Bread-baking is one of the oldest culinary traditions on the planet, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a culture that doesn't make one sort of bread or another. But just because our ancestors made do with elbow grease and crude tools doesn't mean we need to follow suit.
A handful of tried-and-true essentials can make the bread-baking process far easier and more reliable. Whether you're a newbie to my Simple Crusty White Bread recipe and Breadmaking 101 series, or an experienced baker looking for trustworthy recommendations with which to upgrade your basic equipment, here's what you should plan to have on hand.
A Stand Mixer
When making dough, I almost always start with my stand mixer and a dough hook. Not only does it guarantee consistent results, it's a lot easier than using your hands. That said, a stand mixer isn't strictly necessary; the biggest mixing bowl in your house will also do in a pinch. You can read more about how to mix and knead bread dough here—I've included instructions for both approaches.
A Digital Scale
Accurate scaling is an important first step toward baking with confidence. This eliminates all of the questions about whether to sift or pack our flour, whether to measure out a heaping tablespoon or a packed one, or how to estimate a pinch versus a smidge. If you don't have a scale already, there's no need to spend a ton of money on one—just make sure it's accurate down to the gram, since that's the unit we'll be dealing with.
At Serious Eats, we're partial to the winner of our digital-scale review: the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale With Pull-Out Display, which lets you check measurements easily, even when the scale's topped with a big fat bowl. It scales up to five kilograms (much more bread than you can bake at once in any home oven), and it's accurate to the gram. Scales will help keep you consistent, which, in turn, will help you to refine your technique and recipes to make what you want, when you want it.
A Dough Spatula and Bench Scraper
I also highly recommend getting a dough spatula (sometimes also referred to as a bowl scraper), like this Ateco Bowl Scraper, along with a bench scraper.
The dough spatula is my best friend when I'm transferring the dough between bowls, and it's my preferred tool when mixing doughs by hand. The bench scraper is essential when dividing and shaping loaves, and will make cleanup much easier. (For those unprepared, you'll get flour everywhere during the baking process if you do it right. This is part of the fun. Wear some shoes you don't care about, and save your black clothes for a different date.)
Once your loaves are shaped, it's time for the proofing and fermentation process. I like to proof bread dough in baskets lined with undyed cloth. Baskets help the loaves keep their structure and shape during the final proof. If you have bread-proofing baskets already, use them; if they're well seasoned, you won't even need the cloth. You can find bread baskets and cloth, or couche, on the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) website or Amazon.
In place of baskets, you can use medium mixing bowls lined with undyed, unbleached linen and sprinkled with flour. That said, the porosity of the wicker basket is ideal, since it will keep our loaves from sweating, which in turn prevents sticking. The cloth is yet more insurance against sticking, and the dusting of flour on that cloth is our tertiary insurance.
Why undyed cloth specifically? Any chemicals used to treat the cloth will seep into the dough during proofing, which means you'll be eating them later. Which basically undoes one of the best reasons to bake at home—to know what's in our food.
A Large Heatproof Dish
To actually bake your bread, you'll also need a Dutch oven of some kind. Taking the excellent advice of Tartine Bread author Chef Chad Robertson, I use the slightly unorthodox Lodge Combo Cooker to bake bread at home. Not only does it cost under $40, its dimensions are perfect for making classic hearth-style bread.
If you're using a more traditional, deep cast iron set, just try not to burn yourself on the edges when removing the bread, and don't use anything that's enameled unless it specifies high-temperature resistance—most enamels aren't designed to endure such high temperatures for so long (that means none of our recommended Dutch ovens are ideal for this task, folks!).
Baking Stones or a Baking Steel
For my basic country-style white bread, a Baking Steel or baking stones aren't strictly essential, but they can measurably improve the performance of your oven by adding thermal mass. Home ovens lose a lot of heat when they're opened, which is bad for bread because we need that heat to get the full rise out of our loaves. Any extra stuff you can shove in your oven to help it stay hot will make for better bread.
The Baking Steel and the Baking Steel Griddle have long been Serious Eats favorites, thanks to their hardy construction (no more broken pizza stones, thank you very much) and impressive heat retention.
An Oven Thermometer
While we're on the topic of ovens, ensuring that yours is hot enough to begin with is a good idea. Many ovens are incorrectly calibrated, meaning that what you're seeing on the dial may not be the temperature your oven's reaching inside. A good, basic oven thermometer is cheap; having an accurate oven is priceless. You can read more about how to calibrate your oven in our post on common variables that affect baking.
A Spray Bottle
Grab yourself a spray bottle of virtually any size, and fill it with water. Professional bakery ovens release steam, which has a twofold effect: It keeps the crust from forming too early in the process, and it ensures that the crust that forms later on is as crisp and burnished as can be. You can read all about the hows and whys in my post on the science of baking bread; for now, just know that a spray bottle will work wonders on your crust.
A Utility Knife
Finally, you'll want to have some sort of razor to score the bread. You can use a box cutter with a fresh blade, a utility knife, or a razor blade; even a sharp paring knife will do. If we haven't already convinced you that every kitchen needs a utility knife, now's the time to take our words to heart.
A Bread Knife
So this one isn't really necessary for baking bread, but after all your hard work, you deserve beautiful, even, easily attained slices of your loaf. After extensive testing, we found some great bread knives that slice so smoothly, they'll have you wondering why you've been battling crusts all these years with the dull knife you inherited from Grandma.