Tools of the Trade
Although it is possible to spend a fortune on fancy baking equipment, it is not necessary. There are only four pieces of essential equipment: a bowl, a fork, a pan, and an oven. However, there are hundreds of variations on those simple elements from which to choose.
Most breads can be baked on a simple baking sheet. In the professional kitchen these pans are called sheet pans. They are made of heavy aluminum, and have a ½″ lip. These pans are indispensable to a baker, and are used for just about everything.
Some breads require a loaf pan, and the market is flooded with a plethora of pans from which to choose. Heaviest is best, made from glass, ceramic, thick aluminum, or cast iron. These materials hold and spread heat evenly, and reduce the chance of a burned crust. Thin baking pans will cause bread to burn, especially when used for breads that require long baking times. The same criterion applies to muffin pans.
Professional bakers have several pans that are virtually unknown in the home kitchen, but are available to anyone through specialty purveyors. The perforated baking sheet is made of aluminum and punched with several tiny holes. The holes let heat through the pan, allowing for more heat to surround the bread as it bakes. This is important in professional ovens that are stacked full, each rack holding a full pan of bread. When baking on solid baking sheets in a full oven, heat does not get to the center pan with equal measure. If a home baker plans to bake large quantities, perforated pans should be considered.
Regardless of the type of pan chosen, the dough should always be placed into it seam-side down. This means that when the loaf is formed, the smooth, tight, seamless side of the dough should face up, and any rough, folded, or pleated skin should face down into the pan. The weight of the dough on these seams keeps them from opening up in an unattractive way.
Some chefs use baguette pans, often perforated, which look something like a pleated or folded baking sheet, with a groove for each loaf. The shape is rounded to promote a rounded baguette. These pans are not necessary if the dough has undergone proper kneading and forming, but for large batches, it helps to ensure uniformly shaped loaves.
Parchment is an indispensable tool in any bake shop. It serves many purposes, including preventing baked goods from sticking to pans. Used as a pan liner, parchment not only eases removal of the finished product, but also promotes even browning and uniform texture of the crust.
In addition, parchment extends the lifetime of bakeware. Lined with paper, the pans do not come in contact with ingredients. If they did, these ingredients would burn in the oven, leaving the pan with a coating of oil and carbon. These deposits weaken the pan, as does the excessive scrubbing needed to remove them. In addition, pans left with food deposits will warp, bend, and buckle in the oven where heat flow is interrupted.
Parchment is also useful for wrapping and storage. It is frequently used by professionals to hold ingredients, and can be formed into a cone for decorating.
Europeans have long used cane baskets, called banneton or brotformen, to ferment bread. They promote an even, uniform shape, and encourage the loaf to grow in a bowl shape, which is higher and rounder than a loaf proofed flat on a baking sheet. Dusted with flour, the cane leaves a decorative impression on the proofing breads. Some of these baskets are lined with linen, which needs less flour to prevent sticking. Breads are turned out of the baskets onto a baking sheet or peel before going into the oven.
A proofing linen cloth, called a cloche, is sometimes used for baguettes for the same purpose. The cloth is a simple rectangle, pleated in between each loaf to shape the dough as it is proofed.
Cooling racks are an important last step in the production of bread. If bread is allowed to cool without a rack, condensation (also known as bread sweat) will form underneath, which results in a soggy bottom crust. A rack allows air to circulate underneath, releasing steam and evaporating any condensation for a dry, crisp crust.
Racks do not have to be fancy, or any particular shape, or made from any specific material. They do need to be large enough to support the loaf in question, and leave at least ∕″ of space between the bread and the counter.
Any standard oven is suitable for baking bread, but the convection oven is a common appliance in many homes, and can be a little tricky for the new baker. Convection ovens were created to promote even browning of foods. They were not as successful at even browning as they were at increasing the speed of baking.
Convection ovens contain fans that move the air throughout the oven cavity, which results in an increased temperature. This is very convenient for small items, like cookies and muffins. But larger loaves of bread need more time for the heat to penetrate the dough, and convection baking usually results in a burnt crust and doughy center.
Some convection ovens have a switch that turns the fan on and off. For large items, the fan should be turned off, and the oven used in the conventional manner. If the oven does not have the on-off capability, consider baking smaller breads, such as rolls, or bake them in a high-sided pan that can be covered in foil to prevent the moving air from reaching the loaf.