Tools: Baking Bang for Your Buck

People often ask me what I recommend as the most important tools to get first, if you have a limited budget for baking equipment. These items are listed in roughly the reverse order in which you could pry them from my hands. It’s also not a bad list of gift ideas for any bread baker in your life.*

  • Baking stone. It’s hard to get good crusty hearth loaves without one (and here’s why). High-end is the Fibrament, but a less expensive stone, or even unglazed terra cotta tiles, will do the job, although they’re more prone to breakage. $10 – $100.
  • Steam set-up for your oven. This is not an item you can buy; it’s rigged from inexpensive components. Steam is essential for most crusty breads. Read more about the why and how of steam here. $15 – $25.
  • Bench scraper (aka bench knife, dough scraper, or dough cutter), like this one. Cuts ciabatta dough into pieces, lifts sticky pieces of dough off the counter, and cleans your counter of tenacious dough bits and loose flour. About $12.
  • Digital scale. It is my personal mission in life to see that everyone measures their baking ingredients by weight, not volume. More about that here. I like the My Weigh i5000 and the Escali Primo. $25 – $50.
  • Instant-read thermometer. Dough temperature is important for proper fermentation. Read more about temperature here. A thermometer is also useful if you don’t know whether your loaf is fully baked yet. The Thermapen is wonderfully fast but pricey; this Taylor Digital Thermometer works fine for much less money. $15 – $90.
  • Small ingredients scale. Ingredients like yeast and salt that are usually called for in amounts of 10 grams or less are best weighed on a scale that has precision to a tenth of a gram. However, these  ingredients also measure fairly well by volume, so this is not an essential tool. It’s nice to have, though. $20 – $40.
  • Stand mixer. Although nice to have, especially for certain doughs like bagels and brioche, most breads can be mixed just fine by hand, so a mixer is a lower priority. Mine is a KitchenAid 6-qt. and I recommend it. About $400.

*Note to my male friends on the appropriateness of these things as gifts to wives/girlfriends: For birthdays and other occasions, it might depend on the woman in question, and on the gift — mixer, probably; scale, perhaps; lava rocks, doubtful — but for anniversaries, just don’t do it! Trust me on this one.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Simon says

    With the steam escaping though the top vent of my electric stove I have rusted out two range tops and caused a variety of interesting “St. Elmo’s Fire” balls to roll between the elements. Am I steaming to much or just leave that part out until I have a place of my own and can get a really nice oven?

  2. Simon says

    Hmm Actually do have a cloche from a yard sale. Might have to do more test baking to see! Might have to look for a huge pot for making the 2 kilo boule as in Mr. Rheinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Thank you.

  3. says

    I would add a good sharp lame to the list of tools, but I agree that the scale is a super important addition.

    Thanks Susan,

    Teresa

  4. says

    I’m in the market for an instant read thermometer, thanks! Do you find it problematic that this Taylor thermometer isn’t waterproof or oven safe?

    Also, do you recommend a certain bread knife?

  5. says

    Erin, the Taylor thermometers were what we used in baking school. We used them not only for dough temperature but for pastry applications like crème anglaise, where they were subject to getting steamy, and they were fine. You can put the tip into liquid, just not the top. For most baking, an oven-safe thermometer is not needed.

    I use a Calphalon Katana bread knife and it’s fine, but I haven’t done a head-to-head comparison with any other knives.

  6. says

    Okay, I have the bench scraper (LOVE it), the digital scale (ditto), the thermometer though I’ve never used it for bread, but am dreaming of the day that I have the counter space for a stand mixer as well as an American-size oven. Would love a bread stone!

  7. says

    I don’t have the steam setup but I have everything else. I wish I had a bigger oven. It’s the thing I miss most from my old house.

    This is a great list. Everyone should have digital scales. I can’t imagine cooking without them. Flour measurements can be off by up to 40% measuring by cup.

  8. Karen K says

    Perfect list. I don’t do the towel and lava rock thing, but I follow a combo of Reinhart’s and Amy’s Bread processes. A small bread pan with ice cubes in advance and then boiling water after I introduce the loaf.

    My essentials also include brotforms. One thing I don’t have and I would like to add is the linen thingy for baguettes into my kitchen.

    I also use a plant sprayer for the first 10 minutes of baking. I once took a bread making class where the instructor used a super soaker. It was cool but I wouldn’t want to risk it on my oven window.

  9. Karen K says

    Perfect list. I don’t do the towel and lava rock thing, but I follow a combo of Reinhart’s and Amy’s Bread processes. A small bread pan with ice cubes in advance and then boiling water into a pan after I introduce the loaf.

    My essentials also include brotforms. One thing I don’t have and I would like to add is the linen thingy for baguettes into my kitchen.

    I also use a plant sprayer for the first 10 minutes of baking. I once took a bread making class where the instructor used a super soaker. It was cool but I wouldn’t want to risk it on my oven window.

  10. Janknitz says

    You can have a perfect steam set up for as little as a dollar (not a very romantic gift, though ;o) by buying a large foil roasting pan at the dollar store. Cover your dough with that for the first half of baking on the stone and it steams perfectly using the dough’s own hydration. I even found buffet size foil pans at Cash & Carry (Smart & Final) which are long enough for covering baguettes.

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