For some of us, baking bread is something that we do without much thought, whenever it's cold enough to crank the oven, for giving to friends, when our kids demand it, or as a coping mechanism (see: the recent election, long distance relationships, Steve Nash). The smell of bread baking is a fundamental thing, as is the taste of a warm loaf, yeasty and buoyant and with a crust golden and resoundingly crisp.
Bread baking also a pretty inexpensive hobby, and in this era of renewed interest in DIY projects and artisan whatsits, not a bad one to take up. If you don't give the breads you bake to friends, you can aid and abet your friends' interest in the craft. Of course you don't need much in the way of fancy gear to bake a good loaf of bread -- a bowl, an oven, the most basic of ingredients -- but there are some things that make the experience infinitely more rewarding. Turn the page for five of them, for your friends this holiday season. Or for yourself.
5. Great Bread Books:
Unless you're already an experienced baker -- and even if you are -- you'll want some good baking books. Of the many out there, especially in recent years, a few stand out. Pretty much anything written by Peter Reinhart -- Crust and Crumb (Ten Speed Press; 2006); The Bread Baker's Apprentice (Ten Speed Press, 2001); Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads (Ten Speed Press, 2007) -- for starters. Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible (Norton, 2003). Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes (Wiley, 2004). Maggie Glezer's Artisan Baking (Artisan, 2005). Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers by Daniel Leader (Norton, 2007). Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson (Chronicle, 2010). And of course the classic Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery (Villard, 1996), by You Know Who. Sure, some of these are more complicated than others, but it's good to have something to shoot for, isn't it. At Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Vroman's, or any good bookstore.
Sure, you can use a standard loaf pan, but baking bread is exponentially more fun if you get a pretty boule -- its round crusty top decorated with the flour-dusted spirals that the forms create -- instead of a rectangular sandwich loaf. Bannetons, also called brotforms, are woven baskets made from cane in which you proof your dough for the final rise before baking -- thus allowing for the shape and pretty pattern. They come in many shapes and sizes, not only the round ones used for boules, but also ovals and rectangles and even triangles. They're costly, but they last forever -- and you can use them as pretty bread baskets after you've finished baking. Tip: do NOT wash them, just brush off the crusty flour and brush on fresh after each baking. At Sur la Table, Cook's Direct, King Arthur, Surfas (sometimes).
3. Baking Stone:
If you use a banneton or basket or free-form your bread, you'll need a baking surface on which to bake it. Yes, you can use a metal baking tray, but your bread will bake a lot better if you have a stone. Also marketed as pizza stones, these are unglazed ceramic tiles that you put into your oven while it's preheating. Thus when it's time to bake, you slide the breads onto the hot stone -- kind of like a facsimile of the bottom of a bakery's big ovens. You get better oven spring -- that extra rise of the bread when it hits the heat -- and more even baking. If you look closely, you can see that my stone is broken, since yeah, they're breakable. But I never got a new one, since the thing works just fine in two pieces -- and actually stores more easily. If you don't feel like buying a stone at a cooking supply store, get some unglazed ceramic tiles at a hardware store instead. Surfas, King Arthur, The Webstaurant Store.
2. Sourdough Starter:
You can make terrific bread in hundreds of ways, using commerical dry or fresh yeast for leavening. You can also make a sourdough or natural levain bread, by making a poolish or pre-ferment or using starter. The easiest way of getting good starter is by getting some from a bread baking friend. Or you can make your own, using any of the many terrific recipes out there: Paul Bertolli makes his with potatos; Nancy Silverton with grapes; Naomi Duguid with bits of old bread. Here's Peter Reinhart's recipe, which uses pineapple juice. Or you can just buy some. King Arthur will mail you some for under $10. And Ed Wood, the Idaho sourdough bread guru who is as much of a cult figure in the world of sourdough bread as his namesake was to horror flicks, sells 17 different kinds through his company Sourdoughs International, including cultures from Bahrain, Finland, the Yukon and Egypt.
The simplest part of the equation and probably the most important. At its best, good bread is composed of only three ingredients: flour, water and salt. (The levain is itself only flour and water, unless you count the natural yeasts, which regenerate.) Which means that the flour you use is fundamentally important. You can buy quite good flour at ordinary markets: King Arthur is probably the best of what's easily found. Bob's Red Mill makes very good flour too, and you can find that most places as well. But unless you live near a mill, your best bet for excellent flour is the internet, where you can order remarkable flour from places like Community Grains in Northern California. Check locally at Surfas, Cookbook and the Cheese Store of Silver Lake.
Other random stuff to throw in your favorite bread baker's stocking: a peel (although you can use an overturned cookie sheet), razor blades for slashing the tops of the loaves, a water spritz bottle for spraying the oven, and a decent serrated knife. And of course as much good butter and jam and cheeses as you can find. Or make your own butter: just fill a Mason jar half-full with good heavy cream, tighten the lid and shake for about 10 minutes for an ad hoc butter churn. Something to do while your bread rises, or bakes.
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