Compared to photography, or opera, or boating, bread-making is a pretty inexpensive hobby. Nevertheless, there is a somewhat dizzying array of implements available to help (and sometimes hinder) you, all available in a vast range of prices. Many of the implements have fancy French names, and come to think of it, if you figure it on a per-fancy-French-name basis, bread-making must be about the cheapest hobby there is.
This post describes the equipment I have settled on at the moment as most helpful for me, with some comments. In the spirit of full disclosure, the products below have links to Amazon. If you use those links I will get a modest rake-off. If it’s just as easy to use them that’s great, but please don’t feel obligated or pressured. King Arthur Flour also sells a lot of equipment and is very much worth supporting. [2020 edit: Amazon is no longer giving me any rake-off, but I haven’t changed the links.]
I have divided the post into sections: “can’t live without it,” “use it but could live without it,” and “own it but don’t use it.”
Can’t Live Without It
Top of the list for “can’t live without it” is a digital kitchen scale, as I have previously noted at length. If I were going to buy one today, I would get a Jennings CJ4000, as recommended by thesweethome.com, about $26 on Amazon as of this writing. You can get a good scale for cheaper, but this one claims to go down to half-gram accuracy, which is helpful if you want to measure yeast or spices by weight.
You need to mix your dough and let it rise (“bulk fermentation”). If you do both in the same container there is less to clean up, always a plus in my book! I use a Cambro 6-quart round translucent polypropylene bucket (or “food storage container” as they call it). For any Europeans who might be reading, you can see that a quart is slightly less than a liter.
Be sure to get the lid! And be sure to get the correct lid (6 quart, polypropylene), or you will be frustrated, like the folks on Amazon who ordered the wrong one and then gave the product a bad review. One of the best things I ever did was to drill a small but not tiny hole in the lid. I can snap the lid on and my dough can still rise without making an explosion. I highly recommend doing this. You can see the hole poking it’s head out at 6 o’clock in this picture:
Forkish recommends the 12-quart clear polycarbonate version, and the photos in his book are based on that container, which is 15″ wide. This one is 10″ wide. Since at times you will be leaving it in your fridge overnight, the size is worth thinking about. Also, clear is nice, but the polycarbonate version has BPA, and the problems caused by BPA may be worsened in an acidic environment (think sourdough). So I am sticking with polypropylene. If you get the translucent version, you can still see how much your dough volume has increased, so that you know when you bulk fermentation is done. When I make two loaves it’s about 1.5 quarts, and when it triples it goes to about 4.5 quarts. I have never had a problem with overflowing, but the container is pretty full at that point. I’m guessing it’s easier to get the dough out of a 12-quart bucket, but it’s not really a problem with the 6-quart. There is also a square version, but I think it would be harder to get the dough out, and harder to clean.
More than you ever wanted to know about plastic buckets, right? (Oh yeah, the bucket I linked to above is an “add on item” so if you order from Amazon you should get it as part of a $25-or-more order. The lid is about $8, I’m sure you will find a way to get there!)
Next up on the list of indispensables: dough scraper. You will use this for dividing your dough, and also for cleanup, to scrape your work surface. People seem to love the OXO version, about $10 on Amazon. At the moment I see that you can also get a 3-pack for $60… I personally wouldn’t recommend that. The scraper I have doesn’t have the plastic handle, and if you want that style the HUJI seems to be well-reviewed. These new-fangled ones all seem to have rulers etched on, in case you are even more obsessive than I am and want to make sure your brownies are all the same size. All I can say is: if you’re more obsessive than I am, get help.
You will also need a large serrated bread knife. You may be thinking, “Hey, I have one of those that came with my knife set.” I recommend you measure it, because it probably has an 8″ blade. Your life will be much better if you have one with a 10″ blade, I promise you. My cousin bakes a lot of bread in the pot à la Lahey and was using an 8″ blade. I sent her a Victorinox Swiss Army 10.25 Inch Fibrox Pro Curved Bread Knife with Serrated Edge, and her husband still thanks me. It’s about $30 on Amazon, which will put you over the top for your add-on Cambro dough bucket. It also has 1,100 reviews, averaging 5 stars. For just $100 more, you can get the Henckels version. I’d stick with the Victorinox.
There are a few other things you will need that you probably have on hand: a rubber spatula, a wire cooling rack, a good-sized wood cutting board. Among many other things, I use the rubber spatula for getting the dough off my hand after I do the first mixing of flour and water; Forkish says to use your other hand to “squeegee” it but I haven’t quite worked that out yet. At some point, you will also probably use a “tea towel,” a hand towel without any “nap” (fuzz) for “proofing” your bread—that is, the final rise. If you proof your loaf in a bowl or a proofing basket (see below), you can use the towel to cover it. You can also let the loaf proof wrapped in a towel, but if so be sure to use plenty of flour or wheat bran to keep the loaf from sticking. I haven’t researched this exhaustively, but these look pretty good.
In terms of baking: it is possible bake bread on a cookie sheet, but sooner or later (I would recommend sooner) you will want to take one (or both) of two approaches:
The “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” (AB5) folks recommend a pizza stone; this one is well-priced and well-reviewed on Amazon. If you want to make anything but a round boule loaf, this is the way to go, and if so you should get a rectangular stone rather than a round one. In order to make great crust, you need steam, generated by a pan of water on another rack in your oven. I use the metal broiling dish that I think came with the oven. I’d worry a bit about glass or even Pyrex cracking when you pour the water in. It is possible to burn yourself on the steam, so some people recommend watering cans and big oven mitts but I have just used a measuring cup, potholders, and caution, and I haven’t had problems. If you go the pizza stone route, you will probably want a pizza peel at some point. This looks like a good one.
The other approach, introduced by Jim Lahey and advocated by Ken Forkish, is to use a pot, or more precisely a “Dutch oven.” Because of the tight enclosure, the water that evaporates off the dough forms the steam you need for a great crust. Lahey recommends a 4.5-5.5 quart pot, Forkish says 4-quart but also says 5-quart will work though your loaves will not be quite as tall. A Le Creuset enameled 5.5-quart Dutch oven will set you back about $300, and the handle will melt in the oven. On the other hand, you can get a Lodge 4.5-quart enameled pot (with metal handles) for about $60, or a 4-quart cast iron one for about $43. Some of the reviews I’ve read of Lodge cast-iron pots say that you should season it yourself, rather than rely on their pre-seasoning, and cast iron pots are slightly fussier in terms of care; on the other hand there are some reports of enamel cracking at the high temperatures used for baking break. Besides Lodge, Forkish also recommends Emile Henry, which are ceramic and therefore lighter to schlep in and out of the oven.. The 4-quart Emile Henry is about $100.
I didn’t already have a Dutch oven and I didn’t see the $60 enameled pot, so when it looked like I was about to drop $100, I decided to buy something specifically for bread, an Emile Henry cloche.
Because it doesn’t have the high walls of a Dutch oven, it’s easier to drop loaves in and to get loaves out. I’ve been very happy with mine, though I probably don’t get quite the loft I’d get with a 4-quart pot.
Forkish’s recipes are for two loaves, and he recommends cooking them simultaneously, which means two pots. I think I could fit two in my oven, though I’m not certain, but it’s something to think about when you are budgeting and shopping. Because you remove the top for the last 15-20 minutes of baking, Forkish recommends putting the top back on the pot and letting it reheat for 5 minutes if you bake your loaves one after the other. Since the top of the cloche is so much more massive than the top of the pot, I give it 10 minutes to reheat.
Finally, if you are using sourdough starter (levain is the fancy French word if you are determined to get your money’s worth), you will need something to keep your starter in. I use a 2-quart Mason jar (which turn out to be cheaper by the half-dozen), loosely covered with plastic wrap. It seems to be trendy to serve iced tea in these so you may be able to find one lying around. For mixing it up when you replenish it, I have a rubber spatula with a narrow (1.25″) blade, which is handy.
Use It, But Could Live Without It
As I mentioned above, there are various ways of letting your bread rise. These days I use a proofing basket (or banneton):
Honestly I am not yet 100% comfortable with this technology. It took me quite a while before I put enough flour on it to avoid sticking. There seems to be less sticking when you proof the loaf overnight in the fridge. But the bread ends up looking really, really pretty because of the circular flour lines. [2020 update: it took a long time for enough build-up that the proofed dough comes out of the basket without getting messed up, but now it does, and it makes a beautiful loaf. I still need to be careful working it out of the basket.] [Early 2021 update: I finally took the widespread advice to use a 50-50 mix of white flour and white rice flour to flour the basket. That keeps it from sticking too much, and I have scraped off much of the build-up. I use these all the time now.]
Here’s what I wrote originally: “This silicone scraper is lovely, and it’s great for getting dough out of bowls, but I wind up using a standard rubber spatula or (to get fully risen dough out of my 6-quart bucket) my floured hands. Although the Amazon blurb refers to this as a ‘bench scraper,’ the steel dough scraper (see above) is the only way to go on that.” Fast-forward to 2020: I apparently forgot about using my floured hands to get the dough out of the bucket. I use this every time I bake bread to get the dough out of the 6-quart bucket.
April 4, 2020: When I wrote this post in 2017, I was something of purist, using all sourdough starter and no commercial yeast. Right now I am making hybrid loaves, using starter and a small amount of commercial yeast. This “yeast set” from King Arthur Flour has an airtight canister that keeps yeast viable in the refrigerator for at least 6 months, a yeast spoon which measure out the equivalent of a packet, and a pound of SAF Red instant yeast, which seems to be the consensus favorite. The bundle is about $20, and subsequent 1 lb yeast bags are around $6 (not including shipping). A packet of yeast is 1/4 oz (2 1/4 tsp), so this is equivalent to 64 packets. Fleischmann’s yeast will run you at least $1.50 for 3 packets. If you’re like me, though, you only use 1/2 tsp from a packet and throw the rest away…
Own It But Don’t Use It
Then there are the things that seem really great, or even essential, that I just don’t use.
Here’s one that doesn’t really count: the Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. We use it for everything else and can’t live without it; I just don’t use it for bread. Forkish converted me to hand-mixing (literally, I mix with my hand) and I don’t think I’ll ever go back. You literally get a feel for the dough and if you’re lazy like me you will never over-mix. (OK, I promise I will not use the word “literally” again in this post.)
For metaphorical hand-mixing, this thing gets great reviews. I used it a couple times. It looks cool in the implement basket where it lives. OK, if you don’t want to click on the link, it’s called a dough whisk.
When dough “springs” in the oven, the volume grows faster than the surface area, so pressure builds up. If you don’t relieve it, the skin will tear in some random way. So people “slash” their loaves, yielding lovely patterns. This loaf was slashed in a tic-tac-toe board pattern:
The AB5 folks recommend slashing with your serrated knife, which works pretty well. The pros use a a razor-sharp blade whose fancy French name is “lame.” You can get inexpensive plastic razor-blade holders, and if you pay a bit more, this one is quite beautiful. But I never got lames to work better than the serrated knife, and then Forkish converted me to baking the bread “seam-side up.” The “seam” where you’ve scrunched stuff together usually goes on the bottom while baking, but if you put it on top it opens naturally and you don’t need to slash. The first loaf above, on the checkered cutting board, is an example. Even if that’s what you decided to do, it’s still good to know how to slash—occasionally I screw up and put the bread in the proofing basket with the seam side up. Since you invert the loaf to bake it, the seam winds up going down and you need to slash. That’s what happened with the loaf right above.
The most useless thing I bought is this baguette pan. The baguettes are small (16″ long) and at some point I decided I wasn’t going to be able to make a decent-sized baguette in a standard oven anyway, and I stopped bothering.
But that’s the only thing I bought that seems truly like a waste of money, and it’s only 15 bucks so I think I got off pretty easy…