The act of baking - of subjecting a dough or batter to dry heat - is the pivot point that brings together everything that came before and everything that comes after, especially the eating. If the baker has done her job carefully and well, if the ingredients are fresh and the mix even, if time and temperature are correct, the baker gets rewarded with a sense of satisfaction that comes from not just knowing she has done a good job, but also from the looks on the faces of those who eat the products of her labor. Could anything be better?
In the world of our grandfathers, bakers needed very little more than an oven. Today, although the oven is the one absolute essential tool, other types of equipment have also become part of the baker's batterie de cuisine. They include:
An oven is the one indispensable tool needed for baking: you can bake without a mixer, bowls, scrapers or measuring equipment, but you can't bake without an oven, be it a covered iron or clay pot buried in the embers, or a marvel of modern technology costing thousands of dollars.
Since buying an oven isn't something most people do every day, it's far more important to understand the oven you've already got, rather than commit to memory all the qualities of the perfect oven and then go out and try to find it somewhere in the market.
What is an oven? Basically, ovens are closed chambers that surround the food to be cooked with dry heated air; unlike broiling, which exposes food directly to the heat source, baking uses indirect heat. Most home ovens, whether part of a kitchen range or separately mounted in the wall, are insulated boxes, usually lined with enameled steel, that may be heated by either gas or electricity. Gas ovens typically have the burner directly under the floor, in a broiler compartment, while electric ovens are heated by an element, either exposed or hidden, at the bottom of the oven chamber. Most electrics also have a broiler element mounted near the top of the box, which is rarely, if ever, used in baking.
What's most important about an oven? Since an oven's sole purpose is to deliver steady, even heat, the two most important characteristics an over has are the evenness of temperature throughout the compartment and the accuracy of its temperature sensor/thermostat.
The reality is that no oven - not even the giant professional models that are larger than the typical New York apartment kitchen - heats evenly. The manufacturers of the professional ovens solved the problem by incorporating rotating shelves that move around the compartment like a Ferris wheel, so that every loaf, roll, and pan is equally exposed to all of the temperature micro-environments.
Home convection ovens solve the problem of uneven heat by using a fan or fans to move the hot air around inside the chamber. This causes convection ovens to cook more efficiently than standard ovens: a good rule of thumb to use if you have a convection oven is to reduce the baking temperature specified in this book by 25°F/15°C, and cut bake times by 20%.
Although convection ovens solve the problem of uneven temperatures, their thermostats are generally no better than any other oven thermostat, which is to say anywhere from spot-on to wildly inaccurate. The only sure way to measure the accuracy of your oven's thermostat is by investing in a couple of good quality oven thermometers and calibrate them by putting them in different parts of your oven, or by investing in an infrared thermometer gun that will give you instant temperature readings from any part of your oven - just aim the laser pointer and shoot. While you certainly don't need to spend the extra time or money on oven thermometers to bake outstanding breads, cakes, and other goodies, the more you know about your oven, the more control you'll have over your outcomes.
One of the best investments any home baker can make is in a good quality baking stone (or two). Baking stones not only provide a non-stick, professional-quality surface for baking artisan breads and rolls; they also, because of their mass, absorb and hold heat - a property called "thermal mass" -not only equalizing temperatures inside the oven chamber, but also reducing heat loss - which can be as much as 40°F/22°C every time the door is opened.
Baking stones come in all different shapes, sizes and price ranges, from inexpensive ceramic "pizza stones" sold in mass outlets and on the Internet, to stones made of professional-grade refractory materials that can cost upwards of $200.
Which stone is better? The inexpensive stones will produce a better bottom crust on your breads and pizza than a baking sheet, but they're also notorious for cracking after a few months and losing heat almost as quickly as having no stone at all. The professional grade stones are heavy, bulky and take a long time to heat up. However, their greater thermal mass and higher resistance to thermal shock - what happens when you throw ice water on a 500°F/ 260°C stone - make them a much better choice for serious home bakers.
Today's high-performance baking stones are made from one of two synthetic refractories, cordierite and FibraMent®. Cordierite is a silicate of magnesium, iron and sometimes aluminum that is used widely in commercial pizza ovens and is regarded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as safe for food use. The composition of FibraMent® is a trade secret; however, it is certified as food-grade by NSF International, a private company that certifies products for a wide range of consumer applications, notably food safety.
The advantages of cordierite are its superior thermal mass, heat conductivity and resistance to thermal shock at temperatures above 2,000°F/1,100°C. FibraMent® is considerably lighter in weight than cordierite and is lower in thermal mass, heat conductivity and shock resistance. However, these differences only become apparent at temperatures far higher than normal baking temperatures, which rarely exceed 600°F/315°C. As a practical matter, both materials do what a good stone should.
Other materials, such as unglazed quarry tile, soapstone, marble and granite, have their proponents as well. Unglazed tile is far and away the least expensive and among the most prone to cracking, but at those prices, replacing one or two poses no economic hardship.
The challenges of working with quarry tile are twofold: first, it's not always easy to find, either in stores that sell flooring or even in big box home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. The second problem is the possibility that the material, which isn't made for food applications, may contain substances that pose health hazards.
Soapstone, marble and granite are naturally occurring materials with high intrinsic heat resistance; witness the desirability of soapstone griddles. On the downside, however, like all natural materials, they may contain hidden faults and fractures that could compromise their thermal stability and resistance to cracking. Still, many home bakers use these three materials and have never encountered problems.
In conclusion, no matter what material you choose, it's important to get the right size for your oven. A good rule of thumb is to choose a stone that's 2"/5cm shorter than the internal dimensions of your oven chamber. This leaves 1"/2.5cm on all sides to facilitate the circulation of the heat. As for thickness, which affects the stone's ability to retain heat, we recommend getting a stone that's at least ½"/1.25cm thick, preferably 5/8"/1.5cm or even ¾"/1.8cm.
Peels & Proofing Boards
In every age and every society, bakers have used paddles - mostly of wood, but also of metal - to load and unload their ovens and to move their loaves around the oven during baking. One of the great surviving monuments of ancient Rome, the tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the baker, shows its namesake at work, using a peel to put dough into his oven. Medieval manuscripts like the illustration on the left, clearly show the same activity. And St. Honoré, the patron saint of French bakers, is often shown carrying both a peel and a crozier.
Peels come in all shapes and sizes, with handles of varying length. Because modern kitchen ovens are rarely deeper than 18"/45cm, your peel doesn't require a handle longer than about 6"/15cm. In fact, because most peels sold at retail are designed for pizza and have round front edges, we prefer using our proofing boards - rectangluar pieces of thin plywood the size of our baking stone - for loading our kitchen oven. The squared edge makes it easy to arrange our breads and rolls on the stone and the absence of a handle poses no real hardship. Plus, by using the proofing boards as peels, we don't have to handle our breads while they're at their most fragile.
For unloading our ovens, we use a short-handled aluminum peel, which is thin enough to slip under the breads and rolls easily.
Steam is one of the secrets to baking great breads. By creating a moist environment in the oven, the dough remains flexible for minutes longer, allowing for greater expansion ("oven spring") and a lighter, more open crumb. At the same time, the steam gelatinizes the surface starches on the dough, producing a thin, glossy, very crisp crust. Most commercial ovens routinely come with high pressure steam injectors; conversely, very few home ovens offer steam injection, and those that do - mostly European brands - are priced well beyond the average home baker's reach.
So what's a baker to do? Simple: use a steam pan. While far from an ideal solution, steam pans let you add water, which then vaporizes at baking temperatures, creating a fair approximation of the high-heat humidity that promotes oven spring and contributes to a crisp, glossy crust.
Different people have different ideas about the size, shape and location of the pan, ranging from cast-iron skillets to cookie sheets to broiler pans - either empty or filled with lava rocks to increase thermal mass. Frankly, we think any of them will work fine, although a strong argument can be made for cast iron, which retains far more heat than either glass, ceramic, aluminum or enameled steel, and therefore will generate a greater amount of steam at a given temperature than the other materials.
People also disagree about the form and temperature of the water as well. We've seen arguments for and against cold water, warm water, hot water, even ice cubes, as well as mist from a hand sprayer. We prefer boiling water, which is already close to the steam point and absorbs far less heat from the oven chamber than colder water and ice cubes. As for sprayers, we think they're a bad idea, since the length of time it takes to mist an oven adequately means keeping the oven door open to the point where potential heat loss could approach 80°F/45°C.
Shapes and Sizes
Pans come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. The Joy of Baking website, which is a terrific all-around resource, lists no fewer than 10 shapes, which come in a total of 32 sizes. For the pros, however, life wasn't nearly as complicated: to keep things simple, most bakeries used only a few size, and for purposes of planning out oven space, everything was calculated on the basis of a full (18" x 24"/45cm x 60cm) pan.
Sheet pans, used for cookies, pastries and thin cakes for rolling or layering, had 1"/2.5cm sides and cake pans, which held the wonder cakes, cheese cakes and others that sold by the pound, had 4"/10cm sides; a full sheet held one dozen small (8½" x 4½"/21cm x 11cm) or 10 large (9" x 5"/23cm x 13cm) loaf pans. Chiffon cakes baked in 9"/23cm or 10"/25cm tube pans and frosted layer cakes - really a transplant from the French, German and Viennese bakeries - used 8"/20cm and 9"/23cm round pans. Individual cheesecakes were baked in springform pans.
For the recipes in this book - which don't include standard layer cakes - you'll need the home-baking versions of the baker's standard pans:
- 2-3 half-sheet (17½"x12½"/45cm x 32cm) pans
- 2-3 8" x 8"/20cm x 20cm square pans
- 1 or 2 9" x 2"/23cm x 5cm round pans
- 2 quarter sheet (13" x 9"/33cm x 22cm) rectangular pans
- 2 small (8" x 4"/20cm x 10cm or 8½" x 4½"/21cm x 11cm) loaf pans
- 2 large (9" x 5"/23cm x 13cm) loaf pans
- 1 10"/25cm tube pan
Baking pans come in a variety of materials, each with its own properties, advantages and disadvantages. The most common include:
- Aluminum is lightweight, inexpensive and an excellent conductor of heat. On the downside, however, lightweight aluminum dents easily, warps easily under heat and, untreated, reacts with acids like vinegar and lemon juice, which may leach aluminum into foods - which some associate with increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. To address this problem, many manufacturers use anodized aluminum, which has a very hard, inert layer of oxide on the surface of the surface of the metal, which both stops it from reacting with acid and improves its dent resistance.
- For rolls, sheet cakes, cookies and pastries, which generally require relatively short bake times, we like professional-grade untreated aluminum sheet pans because of their light weight and heat conductivity. A baking parchment or silicon pan liner acts as a barrier between the food and the metal, thereby eliminating any potential leaching problem.
- Steel isn't nearly as conductive as aluminum, but is far more resistant to dents and warping. In the bakeries, loaf pans and cake pans were always made of steel, which cooked the outside of cakes more slowly than aluminum, allowing more time for the centers to bake thoroughly. We also recommend steel pans for loaves, preferably those with a dark coating that provides both a nonstick surface and greater heat conductivity than bare steel or tinned steel.
- Glass and glass-like ceramics, i.e., Corningware don't warp or dent, nor do they react with acids. On the downside, glass and ceramic utensils are highly breakable, and retain heat far longer than either aluminum or steel, making it easy to overcook baked goods if they're not immediately removed from the pan.
- Silicone is a flexible, rubberlike synthetic that's gained considerable popularity for baking pans in the past 20 or so years. Silicone pans don't react with acids, don't require greasing to release their contents, tolerate normal baking temperatures up to 600°F/315°C, and can be used in the freezer, oven and microwave. On the downside, silicone is not an efficient conductor or retainer of heat, resulting in pale and soft outside crusts.
To get a perfectly rounded cross-section on their bagels, the old-school put their just-boiled bagels bottom-up on burlap-covered pine or cedar planks that had been wetted down, and then into the oven. After two or three minutes, once the upper surface, i.e., the bottoms of the bagels, had baked and set, they flipped the boards over to finish directly on the baking surface, right-side-up. The secret lay in the wet burlap, which kept the tops of the bagels moist and elastic so as not to harden and crack open during baking.To make bagel boards, start with 1"x4" clear cedar or pine planks, cut ½" longer than the depth of your baking stone. Cover them with 3½" burlap webbing by overlapping the ends and tacking them to the ends of the planks. When you're ready to bake, soak the burlap, arrange the boiled bagels topping side down, and put the boards directly on your baking stone. Use a pair of pliers, tongs, an oven mitt or oven gloves to grip the boards, which heat up quickly in a steamy, 450-plus degree oven. To be sure you have enough flipping room, use one less board than your stone can accommodate.
Baking Mats and Parchment
Baker's parchment is paper that's coated with a chemically inert substance that has nonstick properties when it's subjected to heat. In the bakeries, it was reused until it either fell apart or became so stained as to be unusable. At retail, a heavy grade of parchment comes in 15"/37cm wide rolls. Professional bakers buy their parchment in sheets that are thinner than the consumer version and precut to fit either full (18" x 26"/45cm x 65cm) or half (18" x 13"/45cm x 33cm) sheet pans.
Parchment is primarily used as a pan liner, which not only eliminates the need for greasing, but also simplifies cleanup and makes for easier handling, especially of thin cake layers used in rolled and constructed products like rainbow cookies and seven-layer and checkerboard cakes. In addition, parchment also serves a host of other functions, for example, as a crumb-catcher, a disposable work surface when you're making an especially messy product, like almond horns, and rolled into a cone with its tip snipped off, as a one-time pastry bag.
Unlike parchment, silicon baking mats are neither thin, inexpensive nor disposable, nor do they conduct heat as well as parchment. However, they are washable, indestructible, and dissipate heat quickly, which is an advantage when you're baking products that are thin and very heat-sensitive, like lace cookies.
The most efficient cooling occurs when air can circulate freely around all sides of your baked good. In the bakeries, finished breads and rolls go into dough boxes, while cakes generally are put onto rolling racks that allow full circulation. For home baking, we like wire racks, which come in half-(18" x 13"/45cm x 33cm) and quarter (13" x 9"/33cm x 22cm) sheet sizes. For rolls, we recommend woven baskets, which both allow the air to circulate freely and take up far less counter space than a rack big enough to hold a dozen rolls.