I baked my first loaf of bread when I was about 14. It was a brick. Not too unusual, beginning bakers often produce bricks and I went on to produce some mighty fine bread bricks after that first one. Eventually I got better at making bread, but it wasn't until I spent 6 months baking croissants by hand, day in ad day out, that I finally mastered the craft - and over the years I've gotten far better until today I don't even consider it much of a project unless I'm developing a recipe.
Making a DifferenceOne of the things that's made a big difference in my bread baking is using good equipment so I thought I'd provide a list of equipment I absolutely rely on. The other thing that's helped are a number of books that really make an effort to teach both the science and art of baking bread. So here's a list of the equipment and books I consider essential.
A few years ago I was having back problems and kneading bread became painful - so I bought a stand mixer. I chose a KA because I had a friend who had just given her maid her still-working 40-year-old KA stand mixer. Clearly this was a solid piece of equipment. You can read my review of the KitchenAid Stand Mixer here
Back when I owned a house with a huge kitchen in California I bought a beechwood bread board. It being California the kitchen counters were covered with tile and so kneading bread on the counters wasn't an option. The board was huge, offering lots of work space, and providing the perfection combination of slipperiness and stickiness for kneading bread dough. It was also great for rolling out pie crusts.
When I moved to Knoxville my kitchen shrank and I no longer had room for my bread board. After casting about for a solution I found that a full size (16 x 24) silicon mat would work for kneading bread. The great thing about it is I can roll it up and store it in a drawer when I'm not baking bread. If you don't have space for a bread board, this is the next best thing.
Once the bread is mixed, kneaded and has risen you need to bake it and a pizza stone makes a huge difference. You want the heat to be as even as possible and so heating the oven for at least 45 minutes before baking the bread helps a lot, but a pizza stone stores a lot
of heat and helps keep the oven hot even when you open the door to put the bread in or check on it. It's also essential for that crisp crust that makes a crusty country loaf so good.
Several years ago, after using a hodge-podge of cheap loaf pans for baking bread, a friend of mine - a professional baker - recommended I invest in some commercial quality loaf pans. She told me they'd make a noticable difference in how evenly the bread cooked and the quality of the crust. So I did and she was right. They made my bread better.
If you're baking free-form loaves a baking peel is almost essential. It's the best way to deliver the loaf to the oven and the best way to remove it when done. My first peel was one of those nice looking wooden jobs and although it was great for putting bread in the oven, it was terrible at removing the bread (and pizza) - too thick to slide easily under a loaf. So I bought a short aluminum peel that works much better.
Rose Levy Beranbaum's Bread Bible
is my favorite bread book. It was neither the first nor last bread book I purchased but it has more recipes I've actually made than any other bread book I own - her prosciutto bread is particularly outstanding and her recipe for popovers is a real winner. It's also a good solid tutorial on the craft of baking bread with loads of explanations about why.
This was the first book I bought on the science and art of baking bread. Hammelman wrote it as text book for professional bakers, but gives enough of a nod to the home baker so that someone who is serious about baking bread can learn a great deal - as I did. I've made quite a few of the recipes from it, but none have become favorites,
Daniel Leader is one of the best known bakers in the country - at least in baking circles. His most recent book is Local Breads
, which features rustic breads from all over Europe. I've made a number of them and they're all good, and his Grape Harvest Focaccia is absolutely the best focaccia I've ever eaten. If country breads appeal to you this is a great source for recipes.
Also by Daniel Leader (with Judith Blahnik) this book was my first exposure to the scientific aspects of baking bread. I brought it home, read it cover to cover and went on a month-long bread baking binge during which I must have produced some 15 or 20 loaves of bread. This binge made my office mates very happy when I took each loaf in to work.