Home Books Buy Appearances Op-eds Reviews & Interviews Bio Contact



A Note About the Recipes

While you certainly can try these recipes without having experienced (at least, vicariously, through the pages of 52 Loaves) the joy, angst, illness, adventure, cheating, theft, marital discord, and enlightenment encountered while learning to bake, doing so is somewhat akin to taking a final exam after having read only the Cliff Notes (not that there's anything wrong with that).

What you may find yourself wondering, though, is why you're doing certain things called for in these recipes: autolysing (that is, resting) the dough before kneading, weighing everything, and why all my recipes use a levain, a wild-yeast starter. You may not understand why you need to make slashes in the loaf just before baking, why I have you crank up your oven to a temperature approaching the core of the sun, then fill it with steam, risking burns up your forearm in the process, why kneading has gotten such a bum rap, and, last but not least, why there are no atheists in abbeys.

All of this, of course, plus much more, will be amply explained when you read Best-selling author William Alexander (click to buy online). That being said, Best-selling author William Alexander is not even remotely a cookbook; it a personal story of a journey — both inward and outward — to coax exceptional bread out of someone (me) with very unexceptional skills. The bottom line is, if I can bake nearly perfect bread, bread that transports you, that becomes the centerpiece of a meal; bread that is better than almost any loaf you can buy — so can you.

Finally, the recipes assume you have some basic equipment on hand. Despite what you might think from opening a baking supplies catalog, you don't need an awful lot of equipment to make bread. In fact, you hardly need anything. You do need a baking stone and (at least, for my recipes) a scale, but everything else in this list is absolutely optional. However, these items, all inexpensive, will make baking both easier and more enjoyable. And enjoyment is what this is all about. See the bottom of the page for sources.

Baking Stone

Also marketed as pizza stones, the thicker and heavier, the better. There are a lot to choose from, but reputable catalogs sell reputable stones. Beware of those that warn they emit an odor until fully cured. Size-wise, the stone should fit into your oven with a couple of inches to spare on either side.

Digital Kitchen Scale

One can get a nice digital kitchen scale for under $30. The zero-out or "tare" feature on all of them is priceless when adding ingredients, but look for one that doesn't zero out when you remove the weight. It's nice to be able to remove the bowl and put it back on without having the scale reset on you.

Steel bench scraper

My favorite kitchen tool of all time. Also known as a pastry scraper, it's great for dividing and flipping dough around, as well as for cleaning flour and dough off your countertop.

Flexible plastic dough scraper

A plastic scraper with a rounded edge, this two-dollar time saver is indispensable for scraping down and cleaning mixing bowls, as dough will gum up any of your typical kitchen cleaning pads.

Lame or razor

Having experimented with everything from scissors to pricey imported lames, I've come to the conclusion there is nothing better than an old-fashioned doubled-edged razor on the end of the stick, either a professional lame handle or a homemade one the one to the right. Second choice: a single-edged razor. Quick tip: Thread a doubled-edged razor onto a coffee stirring stick — instant lame.

Couche

For making long loaves like bâtards or baguettes, I think it's a worthwhile investment to buy a linen couche. Its heavy folds will keep the dough from spreading out during proofing.

Proofing basket

A boule needs to be supported during rising. If you want to get those nice rings around your loaves, you can buy a clay banneton or do what many commercial bakers do: For a buck, buy a plastic "wicker" basket. After initial treatment with vegetable oil spray, dust generously with rice or flour before each use. It will leave the same imprint on your loaves and no one will be the wiser. The faux wicker basket pictured here cost me a dollar. If you don't care about rings, your kitchen colander, lined with a floured cloth napkin, works perfectly well, and costs nothing.

Digital kitchen thermometer

Helpful for ensuring the loaf is done. Once an expensive item, one can now be had for under $15.

Unsalted butter

Yes, I've listed sweet, unsalted butter as equipment, because I have an axe to grind: Nothing in a restaurant irritates me more than to be served a nice loaf of bread (a rare enough occurrence in itself) with salted butter, which makes any bread taste like popcorn. Even if you've never used it, try buying some unsalted butter (keep unused sticks in the freezer, as it doesn't keep as well as the salted stuff) to accompany your bread. Its cleaner taste allows the taste of the bread to come through. Good butter complements bread; it is to bread what ketchup (or mayonnaise) is to french fries.

Sources

Basic kitchen items like a digital scale you can get from your local houseware store or through a major online retailers such as Amazon. The following sources, though, are useful for some of the more esoteric items. But before you plunk down cash for shipping charges, check the phone book to see if there is restaurant supply store nearby. They're a great (and often inexpensive) source for such things as plastic baskets for proofing and other baking supplies.

King Arthur Flour   For pretty much everything you could ever want from the oldest flour company in the United States. Watch for "free shipping" sales.

San Francisco Baking Institute   People may not think of SFBI, which is primarily a baking school, for supplies, but they have a nice online store with things you may not be able to find anywhere else (linen couche canvas by the yard, anyone)? And yes, you can buy a good old-fashioned lame from them as well. Double-edged razor blades included.

Super Peel   One of my new favorite toys is the Super Peel, a home version of a commercial bread loader that uses a sliding floured linen cloth to drop the bread (or pizza) neatly onto the stone without clinging to the peel. You can buy one direct from the manufacturer.

Breadtopia, a website for bread lovers, also has an extensive online store.