You might say that I bake a bit of bread. Sometimes I bake on a stone or in a loaf pan. Sometimes I bake on a baking pan, and in that case I either sprinkle the sheet with cornmeal or I line it with parchment because I hate it when the crust sticks to the pan.
Although I have a Silpat, I never use it for bread. It's too slick and smooth and I don't get the crust I like. So when I found out that the Silpat folks had a mat made specifically for bread, I figured it was worth a try. The difference is that the Silpain ($17.90) is a fine mesh mat instead of an impermeable silicone mat, allowing air to circulate under the loaf.
Does it make a difference? To give it a test, I made one batch of dough, split it in half, formed two loaves, and put one on a baking pan with the Silpain and the other on a baking pan with parchment. I ended up with loaves of bread that were anything but identical.
As I expected, the bottom of the loaf baked on the Silpain was a little crisper than the loaf baked on parchment. What I didn't expect, but was happy to find, was that I got a little more oven spring (the extra rise you get when the loaf goes into the oven) from the Silpain loaf as well, perhaps because of the dark surface.
The other benefit of the Silpain is that it's easy to slide the whole thing off the baking pan and onto a cooling rack. It's easy enough to lift a loaf of bread to move it a rack, but a full pan of hot buns isn't as easy to move. And since the Silpain has holes, the buns can stay on the mat until they're cool enough to be moved without risk of developing soggy bottoms
This certainly isn't an essential kitchen item, but I like having a lot of different options for baking bread so I get different results. Sometimes I want the crunch of cornmeal on the bottom a loaf, but now that I've got this mat, I won't be using nearly as much parchment paper.
About the author: Resident yeast whisperer and bread baking columnist Donna Currie also has a serious gadget habit. When her father-in-law heard about this column, he upgraded the nickname for her kitchen from "gadget world" to "gadget heaven." You can find her on her blog, Cookistry or follow her on Twitter at @dbcurrie.
Disclaimer: Testing samples were provided to Serious Eats.