The Science Behind Each Stage of the Bread-Making Process

Understanding the science behind making bread can help you control the quality of your bread or adjust the recipe for different circumstances. Below, we’ve detailed exactly what is happening in every step of the process to help you get that better scientific understanding. From the initial mixing of ingredients to the final rise in the oven, each stage plays a crucial role in shaping the perfect loaf.

INGREDIENT PREPERATION

STARCH: The Role of Starch Damage in Flour

When flour is milled, around 12% of its starch granules become damaged, creating cracks on their surfaces. These cracks are important for baking because they allow access during the mixing process to enzymes like amylase and starch molecules that contain amylose and amylopectin. Before milling, these components are locked away, but the cracks make them available for the baking process to begin. The damage will affect the amount of water a dough will require, how long the dough will need to mix, and even the browning of the crust.

YEAST: Activation Begins

Active dry yeast is desiccated and coated in dead cells to form granules, which is why this commercial yeast needs to be reactivated by blooming in lukewarm water (40–43 °C / 104–109 °F). Activation is not required for instant yeast because it is made with a fast-acting strain of S. cerevisiae, and the noodle-shaped granules are finer than those of active dry yeast. The surface layer of dead cells is also more porous than that of active dry yeast, which allows the granules to rehydrate more rapidly. Compared with the active dry form, the instant variety produces more gas during fermentation. You can also build a preferment like a poolish or levain where the yeast will be actively bubbling away before you use it in the mixing process.

GLUTEN: Flour’s Protein Content

Flour made from bread wheat contains proteins called glutenin and gliadin. These proteins form gluten when hydrated, which will begin to develop during the mixing process. Gluten gives body and structure to dough, holding all the components in place (especially if the dough contains inclusions). It’s what makes bread pleasantly chewy and springy. The more gluten a flour can produce, the more able the dough is to hold gas bubbles, and those gas bubbles are what gives bread an open crumb.

MIXING

STARCH: Enzymatic Breakdown

Before flour and water (and other ingredients) become bread, some of their chemical components need to be broken down. Enzymes in grain play that scissor-like role and create the chemical reactions that make turning flour into bread possible. They snip glucose bonds to make food for the yeast, to help the flour absorb water, aid gluten development, and to produce other chemical reactions.

The enzymes’ job is essentially to break things down. In bread, four of the grain’s natural enzymes are key:

  1. Amylase breaks down amylose and amylopectin, which makes food for the yeasts.
  2. Pentosanase breaks down pentosan, which affects the dough’s ability to absorb water.
  3. Protease breaks down protein, which can make the dough more extensible.
  4. Lipoxidase breaks down lipids (fats), which affects the color of the crumb.

During mixing, water and amylase enter damaged starch granules through cracks. The granules become hydrated, and the enzymes break down starch molecules into sugars. Intact starch granules are broken down much more slowly. Since yeast can feed only on simple sugars, not on floury starch, fermentation wouldn’t happen without enzymes performing their chain-cutting act.

You can learn more about using added enzymes for customizations in our blog about adjusting the extensibility of pizza dough.

YEAST: Aerobic Fermentation and Cell Division

During the stage that bakers refer to as fermentation—from the time the dough is mixed to just before baking—yeasts swing between their two metabolic modes each time their environ­ment changes. As a baker kneads and degasses the dough, more oxygen flows into it, so the yeasts can respire for a while. They then switch back to fer­menting as the oxygen gets used up and more fer­mentable sugars become available. Specifically, two important processes kick off in dough once commercial yeast is activated during mixing (this also occurs in preferments as they ripen):

  1. Aerobic fermentation
    • Mixing disperses yeast cells and air throughout the dough. Using available oxygen to metabolize sugar, the cells respire, which rapidly produces water and large quantities of CO2.
  2. Cell division
    • Under aerobic conditions, the yeast buds and creates more yeast cells.

GLUTEN: Gluten Development Begins

When flour is mixed with water and the gluten-forming proteins in the flour (glutenin and gliadin) are hydrated, they then almost immediately bind and form gluten. Your mixing method matters but not because it is necessary to develop gluten; you can develop gluten with minimal mixing.

The point of mixing is that it can speed up the process, which has practical importance to bakers. Using an electric mixer can make many breads feasible that would otherwise be difficult to mix by hand, like challah.

The amount of water in the mix influences this process. The more water you add, the more extensible the dough will be, which can make it harder to handle. The stiffer the dough, the stronger it will be. Often, the area in between those extremes is the best. The amount of water also has a direct effect on both enzymatic activity and fermentation: more water means increased activity and vice versa.

BULK FERMENT

STARCH: The Enzymatic Breakdown Continues

Enzymes in flour continue to break down starch, providing fuel for the yeasts’ activity.

YEAST: Bulk Fermentation

Yeast, along with bacteria, uses dough as food and the medium in which they grow. When oxygen is present and sugars are in short supply, yeast expels carbon dioxide (CO2) and water in a process known as respiration.

Respiration continues, but the oxygen supply is depleted quickly, so yeast cells begin a shift to anaerobic fermentation. The cells produce ethanol, aromatic compounds, and CO2, all of which gather into tiny air bubbles made during mixing.

The yeast can switch back and forth between those modes depending on the dough’s environment or perform both simultaneously (see Modernist Bread Vol 2:270). The CO2 produced by the yeast dissolves into the aqueous phase of the dough, as in a carbonated drink, and then migrates to join the air bubbles in the dough that were formed during mixing. As fermentation proceeds, the bubbles grow.

GLUTEN: Gluten Matrix

As the gluten further develops through the bread-making process, the chains become more numerous and elongated, and they organize into a crosslinked net that is both extensible and elastic. That rubbery framework will give the dough structure and allow it to expand as the yeast creates gas. Proteases (protein-snipping enzymes) cut the gluten strands into smaller pieces that are able to make additional connections. Chains of gluten grow longer and stronger as more and more molecules stick together. The long chains form a flexible, weblike matrix that traps bubbles full of CO2, air, ethanol, and other compounds.

SHAPING

STARCH: Enzymatic Breakdown Continues

The starch in the flour progressively transforms while bread is being shaped by further breaking down and making itself available to the yeast and other ingredients in the dough matrix.

YEAST: Redistribution

Like with folding during bulk fermentation, shaping equalizes the temperature of the dough throughout its entire mass, redistributing simple sugars and making them more readily available for yeasts to eat during final proofing. It also restarts the fermentation process, releasing carbon dioxide, which helps to strengthen the dough, and gives the carbon dioxide and water vapor more “housing” to create larger bubbles throughout the dough.

GLUTEN: Matrix Grows

The gluten matrix continues to grow larger and stronger as dough is stretched and handled during the shaping process. When dough is properly and evenly shaped, the gluten strands have been realigned to support expansion as the dough rises during final proofing and the early stages of baking. In fact, shaped doughs will expand more in the oven than unshaped doughs.

FINAL PROOF

STARCH: Enzymatic Breakdown Continues

Water and amylase continue to break the amylose and amylopectin in the starch molecules down into simple sugars.

YEAST: Fermentation

Final proofing replaces gas that is depleted through the dividing and shaping process with new carbon dioxide and ethanol from the yeast, continuing the fermentation process that began when the dough was mixed. While fermentation continues, the baker can regulate proofing time by adjusting the temperature. Different environmental factors and ingredients affect the final proofing time. The type of yeast (commercial yeast versus levain) and its percentage in the dough will make a difference. Generally, the higher the ambient temperature (up to a certain point), the faster the fermentation.

GLUTEN: The Matrix Grows

The new gas produced at this step expands the dough’s existing bubbles and (depending on the dough) creates an open crumb that is soft and pleasant to eat. The baker’s role in this process is to provide an appropriate environment for the dough, to protect it as it develops, and then determine when final proofing is complete. Calling proof is a part of the bread-making craft that’s hard to teach—even experienced bakers find it can be one of their most difficult tasks. Success stems from a hands-on familiarity with the feel of a properly proofed dough and an understanding of its fermentation process.

BAKE

STARCH: Browning and Gelatinization

When the dough is placed into the oven, starch begins to transform. Two important changes take place:

1. Browning

As the surface of the dough dries out from the heat, a crust begins to form. When the surface temperature exceeds roughly 130°C / 265°F, Maillard reactions start to occur rapidly. Sugars react chemically with amino acids and other protein fragments to produce brown pigments, complex flavor compounds, and a stiff, brittle surface—all crucial elements in a good crust.

2. Gelatinization

By the time the core temperature of the bread reaches between 91 and 93°C / 195 and 200°F, the crumb structure is set, but the color of the crust should (with a few exceptions) be the determining factor for when to remove it from the oven.

If you examine flour under a microscope, you’ll see individual granules that are crystalline, looking something like river stones. In the heat of the oven, the granules (now hydrated with water) burst or solubilize, releasing their contents. Now, instead of individual grains, you have an interconnected mass that is a gel.

This process is called gelatinization.

As the dough heats up, the surfaces of starch granules crack. Between 55° and 65°C / 131° and 149°F, they swell with water, causing amylose molecules within the starch to start seeping out. Between 60 °C and 80 °C / 140°F and 176°F, the expelled molecules form a set gel.

Proteins are coagulating at the same time, and together the coagulated proteins and interconnected starch gel control the formation of the crumb.

YEAST: Oven Spring

Oven spring is what bakers call the rapid rising of bread during the initial baking in the oven, making the volume of the loaf expand. Yeast cells help fuel oven spring. When the loaf goes into the oven, the yeast cells are still alive. At first, they respond to their warming surroundings by making even more carbon dioxide and alcohol (which promptly evaporates). This continues until the temperature gets too hot for the yeast to function, around 50°C / 122°F, which is when the microbes begin to die.

At the same time, the warming environment causes water and dissolved CO2 in the dough to start to, respectively, evaporate and revert to a gaseous form. This adds to the pressure and the rise of the dough. As the dough continues to bake in the oven, warming bubbles take on more carbon dioxide (CO2) from yeast, more CO2 from dough, and more water vapor from dough. The number of molecules of these substances in the bubbles increases. These gases naturally take up more volume (or exert more pressure) the hotter they are. The CO2, water vapor, and air all expand thermally as the temperature goes up. Oven spring comes to a halt when dough starts to lose most of its stretchiness.

GLUTEN: Stretching

The gluten matrix stretches to accommodate increasing gas pressure in the bubbles caused by the expansion of CO2 and the vaporization of water as the bread rises. The gas pressure grows inside the bubbles, and since dough is stretchy, the bubbles inflate, and the dough rises. Eventually, these balloon-like cells stretch to the breaking point. Holes burst open in the walls between the bubbles, joining them together into a spongy, open-cell foam. The stronger and more elastic the dough, the bigger the bubbles can grow inside the loaf before they burst. In the heat of the oven, the proteins coagulate, forming a solid network of irreversibly bonded proteins and starches gelatinize to set the structure of the crumb.

COOL

STARCH: Retrogradation

After the bread is removed from the oven, the temperature of the crust and crumb begins to fall. While the center will continue to bake a little longer, vapor is escaping from the crumb, out through the crust, and the once-pressurized loaf begins to equilibrate. As the vapor pressure drops, air is forced into the loaf and the crumb structure begins to solidify. This is why it’s important to let bread rest and cool after you pull it out of the oven.

When the bread is cool, the gelatinized starch slowly begins to recrystallize, also known as retrogradation. Essentially, the starch is trying to return to its native state, the way it was before it was doused in water and subjected to intense heat. Water begins to migrate out of the granules, and the molecules restructure into more organized chains. This process is what gives the crumb of stale bread such a brittle, crumbly texture.

YEAST: Flavor Loss

Aromatic compounds, produced by yeast and the Maillard reaction, contribute to the bread’s freshly baked flavor. Over time, they dissipate, changing the bread’s taste and aroma.

GLUTEN: Migration

Water travels back into the gluten matrix and/or escapes from the bread as the bread cools. The bread dries as more water is lost as it ages. The bread will begin to stale as the starch continues to retrograde and moisture from the crumb migrates into the crust.

Mastering the process of bread making means understanding the step-by-step transformations from mixing to baking. It’s not just about mixing ingredients but knowing how they chemically react and change. Each stage, from breaking down starches to fermenting yeast and forming gluten, plays a vital role in creating the perfect loaf. Now you’ll know the science behind the baking process the next time you bite into a slice of homemade bread.

Want to further your bread education? Learn more with Modernist Bread at Home. We also have free email courses at the Modernist Bread School.

Optimizing Your Home Oven For Bread

You’ve mixed your dough, let it ferment and rise, divided and shaped it, proofed it, and scored or otherwise finished it. It’s ready for the oven, where it will transform into bread.

To end up with a great loaf of bread, you will need to (1) safely and gently transfer the proofed dough into a very hot oven; (2) provide it with sufficient steam (if the bread requires a thin and crispy crust) and a constant, steady heat source; and, (3) last but not least, know how to determine when it is time to take the bread out of the oven. There are ways to evaluate the doneness of bread by the color of the crust, which we devote an entire lesson to in our Modernist Bread School. You can find this lesson in Course 2: Navigating Bread Making from Start to Finish.

The oven that you use to bake your bread will have a big impact on the result. In fact, the main difference between baking at home and baking in a professional bakery is the type of oven used. Professional bakers typically have deck ovens specifically designed for baking bread that get and stay hotter and include features like steam injection, the key to achieving a crust so thin and crisp it shatters when you break off a piece. We use such ovens in our research kitchen, but we also extensively tested all our recipes and techniques using our well-worn home oven, which produced fantastic-tasting loaves. We’ve developed simple tricks and techniques to improve your home oven.

BAKING IN HOME OVENS

Not every bread is meant to be baked in any kind of oven, and there is no universal oven that works well for every type of bread. It’s best to manage your baking expectations or learn ways to work around the oven you have.

The two most common home ovens are the convection oven and the conventional oven. A convection oven utilizes a fan to circulate hot air evenly throughout the oven, leading to faster and more uniform cooking. This efficient heat distribution reduces hot spots and ensures consistent browning and texture, although it can also make it slightly harder for breads to rise while baking. In contrast, a conventional home oven relies on radiant heat from top and bottom elements, resulting in potential hot and cold spots and longer cooking times.

Home ovens offer one big plus for baking bread: a convenient location. Pretty much every other feature of the ovens makes them an obstacle to greatness. For the most part, home ovens don’t get as hot as professional ovens, they don’t bake as evenly, their low thermal mass means they don’t absorb or radiate heat as efficiently, and they can’t produce steam.

That being said, you can bake quality bread in your home oven.

There are two main hurdles to baking excellent bread at home:

  1. Maintaining consistent temperature (home ovens are notorious for losing significant heat every time you open the door)
  2. Producing steam for the bread

HOW TO OPTIMIZE THE TEMPERATURE OF YOUR HOME OVEN

In order to supercharge the oven with heat energy and to eliminate as many temperature differentials (hot and cold spots) within the oven as possible, we recommend preheating your oven for at least an hour before loading it.

For an even bigger effect, put a baking stone or baking steel in the bottom third of the oven as you are preheating it. Doing so will increase the thermal mass of your oven. Both of them store heat well; a baking stone will release the heat more slowly than a baking steel and is a great choice to use in tandem with pan loaves like sandwich bread or focaccia. A baking steel will release its heat quickly; larger breads that require longer bake times may scorch if baked directly on it. If using a steel with a pan loaf, set the pan on the rack above the steel; don’t rest it on the steel.

We’ve got another blog post that covers this subject, which you can read here.

A final method for overcoming the big temperature dip that occurs when you load your loaves into the oven is to preheat the oven at a higher temperature than you will bake at. You’ll see this in the recipes for certain types of lean and enriched breads in this book, where what we call the “loading temperature” is typically 10% higher than the baking temperature. Preheat the oven at the loading temperature, and lower it to the baking temperature for the bake time.

CREATING STEAM IN A HOME OVEN

Generating steam in a home oven is difficult to do adequately, consistently, and safely. The biggest challenges are keeping the steam inside the oven and making enough of it to produce a shiny, crusty, and crispy loaf. Consider how the oven’s door makes up a significant part of the oven’s entire footprint. Opening the door makes a huge space from which steam can escape, just as it lets heat out in other baking endeavors.

While it’s possible to generate and maintain steam in a home oven, we highly recommend baking in covered pots, specifically cast-iron combination cookers, instead. They do not require the addition of steam to bake a beautiful loaf of bread since the enclosed area makes it possible for the dough to produce its own steam.

Steam is critical to the creation of the thin skin on the surface of the dough that is necessary for the formation of a crispy crust. But at a certain point, the surface needs to be allowed to dry, which means removing as much moisture as possible from the baking environment; that is achieved through venting. Whether you are using a combination cooker, a Dutch oven, or a pot fitted over a baking stone, about two-thirds of the way through the expected bake time, remove the lid or pot that is covering the bread. Once the bread is fully baked, crack open the oven door just a little (you can use a wine cork to prop it open), and let the oven vent for 3–5 minutes before evaluating the bread for doneness.

Our favorite way to create steam in a home oven happens to be the simplest: baking the dough in a cast-iron combination cooker. The results are amazing. You can learn more about this technique in Course 1: Getting Started with Bread Baking.

BEST BREADS FOR A CONVENTIONAL HOME OVEN

  • Pumpernickel
  • 100% rye
  • Pizza
  • Flatbread
  • Country-style
  • Sourdough
  • Free-form rye
  • Ancient grain
  • Whole-grain

Pan breads also work particularly well in the conventional home oven. In general, pan loaves are simpler to bake than free-form breads (any bread that’s baked without a pan) because once they’re shaped and placed in pans, the loaves don’t require any further turning, touching, or otherwise manipulating by hand. You can bake almost any bread in a pan, with the caveat that the crumb might be tighter because the dough can expand in only one direction: up. In addition to using loaf pans for enriched doughs such as brioche and sandwich bread, we’re big fans of using them to bake our master sourdough and the whole-grain breads.

BEST BREADS FOR THE CONVECTION OVEN

A convection oven can produce very good oven spring in enriched doughs because of the way its powerful fan circulates hot air throughout the oven’s cavity. It’s actually our favorite oven for baking enriched doughs.

  • Bagels
  • Bialys
  • Pretzels
  • Knäckebröd
  • Gluten-free
  • All enriched doughs
  • Brioche
  • Panettone
  • Challah
  • Sandwich bread

WORKABLE RECIPES

For the recipes below, we recommend preheating the oven with a baking stone for 45 minutes at a temperature that is 30–35° / 55–65° hotter than the recommended baking temperature.

Keep the fan speed as low as possible or off, or bake the dough in cast-iron cookers.

  • French lean
  • Sourdoughs
  • Country-style
  • Free-form rye
  • Ancient grain
  • 100% whole wheat

SPECIFIC TIPS FOR BAKING IN A CONVECTION OVEN

The temperature in a convection oven drops significantly when the door is opened, and it falls even further when steam is applied after the door is closed.

The powerful fan makes these ovens less than ideal for many lean doughs because the fan, even at its lowest speed, accelerates crust formation and thus can reduce the volume of the loaf because it is hard for the dough to expand when constrained by a hard crust.

To work around this, preheat the oven 30–35° / 55–65° hotter than for a typical bake, with the baking stone inside (we recommend baking steels only for pizzas and flatbreads because breads will scorch unless they are being baked in a combi oven). Set the fan to the highest speed so that the oven gets hot quickly. Shut the oven door after loading the dough, press the Steam button (assuming you have a model that produces steam), and turn the fan down to the lowest speed. Watch the temperature closely, and make sure to adjust it back to the recommended baking temperature as the oven recovers from the original drop. After 2 minutes, apply steam again. The steam helps prevent a hard crust from forming too quickly.

CONTINUE YOUR BAKING JOURNEY

Are you interested in learning more about baking bread? Explore our free Modernist Bread School courses delivered directly to your inbox!

Learn the essentials of baking bread, discover tips for baking with a busy schedule, understand pantry stocking, and more. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to enhance your skills, our courses cover a range of topics to elevate your bread-making experience. Sign up now for a delicious journey into the world of bread baking!

 

Choosing the Right Wheat Flour for the Job

Flour is the fundamental building block of bread and pizza dough. At its most basic, flour is just pulverized grain. Recent research suggests that it may have been used for food since the Paleolithic Period! Flour is an ingredient far more complex than it may appear, made up of starch, protein, water, fats, and enzymes. There are many kinds of flour, made from wheat, almond, and other ingredients.

In terms of all-around performance, wheat is the best flour for bread and pizza dough. Its high-gluten content gives the dough structure; it has a distinctive flavor profile and the right starch for active fermentation. Wheat grain is made of three main parts: germ, bran, and endosperm. The vast majority of flour on the market is made from the endosperm, which is softer and whiter than the other two parts. Whole-grain flour is made with bran and germ as well.

The label on a bag of flour can include a lot of terms. Flour type (think bread flour, all-purpose flour, etc.) is most common among those terms, which may also include added ingredients and marketing buzzwords. The type of flour on the label will give you a rough approximation of a flour’s protein count—and we do mean rough. The protein content can vary wildly from brand to brand, so be sure to check the label.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common flour types to help you decide which is right for the type of dough that you’re making.

00 flour: Using 00 flour for pizza is popular, and we recommend it for our Neapolitan pizza. This Italian classification system establishes a minimum protein content for each grade: Tipo 00: ≥9%, Tipo 0: ≥11%, Tipo 1: ≥12%, Tipo 2: ≥12%, Integral: ≥12%

High-gluten bread flour: With 13% protein or more, this will make an even stronger dough than bread flour. It’s particularly good for breads and doughs mostly leavened with commercial yeast—like pizza dough, French Lean Bread, and bagels—as well as breads that require structure (such as enriched doughs, like Sablée Brioche).

Bread flour: The bread flours we typically use have 11%–13% protein, which develops a good structure and produces volume in finished breads and pizzas. It forms strong dough, making it useful for many varieties of bread. Our recipes for challah, Deep-dish pizza dough, direct thin crust pizza dough, Detroit-style pizza, and Portuguese sweet bread recommend bread flour.

AP flour: The protein content of all-purpose flour can vary from brand to brand; generally it’s 10%–11%. It’s not necessarily good for all purposes. In France, the classic baguette is traditionally made with all-purpose types of flours, and we like it for our thin-crust and deep-dish pizza doughs. Because protein content can vary wildly, we recommend making sure you know the protein content of your AP flour before making bread or pizza dough with it.

Pastry flour: As its name states, this flour is intended for pastry preparations, in which a low-gluten percentage is desired—for example, cookies, muffins, and pound cakes in which a short crumb versus a chewy crumb is the goal. We use it in combination with strong flours to make dough softer and easier to use (for stretching and shaping). We also use it in our pork cheek hum bao recipe. Its protein content is around 9%.

Cake flour: Typically under 9% protein, cake flour is most commonly used in very delicate baked-good preparations, such as sponge cakes, because it produces a crumbly texture that is uniform and fine. We found blending cake flour with bread flour works well for some of our thin-crust pizza doughs, such as the Brazilian Thin Crust.

Self-rising flour: This type of flour is not meant for yeast-raised breads or pizza doughs. You can make your own self-rising flour by combining any flour with 3% of its weight in baking powder. The protein content is usually around 8.5%.

You can learn much more about flour in Modernist Bread at Home, Modernist Bread, and Modernist Pizza. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media for more Modernist Cuisine techniques, recipes, and announcements.

Essential Baking Gear for Making Bread at Home

Welcome to our guide for essential tools for the home baker. Equipping yourself with the right tools is key to a successful baking experience. Our comprehensive guide below outlines our top essentials, explains their importance, provides tips on what to consider when shopping for them, and suggests recommended sources. Additionally, we’ll touch on some helpful but non-essential equipment that can enhance your home baking endeavors. This gear guide will be a valuable tool for anyone ready to dive right into Modernist Bread at Home.

THE BASICS

Baking Pans

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Simple metal loaf pans can be used for proofing as well as baking. They keep proofing dough in place so that it can be easily moved. Pans also mold proofing dough and help hold the shape.

Features to look for: You need to have a few basic pans in several sizes so that you can choose one that is appropriate for the bread you want to prepare. The dimensions of the pans we recommend below are the ones we most frequently use for our sandwich breads, brioche, and gluten-free breads. Although baking pans come in a variety of shapes, there’s generally no need to buy specialty pans unless you want to make a bread in its traditional shape. The material or thickness of the pans aren’t terribly important, but you will want a durable nonstick coating, which does make it easier to quickly remove hot loaves and reduce cleanup.

Price range: $10–$50

Start your search with:

Chicago Metallic Everyday Non-Stick Loaf Pan by Chicago Metallic Store

Aluminized Steel 1.25 lb Loaf Pan with non-stick Americoat coating (22.86 cm by 12.7 cm by 7 cm / 9 in  by 5 in  by 2.75 in) by USA Pans

USA Pan Bakeware Pullman Loaf Pan with Cover, Nonstick, & Quick Release Coating made from Aluminized Steel (13 x 4 inch) by USA Pan Store

Custom Baking Pans (for artisanal bakeries) by Lloyd Pans

Baskets

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Some of the most common items found in a bakery are wicker or cane baskets (bannetons or brotforms), which are used to hold and mold shaped pieces of dough during final proofing. The baskets are seasoned with flour, which, over time, serves as a nonstick surface.

Features to look for: Proofing baskets come in many different sizes and forms meant for specific shapes. It’s good to have go-to baskets for standard shapes like boule (round) and bâtard (oval), but you can also find baskets to mold dough into special shapes such as couronne bordelaise (a Bordeaux-style crown), triangle, double boule, and others.

Lining is another important consideration for choosing baskets. Some baskets have no lining and will imprint your dough with the pattern of the wicker; other versions are linen-lined. We recommend unlined baskets for doughs with a relatively firm consistency. Lined baskets work well for both high-hydration and drier doughs because the flour adheres to the linen and makes the dough easier to unmold. Baskets with removable linen covers are the most versatile options, giving you the benefits of both.

Price range: $15–$40

Start your search with:

10-inch Wicker Basket with Linen Liner (for 800 – 1000 g of dough) from San Francisco Baking Institute

8-inch Wicker Basket with Linen Liner (for 500 – 750 g of dough) from San Francisco Baking Institute

Coiled Basket (for 500 – 650 g of dough) from San Francisco Baking Institute

Cast Iron Cooker

Why it’s essential for the home baker:  Baking in a pot is hands down our favorite method for making bread in a home oven. The pot’s base and lid create a tightly enclosed environment for the proofed and scored dough. Cast iron absorbs heat well and retains it even better, helping to mitigate the temperature drop when you open the oven door.

Features to look for: When it comes to these pots, you don’t have to spend an exorbitant amount. We’ve tested a lot of cookware, but our favorite is the simple cast-iron combo cooker. You can bake extraordinary bread at home with this inexpensive, multipurpose pot. The cooker actually is a two-piece set that consists of a Dutch oven and a skillet that is repurposed as a lid. For bread, we use the skillet as the base and the Dutch oven as the lid, which makes transferring dough less complicated. We find that 800 g of dough fits perfectly in most three-quart cast-iron combination cookers.

Price range: $39

Start your search with:

Cast Iron Combination Cooker by Lodge

Plastic Tubs

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Storage is an important consideration for bakers, and clear plastic tubs are the storage bins of choice. Up for almost any stowage task, these bins come in a range of sizes; they make it easy to keep an eye on the contents inside; and they stack much like nesting dolls when they aren’t being used. Long rectangular storage boxes can be used to hold fermenting dough, while preferments, ingredients, and old dough are often stored in square versions. Tall tubs make great vessels when weighing large quantities of water—some can even transform into water bath containers when cooking sous vide. They can also make great improvised proofers!

Features to look for: Clear plastic bins with airtight lids are useful to have in a variety of sizes. The Cambro brand is so habitually used that the name is practically a generic term for the tubs in professional kitchens. Another kitchen vocabulary word to know is ‘lexan’, which is another name for the durable polycarbonate sheets that are often used to make commercial storage boxes, pans, and containers for food.

Price range: $9–$40

Start your search with:

Camwear Polycarbonate Food Storage Box (17.98 L / 4.75 gal) by Cambro

Camwear Polycarbonate Food Storage Box (33.12 L / 8.75 gal) by Cambro

Camwear Polycarbonate Square Plastic Food Container (in assorted sizes) by Cambro

Plastic Bags or Tarps

Why it’s essential for the home baker:  Plastic bags and tarps are essential tools for bakers. They’re used to cover dough to keep it from drying out as it rests on a worktable.

Features to look for: More likely than not, you already have suitable covers in your pantry. Clean trash bags work, however we prefer eco-friendly transparent compostable bags.

Price range: $5–$16

Start your search with:

Heavy Duty Compostable Trash Bags (in assorted sizes) by Stout

Thermometer

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Digital thermometers are indispensable tools, and any baker will benefit from having one in their pocket. Small changes in temperature can make all the difference in cooking and baking, which is why we measure it as accurately as possible. A good digital thermometer can be used to improvise a water bath to cook sous vide, and you can also calibrate your home oven with an oven-safe probe.

Features to look for: One of our favorite digital thermometers is the Thermapen Mk4. It’s extremely accurate, has a slender probe, and can connect to a Type K Thermocouple. Home bakers will also want a basic oven thermometer.

Price range: $5–$80

Start your search with:

Thermapen Mk4 by ThermoWorks

Commercial Stainless Steel Oven Monitoring Thermometer by Rubbermaid

Digital Scale

Why it’s essential for the home baker: This is the piece of equipment we recommend most emphatically for all bakers. If you have been measuring ingredients only by the cup and teaspoon, now is a great time to buy a good scale to begin applying more precision to your recipe measurements. Some high-capacity kitchen scales display baker’s percentages as well as grams, which is another benefit. A super-precise fine weight scale is the best way to measure tiny quantities of ingredients like yeast or salt.

Features to look for: Bakers should really have two scales: a relatively high-capacity kitchen scale and a fine weight pocket scale for measuring small quantities.

The standard scale should be accurate to one decimal place and should have the capacity to weigh double the amount of our standard recipes plus the weight of the mixing bowl. For larger quantities of dough, look for scales that can hold even more weight. The fine weight scale should be accurate to .01 g. If you don’t want to spend a lot, an inexpensive 200 g pocket-sized version will work just fine. All-purpose scales exist that will cover both these requirements, but they are expensive.

Price range: $15–$115

Start your search with:

Baker’s Kitchen Scale (8,000 g capacity) by My Weigh

Scout Pro Portable Electronic Balance (200 by .01 g) by Ohaus

Digital Gram Pocket Scale (200 by .01 g) by American Weigh Scale

Timers

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Baking bread is a time-intensive process that also requires time management skills. In addition to telling you when to remove your bread from the oven, digital timers will help you keep track of dough as it ferments and proofs, especially when you’re managing several doughs and kitchen tasks at a time.

Features to look for: Timers should be easy to use, with loud alarms that can be heard across a noisy bakery or from another room. Have several basic timers on hand for juggling tasks.

Price range: $10–$30

Start your search with:

Extra Big and Loud Timer by ThermoWorks

Bench Knife (bench scraper)

Why it’s essential for the home baker: A bench knife, also referred to as a bench scraper, is another inexpensive but invaluable tool highly recommended. Even though there are several options available for mechanically dividing dough, a bench knife and a scale work the best.

Features to look for: We prefer a sharp metal version for cleanly cutting dough, lifting sticky dough, and scraping dough residue off the table. Plastic ones will get the job done, but they can make cutting and scraping dough more difficult because they are generally thicker and less sharp than metal scrapers.

Price range: $10–$20

Start your search with:

Stainless Steel Dough Scraper with Polypropylene Handle by Dexter-Russell

Flexible Dough and Bowl Scrapers (set of four) by Prepatize

Lame

Why it’s essential for the home baker: Our go-to tool for scoring dough is a classic: the lame. A lame is a sharp razor blade held in place by a handle. The blades are cheap and can be replaced easily, which isn’t necessarily true of other cutting tools, such as a paring knife.

Features to look for: Lames come in several styles. Basic lame handles are often made from metal or plastic. Look for razor blades that are thin and flexible as many lames are designed to make the blade curve. Disposable versions have a blade that can’t be removed or sharpened. Professional bakers generally avoid disposable lames because they need to replace the lame blades often (usually at the end of the day). A wood-handled lame is an attractive showpiece with a heft that makes it easier for the blade to slice the dough. The drawback is that it can be pricey and can’t make a razor blade curve.

Price range: $6–$40

Start your search with:

Baker’s Blade Holder – with Handle from San Francisco Baking Institute

Professional Disposable Lame (pack of 5) by Scaritech

Hand-Crafted Walnut Wood-Handled Lame by Zatoba

Stainless Steel Double Edge Razor Blades by Personna

HELPFUL TOOLS TO HAVE

While not essential, certain tools can elevate your bread-making process, adding a touch of finesse to the experience. Take a look at our list of optional tools below, allowing you to explore and decide which ones align with your preferences for customizing your home kitchen and enhancing your baking setup.

Baking Steel and Baking Stone

Why we recommend it: A baking steel or stone is one of our favorite tools for making pizza and flatbreads, including naan and pita, and pan loaves. Steel provides enough thermal mass to replicate the environment of a wood-fired oven, allowing you to rapidly produce Neapolitan-style pizza in your own kitchen. We prefer using a stone to bake pan loaves and other breads because steel tends to scorch the bottom of larger loaves.

Price range: $50–$120

Start your search with:

Modernist Cuisine Special Edition Baking Steel by Baking Steel

Rectangular Baking Stone (35.56 cm by 41.91 cm by 1.27 cm / 14 in by 16 in by .5 in) by Old Stone Oven

Pastry Brushes

Why we recommend it: Any bakery or kitchen can benefit from having several pastry brushes. Reserve different brushes for specific purposes—for instance, designating one for cooking sugar and another for egg washes.

Features to look for: We like to use pastry brushes with natural or fine synthetic bristles over the thicker silicone brushes that leave track marks. Synthetic bristles are more hygienic and can be incredibly soft, which makes them a good choice for egg washing more delicate doughs. Art or home improvement stores often have great options—paintbrushes that meet these specifications can easily double as pastry brushes.

Price range: $6–$15

Start your search with:

2-Inch Flat Brush by Sana Fe Art Supply

2-Inch Flat Mottler Synthetic Paint Brush by Princeton Artists Brush Co.

Stand Mixer

Why we recommend it: We use a stand mixer for most home baking. A stand mixer is a small version of a planetary mixer that can comfortably sit on any work surface, occupying minimal space. They have the same mixing attachments as well—most come with a hook, paddle, and whip.

Stand mixers are incredibly versatile countertop tools. They can be used for much more than mixing, thanks to additional attachments that can use the spinning motor to sheet pasta dough, grind meat, mill grains into flour, chop vegetables, and even make ice cream.

Features to look for: A stand mixer can be a big investment, so look for models that have a strong motor, which is important for making drier doughs, and a broad range of speed settings, from very slow to very fast. A five-quart consumer stand mixer will work for home bakers who are making up to a kilo of dough—the minimum in most of our recipes—at a time. But beyond that, we find that these mixers tend to hop around the table and need more power. We recommend investing in a commercial stand mixer with a sturdy base if you plan to frequently make seven quarts of dough or more.

The Ankarsrum mixer is not very common, but we like using it for our gluten-free breads in particular and for mixing paste-like doughs, such as 100% rye breads. It has one arm that performs the mixing and another that scrapes the spinning bowl, making for a very efficient mix. The design makes it easy to pour ingredients in the bowl, which is unobstructed by the motor housing that most stand mixers have.

The flat solid base won’t dance around the counter, either.

Price range: $250–$900

Start your search with:

Original Stand Mixer AKM 6230 by Ankarsrum

Professional 5 Plus Series 5-Quart Stand Mixer by KitchenAid

Bench Brush

Why we recommend it: Messes are hard to avoid when you bake bread. A bench brush is a small investment, but it will help you to quickly clean surfaces between handling dough. These special hand brooms offer an easy way to sweep flour and bits of dough away from your work space.

Price range: $8–$20

Start your search with:

Wood Handle Counter Duster with Flagged Silver Polystyrene Bristles by Weiler

Water Spritzer

Why we recommend it: Bakers use spritzers to keep dough moist after it has been mixed. A light mist of water will prevent the dough’s surface from becoming tough and dry while it is exposed to air. The spritzer itself is basic, but remember to change the water in it at least once a week.

Features to look for: Although any spritzer is up for the task, clear bottles allow you to keep an eye on the liquid inside.

Price range: $7–$15

Start your search with:

Clear Plastic Spray Bottle by Soft ‘N Style

Couche

Why we recommend it: A couche is a swatch of plain linen cloth that sits between the dough and a flat surface; the cloth is creased to cradle the dough it holds. Couches absorb excess moisture from dough during the proofing process so that the board stays relatively dry, making it easier to slide the dough off surfaces and keeping portioned dough from touching other pieces or losing its shape as it expands.

Features to look for: You can purchase prepackaged options on many sites, however, we like to buy our couches by the yard to specifically suit our needs.

Price range: $15–$30

Start your search with:

Linen Couche (by the yard) from San Francisco Baking Institute

Flax Linen Baker’s Couche  by Breadtopia

Peels and Transfer Boards

Why we recommend it: Peels and paddles are used to transfer dough onto a baking surface.

Features to look for: A single average-sized paddle is sufficient for some bakers, but it’s also helpful to have larger peels if you plan on making large quantities of bread. Metal peels are better than wooden ones for flatbreads and pizzas because they are thinner and can easily slide under the crusts.

The transfer board is the best all-purpose piece of equipment you can use to transfer dough. They come in a number of shapes and sizes, but we use only the long thin ones that are intended for baguettes because they also work for practically any other dough shape.

Price range: $16-$70

Start your search with:

Super Peel in Polymer-Sealed White Ash by EXO

“Big 16” 16-Inch Super Peel with Aluminum Blade and Black Cherry Handle by EXO

Aluminum Pizza Peel with Wooden Handle (assorted sizes) by Kitchen Supply

Baguette Transfer Board by Breadtopia

Wooden Boards and Sheet Pans

Why we recommend it: In a bakery, wooden boards or the back of sheet pans are used for proofing dough, especially high-hydration doughs that are too wet to hold their shape. Both are lined with a floured couche to prevent the dough from spreading out.

Features to look for: After use, wooden boards must be dried out quickly and completely to decrease the risk of contamination and prevent warping. If you prefer sheet pans, it’s worth having full-size, half-size, and quarter-size sheet pans as well as wire racks that fit on top of them.

Price range: $10–$30

Start your search with:

Aluminum Full, Quarter, and Half Sheet Pans by Lloyd Pans

Poplar Wooden Proofing Board (45.72 by 66.04 cm / 18 by 26 in) by BakeDeco

Serrated Knives

Why we recommend it: Beyond a general-purpose chef’s knife and a paring knife, bakers will benefit from a few good serrated knives. A serrated paring knife is good for smaller items; a long version is best for cutting big pieces of bread; and an offset one is helpful for chopping chocolate and nuts. An electric knife, the sort typically used only for annual turkey carving, can get additional use when employed to slice bread. The serrated blade does all of the work, making it easy to carve off a perfect slice in a single motion.

Features to look for: Many serrated knives do a fine enough job of cutting bread without costing a lot of money. Just make sure the knife is very sharp and has long, pronounced teeth.

Price range: $18–$130

Start your search with:

High-Carbon Stainless Steel 10-inch Serrated Bread Knife with Walnut Handle by Chicago Cutlery

16 Gauge Stainless Steel 14-inch Serrated Bread Knife by Fat Daddio’s

Damascus Bread Knife by Kasumi

Stainless Steel Electric Knife with Wood Block by Cuisinart

SOME ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Home proofer
  • Spoons and spatulas
  • Whisks
  • Piping bags and tips
    • For bread, these are mostly used for finishing and decorating purposes. Use disposable bags, as reusable ones are hard to clean and dry and are therefore prone to contamination. A set of basic stainless-steel tips in few sizes and shapes should be sufficient.
  • Cutting boards
    • Plastic boards have a reputation of being more sanitary, but wooden ones are fine so long as they are cleaned and properly dried. Also, have rubber grip mats (or a clean, damp kitchen towel) on hand to place under the board to keep it from sliding around when in use.

Are you interested in learning more about baking bread? Explore our free Modernist Bread School courses delivered directly to your inbox! Learn the essentials of baking bread, discover tips for baking with a busy schedule, understand pantry stocking, and more. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to enhance your skills, our courses cover a range of topics to elevate your bread-making experience. Sign up now for a delicious journey into the world of bread baking!