fine spray of water into the hot oven from an atomizer (an empty, washed window-cleaner bottle or plant sprayer) is a substitute for the pan of water. I prefer the pan because a spray of cool water directly toward the oven light bulb can be a shattering experience.
Copyright © 1973, 1987, 1995 by Bernard Clayton, Jr.