A Guide to Baking Bread: Your Starter Kit of Ideas and Must-Have Tools
All you need to bake bread is flour, water, and yeast but these expert tips and tools will make the elemental process even more enjoyable.
Making bread can seem like magic: With just flour, water, yeast—and some help from time and physics—a gorgeous, crusty loaf will appear before your very eyes. As a novice baker, it can be daunting to begin, especially because making naturally leavened breads, which capture wild yeasts in the air to create a starter, has developed such a passionate following. These breads have amazing flavor and character, and they're often easier to digest than quick-rise breads. But to build your confidence with baking, consider starting the easy way: With a packet of instant yeast, a relatively modern invention, which was designed with the very purpose of making baking a quicker and simpler process.
We often add other ingredients to vary the flavor, texture, or nutritional value of our breads, but essentially it takes just those three basic ingredients to make it happen. Here's what you need to help transform those ingredients into a loaf.
Before you enter into a bread-baking project, it's important to think about time: Look at the recipe's steps and map out your day, making sure you will be available when your dough needs you.
One of the biggest topics in bread baking is accurate measuring. Serious bakers use a scale because it is much more accurate and simple than cup measures, and it's easier to adapt to different ingredients and situations. We like Oxo's Kitchen Scale ($49.95, williams-sonoma.com)
You'll need a large bowl for mixing dough, and also for letting it rise. Professionals recommend using a clear bucket like the Dough Rising and Storage Bucket with Lid ($10.50, breadtopia.com), so you can observe the rising action.
For covering the dough a dishtowel is essential. The best ones to use are the lint-free type, such flour sack cloths ($24.95, williams-sonoma.com), one of as Martha's favorite options, or traditional linen tea towels.
Man or Machine?
In traditional bread-baking, kneading is the most important step. It's essential for developing the glutens, which are the proteins that give bread its structure and shape; under-kneading can result in a lack of chewiness in your bread. Kneading is physical, calming, and satisfying; but it can also be the most intimidating part of bread-baking. Don't let that deter you: This is where a stand mixer can really help.
However, recipes for artisanal breads that use starters often call for less kneading and a more leisurely, folding technique, such as the one Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery and teaches in his book Tartine Bread ($25.49, amazon.com). This method takes a few more steps, but is easy to follow and it creates wonderfully aerated dough, yielding crunchy bread with large air pockets.
Once you've got your dough on the work surface, it's really helpful top have a bench knife, also known as a dough scraper, like the Lamson Bench Knife ($13.46, amazon.com). It's one of those simple tools professionals use that makes all the difference, allowing you to cut and lift your dough without pulling it too much. It also makes quick work of cleaning your work surface of dough and flour later.
To achieve a deep, dark crust, many bakers choose to bake their loaves in a Dutch oven, which retains intense heat and also traps the steam from the dough. Others call for a spray bottle, or for throwing ice cubes onto the oven floor to create bursts of steam. The Dutch oven is used in the popular, trend setting No-Knead Bread recipe developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery. We like the Martha Stewart Collection Enameled Cast Iron Round Dutch Oven ($119.99, macys.com).
Another optional item for baking with is a pizza stone; we like the Honey-Can-Do Round Pizza Stone ($38.99, target.com). It can stay on a shelf in your oven, radiating its intense heat or your bread dough can be baked directly on the pizza stone, which is a good way to develop a dark crust. To do so, you must slide it carefully from a pizza peel, or you can use the underside of a baking tray, a trick our food editor at large Shira Bocar likes to use.