Francisco Migoya, head chef of Modernist Cuisine and co-author of Modernist Bread: The Art & Science, tells us about the essential tools of bread baking and how to troubleshoot common pitfalls.
Francisco Migoya leads the Modernist Cuisine culinary team as head chef. Together with Nathan Myhrvold, he directs culinary research and the development of new techniques and recipes for the team’s next book Modernist Bread: The Art and Science, on sale in the spring of 2018. Below is an excerpt from the upcoming book, on the essential tools that will revolutionize your at-home bread baking.
ESSENTIAL BAKER’S TOOLS
Ovens are the basic heavy-duty tools of the bread baker, but a multitude of smaller pieces of equipment are, if not essential, at least enormously helpful. (If you’re wondering, we didn’t forget to put measuring spoons on the list; we think a basic, inexpensive scale is immensely more valuable.) In our view, a well-stocked kitchen includes the following equipment.
Loaf pans: Simple metal loaf pans can be used for proofing as well as baking. Pans come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, but there’s generally no need to buy specialty pans unless you want to make a bread in its traditional shape, like a pandoro or gugelhupf.
Baskets: A variety of wicker and cane baskets are used for proofing and are sometimes lined with linen.
Black cast-iron pots: These can be used to create an enclosed environment for baking, producing some of the benefits of a professional steam oven at home.
Plastic tubs: Clear plastic square bins with airtight lids are useful to have in a variety of sizes. Bakers use the Cambro brand so habitually that the name is practically a generic term for the tubs in professional kitchens.
Plastic bags or tarps: Even clean trash bags can be used to cover your dough to keep it from drying out. We prefer transparent compostable bags.
Thermometer: A digital probe version is best. Home bakers will also want an oven thermometer.
Scale: This is the piece of equipment we recommend most emphatically for all bakers. For general use, it should measure single-gram increments. Additionally, it’s useful to have a precision scale for weighing small quantities, such as the 1½ grams of yeast called for in one of our preferments. All-purpose scales exist that will cover both these requirements.
Timers: It’s best to have several timers on hand. Make sure their alarms are loud.
Bench knife (sometimes called a bench scraper): You can use a sharp metal version for cleanly cutting dough, lifting sticky dough, and scraping dough residue off the worktable. Plastic ones are acceptable but are generally thicker, which can sometimes be a drawback for cutting and scraping dough.
Lames: These very sharp, thin blades are used for scoring dough. They are not necessary for most pan or enriched breads since these breads aren’t typically scored but are required for most lean breads. Lame is pronounced lahm.
Baking steel and baking stone: A steel will help properly bake pizza and flatbreads. Other breads would be scorched by the heat of a steel, so we instead use a baking stone for those.
Pastry brushes: Reserve different pastry brushes for specific purposes—for instance, designating one for cooking sugar and another for egg washes. We prefer synthetic bristles over the thicker silicone brushes that leave track marks or natural bristles, which can shed.
Mixer: We use a stand mixer for most home baking because of its small footprint and relative power, as well as its multipurpose properties. For larger quantities of dough or professional baking, we recommend planetary or spiral mixers.
Kitchen towels: Keep a stack of clean kitchen towels on hand in place of oven mitts, which tend to be less sanitary because they are washed less frequently. Use cotton rather than synthetic fabrics, which will melt.
Bench brush: A brush is useful for sweeping flour away from your work space.
Water spritzer: The spritzer itself is basic, but remember to change the water in it at least weekly.
Bowls: It’s best to have an assortment of different sizes, ideally metal versions. (Glass bowls take up more storage space and tend to chip.)
Storage bins: We use wheeled plastic bins that can be easily stored underneath counters. Lidded bins can store large quantities of grains, flour, sugar, or other ingredients.
Parchment paper: We use regular parchment paper and silicone baking liners to keep doughs from sticking to baking surfaces.
Couche: A swatch of plain linen cloth, known as a couche, sits between the dough and a flat surface; the cloth is creased to cradle the dough it holds. Couches absorb excess moisture from—and maintain the shape of—dough during the proofing process.
Wooden boards: These are used for proofing free-form doughs and are typically lined with couches.
Sheet pans: If they will fit in your oven, we advise having full-size, half-size, and quarter-size pans, as well as wire racks that fit on top of them.
Sieves/strainers/sifters: A well-stocked kitchen will have a drum sieve for sifting large amounts of flour, a colander for washing fruits and vegetables, and a fine sifter for dusting flour and stenciling.
Adapted from Modernist Bread by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya. Photo credit: Courtesy of The Cooking Lab, LLC.