Mixing & Benching Equipment
Before you actually start baking, there are certain pieces of equipment you should have ready and waiting - the things that facilitate all of the later steps in creating tasty, beautiful and memorable baked goods. The French call it mise en place, "setting in place," and in the world of professional cooking, it refers to arranging beforehand everything you'll need to execute your creation so that you waste neither time nor energy rummaging through your kitchen at the last minute for forgotten items.
Professional bakers prefer wood because it "grabs" dough, but any smooth easily-cleaned material will do - wood, marble, granite, stainless steel, polyethylene, silicone, laminate - just be sure you have plenty of room to work comfortably. If you're considering buying something, we recommend a wooden cutting board at least 22"/55cm wide and 18"/45cm deep.
To treat a new wooden work surface, wipe it down well with a clean cloth and warm water to remove any dirt and dust, then let air dry thoroughly - overnight is ideal. When the wood is dry, apply a generous coating of USP mineral oil (available at your local pharmacy) and allow to soak in. Don't use vegetable oils, since they'll oxidize and turn rancid with time, leaving a sticky, strong-smelling residue on the wood. Reapply until the wood won't absorb any more, and then wipe the excess off with a clean cloth or paper towel. Your work surface is now ready to use.
To clean the wooden surface, simply scrape any bits of dough off with a bench knife and wipe with a damp cloth. For stubborn bits of dried dough, use warm water to soften and gently scrape it off with the bench knife. Apply a coat of mineral oil every few months to keep the surface water-resistant.
Since the weight of a given volume of bread flour, for example, can vary considerably, depending on its composition, humidity and it's packed soide or has been sifted, the pros always work by weight, especially when baking cakes and pastries, where accurate measurement of ingredients is essential to a successful product.
Accurate temperature measurement is equally important. Too hot an oven will cook the outside of bread or cake before the inside is cooked, leading to burned or collapsed product. Conversely, too cool an oven won't produce sufficient oven spring or browning, which results in collapsed or undercooked, gummy breads and cakes.
Next to the oven, an accurate scale is probably the most critical piece of equipment in the baker's pantry. There are any number of good, inexpensive digital scales on the market. We recommend one that has a capacity of at least 6.6lb/3kg, and preferably 11lb/5kg, and which reads out in both ounces and grams. It's also helpful if the scale has a "tare" feature that allows you to zero it out with weight on it, so that you can measure directly into your mixing bowls, zeroing out between ingredients to ensure maximum accuracy.
If you don't have a scale, or if you're using small quantities of certain ingredients, such as salt, flavorings, and dry yeast, it's often easier to use a measuring cup or spoon. We use graduated glass or plastic cups in a variety of sizes for liquids, and plastic or stainless steel measuring cups and spoons for dry ingredients and when small quantities are called for.
Baking is all about temperature, and so it's helpful to keep a few different types of thermometers on hand:
- Oven Thermometers. Too much heat, and your baked goods will char; too little, and they'll collapse. Because oven thermostats can be wildly inaccurate and because most home ovens heat unevenly, it's a good idea to use a couple of oven thermometers, one in the back and the other in the front of your oven to ensure that you're baking at the correct temperature.
- Instant-Read Digital Thermometer. For general use, such as making sure you're kneaded your bread doughs to 85°F/30°C for optimal fermentation, or that your eggs and sugar have reached 130°F/55°C necessary for a successful sponge cake, or that the internal temperature of your bread has hit 205°F/95°C, we think an instant-read digital probe thermometer works best.
- Digital Deep-Fry/Candy Thermometer. Finally, for higher temperature applications, such as heating syrups and oil for deep frying, inexpensive metal deep-fry/candy thermometers with a range of 100-400°F/ 38-205°C with either dial or digital readouts are available pretty much everywhere that cooking equipment is sold.
Mixing & Kneading
Proper mixing is essential to successful baking. Ingredients need to be well blended, doughs evenly hydrated and kneaded, and sufficient air incorporated into certain cake batters to ensure a light, airy crumb.
A century or two ago, all mixing was done by hand. Teams of bread bakers stood over giant wooden tubs, arms buried up to their elbows as they kneaded hundreds of pounds of dough by hand. Cake bakers spent hours combining sugar and eggs or fat for products like Martha Washington's famous pound cake, which called for 40 eggs and four pounds each of butter and sugar.
Today, many home bakers still prefer to hand mix, although most have switched over to a variety of household appliances.
Even if you use a machine, it helps to have an assortment of spoons, whisks and maybe even a hand-cranked mixer work best for small quantities that don't warrant heavy artillery, for example, beating eggs and water together, or stirring half a cup of water and a cup of flour into a sourdough sponge.
- An electric hand mixer is useful for mixing cake batters, whipping meringues and for making hot custards over boiling water.
- Stand mixers are the real workhorses of baking. Most commercial bakeries have one or more floor mixers that can handle anywhere from 20 to 200 quarts of dough, batter, butter cream or what have you. For home bakers, a 4½, 5 or 6-quart mixer is probably the most useful. The best-known brands include Kitchen Aid, Globe, Viking and Electrolux. Be sure your mixer comes with a flat paddle beater, a dough hook (we prefer C-shaped ones rather than the corkscrew types found on many mixers), and a whisk; and it's a good idea to look for models that use a crank to raise the bowl, rather than a tilt-head.
- Food processors can perform many different baking tasks, from chopping nuts and shredding potatoes to turning stale bread and cake into crumbs. Their real benefit in baking, however, is in kneading bread doughs: what may take 20 minutes by hand and 12 minutes using a stand mixer requires only a minute or two in a food processor.
- Bread machines really are one-trick ponies - great for loading with ingredients and coming back a few hours later to find they've morphed into a loaf of bread, but of only limited use if you plan on expanding your repertoire to include rolls, cakes, cookies and pastries.
- Blenders and spice grinders are great for grinding tasks that lie beyond the range of food processors - things like grinding seeds, which can also be done with the original spice grinder, the mortar and pestle.
Bowls of assorted sizes have all kinds of uses, from holding ingredients to mixing to covering dough while it's fermenting.
Baking involves lots of sticky ingredients, and there's nothing better than an assortment of rubber or plastic spatulas and bowl scrapers for folding meringues, marbling cakes, and moving batters, frostings, soft doughs and the like from one place to another.
For hand kneading, dividing dough and shaping, few items are more useful than a bench knife, a/k/a dough scraper. These come in a variety of materials, including stainless steel, nylon, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and composites, and may have a wooden, plastic or metal grip - or no grip at all. Steel bench knives typically have a straight edge, while plastic and nylon ones often have both a straight edge for use on the kneading board, and a curved edge for use as a bowl scraper.
Bench knives come in a variety of sizes; we prefer a 3" x 6"/7.5cm x 15cm size with a wooden grip, which fits the hand nicely and doesn't get slippery when it's wet or covered with dough.
Fermentation & Proofing
Once a yeast dough is mixed, it needs to bulk ferment in order for the yeast to multiply and the proteins to form gluten. In the bakeries, dough was often left in the mixing tub or on top of the bench while it continued to ferment as the bakers took pieces to shape into loaves and rolls.
For home bakers, fermenting in a bowl is probably the most convenient, simply because it's much easier to both move a bowl around the kitchen and to gauge when a dough has increased sufficiently in volume. For proofing, which is what happens after the yeast dough has been scaled and shaped, we think proofing boards and dough boxes are the most useful.
Proofing boards and peels
Where temperature and humidity are less important, plain proofing boards or a bakers' peel, made either of aluminum, wood or polyethylene do a nice job of providing a surface on which your yeasted products can proof. To use them, simply dust lightly with flour, semolina or cornmeal, or cover with baking parchment and arrange your yeast products, allowing enough room for them to expand. Cover the dough with plastic or a damp cloth and set aside proof. When your breads, rolls or yeast pastries ready to bake, simply slide them into the oven, as you would from a peel.
Wooden dough boxes - now largely replaced by plastic - were an essential tool of the baker's trade. Lightly dampened with hot water, the 30" x 48" x 4"/75cm x 120cm x 10cm boxes provided a warm, humid environment ideal for fermentation and proofing. Stacked bottom-to-top, they were tall enough for rolls and rye breads, while top-to-top they provided enough height for the tallest ceremonial challahs.
Although not generally available at retail, home bakers can easily build their own out of 1" x 4"/2.5cm x 10cm pine boards and 3/8"/1cm or ½"/1.25cm plywood. For convenience and ease of storage, we suggest 18" x 24"/45cm x 60cm.
If you plan on making your own doughnuts, frying screens are a key piece of equipment, for one simple reason: perfect yeast doughnuts only happen when the dough remains untouched between proofing and frying - which means that transferring proofed doughnuts by hand, peel or spatula from bench to oil is a guaranteed recipe for failure.
Problem is, frying screens are one of those items that are impossible for most home cooks to find.
Solution? We use pizza screens, which are available at restaurant supply stores and online. A 10"/25cm screen fits nicely into a 10qt/9.5l saucepan, which also holds enough oil to produce an even-temperature fry. To lift it up and down, we use sturdy steel wire bent into a "U" shape, with short "L" shapes at the end to slip easily in and out of the holes in the pizza screen. One screen will easily hold four doughnuts.
Depositing, Topping & Washing
Pastry bags and tips
Basically, pastry bags are flexible hollow cones, either with or without a decorative tip, through with stiff batters, icings and fillings can be piped onto baked goods or a baking pan. Although most people associate them with fancy cake decorating, even bakeries where little decorating was done used them to pipe products like French cookies, sour cream spritz cookies, hot formula lace cookies and macaroons, both almond and coconut, and to fill jelly doughnuts, , or drizzle icing onto Danish and other products.
Pastry bags come in three types - disposable bags, parchment cones, and reusable bags.
- Disposable bags are nothing more than conical bags made of the same polyethylene film that's used for plastic storage bags - only a good deal pricier. For single uses with cold ingredients, we recommend simply filling a heavyweight plastic food storage bag and snipping off a corner to the desired diameter.
- Parchment cones, or comets, are one-time bags that you can make yourself from a sheet of baking parchment, either in a single layer for light applications like icings, or doubled for light cookie doughs. Unlike plastic, parchment won't break down from warm ingredients - for example, hot lace cookie batter, which should be piped at around 130°F/54°C. You can even use a decorating tip with a comet; just snip off the point of the cone and slip the tip inside. Don't forget to retrieve it before you throw the used bag away.
- Reusable pastry bags are made of tightly woven nylon, polyester or cotton, often with a coated inside to prevent leaks and oozing of liquids through the weave of the fabric. As their name says, these bags are washable - even in a dishwasher - and reusable. For general use, we like a 16"/40cm or 18"/45cm coated canvas or polyester bag.
- Decorating tips, made of stainless steel, tinned sheet metal or polycarbonate, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Like the bags, they're conical in shape so they'll fit slip inside the bag or into a threaded plastic coupler, and have distinctively shaped tips that determine the pattern of the piped material. The recipes in this book use only three shapes: plain round; star tips, which are also called drop flower or rosette tips; and French tips, also known as open star tips, which have a great many more teeth than regular star tips. We recommend getting them in the largest sizes available - Wilton 1A or Ateco 9 for the round tips, W2110 (1M) or A821 for the star tips, and W1G or A863 for the French tips.
White bristle or silicone brushes in a variety of widths, are indispensable for applying washes, glazes, syrups and melted jams to baked goods both before and after baking. In addition, nothing works better for brushing away excess flour on pastry and laminated doughs, or for spreading dry fillings like cinnamon sugar. We prefer bristle over silicone because it holds more liquid and spreads more evenly. And although some people argue that there's no difference between pastry brushes and paintbrushes, we think you ought to spend the few dollars extra and buy a quality tool specifically designed for kitchen use and which is certified as food-grade.
Perforated shaker bottles are extremely useful for applying seeds, salt, powdered sugar and other dry ingredients to baked goods either before or after they come out of the oven. One convenient way of getting all the shakers you need is simply to hold onto the shaker bottles that supermarket spices come packaged in, and refill them with whatever toppings you choose.
This includes an assortment of items found in most reasonably well-equipped kitchens, including:
|Tea towels||Knives and pizza wheel||Pot holders or oven mitts|
|Plastic wrap||Cutting boards||Wooden & slotted spoons|
|Pots and pans||Cookie cutters||Pastry blender|
|Double boiler||Assorted strainers and cheesecloth||Plastic bags & containers|