Baking your own sourdough can be really rewarding, but what equipment do you really need? Here is my guide, based on my experience of regularly baking sourdough. I have divided it into four sections:
Of course, what you will need most will depend on the type of sourdough you want to bake, but I hope this guide helps you to get started. Have fun!
Of course, no equipment is absolutely essential, but all these items are pretty close.
1. Digital scales
Forget American cups, Australian cups, decilitres and all the other crazy ways of measuring flour: use digital scales! You will find that most modern bread recipes weigh all ingredients in grams, including liquids, for the simple reason that it is much easier to get consistent results.
2. A stainless steel Scotch scraper
A stainless steel Scotch scraper is extremely useful for manipulating dough and for cleaning down a worksurface. It is much better than a plastic scraper, although a plastic scraper is useful for cleaning out bowls.
3. A clear mixing bowl
A clear mixing bowl makes it much easier to monitor how much the dough has risen, especially if you mark the initial level with a pen.
4. A linen cloth
A linen cloth is often used to cover sourdough to stop it drying out. An ordinary kitchen towel can be used, although it maybe more convenient to keep a linen cloth just for covering dough.
5. Shower caps
Although you can use clingfilm (plastic wrap) for covering dough, a shower cap can be used again and again. Many hotels kindly provide shower caps for bakers!
These are items that I use nearly every time I bake some sourdough.
6. A baking dome (La Cloche)
I use a baking dome (La Cloche) 90% of the time when I am baking sourdough. It is made of clay and it is like having a little brick oven in my kitchen. I simply place my Cloche in a cold oven about 20 minutes before I am ready to bake and heat it to 220°C (425°C, gas 7, fan 220°C). The hot base works in the same way as a baking stone, but the dome traps the steam generated by the dough within the bell so there is no need to faff around with a water sprayer. The result is delicious bread with a crackly, golden crust and a light crumb.
The main disadvantages of a baking dome are:
• it needs preheating,
• usually only one loaf can be baked at a time,
• long thin loaves will not fit inside the dome.
Despite these disadvantages, I find it extremely useful for home-bakers and think it is worth the investment if you intend to bake regularly.
7. A cane proving basket (banneton)
Bannetons are used to hold sourdoughs in shape for their final prove before they are baked. They give the bread a stylish professional finish and are available in different sizes and shapes.
8. A stand mixer
A stand mixer, such as a kMix or a KitchenAid, with a dough hook is very useful. It reduces the time spent kneading and makes it easier to handle messy wet dough. Most professional artisan bakers make extensive use of large dough kneading machines, so there is no need to feel that you are cheating if you are not doing every step by hand! Of course, a stand mixer has so many other uses, from whisking cream to making sausages (with an adapter), making it a very useful bit of kit to have in your kitchen.
9. A plastic container for sourdough starter (leaven)
Although you could use an old jam jar or an old ice cream tub to store a sourdough starter (leaven), I think an ideal container is:
• Cylindrical, because it is easier to mix the starter if there are no corners,
• Made of plastic, because although you can use glass or earthenware, if you drop it you will lose your starter,
• Transparent, so you can see if your starter is nice and bubbly,
• At least 700 ml (3 cups), to allow plenty of room for the starter to froth up,
• Supplied with a lid that can be loosely clipped, so that air can still get into the container.
10. A container for flour
If you buy flour in large bags, which is the cheapest way of buying flour, then I recommend buying a container with a lid that will hold about 1 kg (2 lb) of flour. (I find it easier to measure out the flour from a small container, instead of trying to measure it out directly from a large bag.)
11. Plastic scrapers
A plastic scraper is very useful for cleaning bowls, but for cleaning worksurfaces and for manipulating dough I prefer a stainless steel Scotch scraper.
12. A grignette
Although you can use a sharp knife, or even a pair of scissors, to score bread I prefer to use a grignette. They are quite cheap and the blades are easy to replace. (A grignette consists of two parts: a lame (the blade) and a holder. They are used for slashing dough just before it goes into the oven to control how the dough expands during baking and to create patterns in baked breads.)
The items below I only ever use occasionally and may not be worth buying.
13. A baking stone
I prefer to use a baking dome (La Cloche), rather than a baking stone, when baking bread in an ordinary oven, so I only use a baking stone for pizza and for bread that won't fit it in La Cloche.
If you do decide to buy a baking stone, I recommend choosing the biggest baking stone that will fit in your oven, as it is so frustrating if your pizza flops over the sides because your stone isn't big enough!
14. A water sprayer
A water sprayer is useful when baking bread on a stone in an ordinary oven. A cheap house plant sprayer does the job well.
15. A digital thermometer
I regularly use a kitchen digital thermometer when cooking meat or fish, but I seldom use it when baking bread. Normally I use the time given in a recipe, but if I bake a larger or smaller loaf I use a digital thermometer to determine when the bread is ready.
Generally, wheat dough should be baked until the centre of the bread reaches 95°C (203°F) whereas if it is mainly rye then it needs to baked until the centre reaches 98°C (209°F).
(Some recipes suggest baking bread until it sounds hollow when the underside is tapped, but this is quite a tricky test unless you are experienced at listening to taps on the underside of bread!)
16. A loaf tin (pan)
For some breads, especially for 100% rye sourdough breads, I use a loaf tin (pan) to ensure a well-shaped loaf. My 500 g (1 lb) loaf pans get the most use as I tend to bake two small loaves and freeze one, but occasionally I use a larger tin (pan).
17. A baker's peel
In a commercial bakery a peel is essential in order to reach the back of the deep bread ovens, but as domestic ovens are not very deep it is seldom necessary to use a peel. The only time I use a peel now is when I am baking pizza, although quite often I prepare the pizza on a breadboard and slide it off the breadboard on to the baking stone in the oven.
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