Part 2: The utensils

2.1: The basic tools in home breadmaking are:

-A round low bowl to knead the dough. (To start you don’t need not buy a bread machine or a mixer. For the purposes of learning, is better to begin kneading with your hands.)

A food grade plastic bucket about 10 litres or less may also be used.

-A set of measuring cups. Generally, they are available in sets of four: 1 cup (240 cc); ½ cup 120 cc); 1/3 cup(80 ml) and ¼ cup (60 cc).

-A set of measuring spoons: Usually available in sets of four: 1 Tablespoon (15 cc or a quarter of a ¼ cup); ½ tablespoon (7.5 cc); 1 teaspoon (5 cc); ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml).

One cup equals 16 tablespoons.

Baking pans and trays for baking bread.

2.2: The Oven.

There are some varieties of bread which don’t need an oven to be cooked. Some typical bread of the Middle East, for example, is cooked on a hot flat stone or a large piece of a metal sheet under which burning coals are placed. The dough is stretched by hand into a thin and wide round piece that is disposed on the hot surface like a blanket and thereby cooked.

Traditional in the north of my country and in many countries of the world is the bread baked under ashes and embers. In homes where firewood is burning day and night, round flat pieces of dough are placed by the fire and covered with ashes and embers and left there until an exquisite aroma fills the air. The hot pieces of bread are then shaken to remove ashes and are ready to be consumed.

There are also ways to make “camping” bread. In times past cowboys and travellers in the western United States used what they called pancakes. Hanging on their belt they used to carry a small terracotta container where they kept a bit of “sourdough” or naturally fermented old dough. This sourdough,  mixed with flour, water and salt was allowed to ferment overnight while everyone slept. The next day, the spongy,  fermented dough was cooked in a pan to be eaten as bread for breakfast. A piece of raw dough was kept in the little container by way of seed for a new batch at night.

In a similar way, I made bread while camping using instant dry yeast instead of sourdough and cooked it in a pan covered with a lid. I cooked it on one side and then on the other.

-Closed bread ovens are very old and are found in many different cultures. Using stones or bricks of clay and even fresh clay, a low elliptic chamber is built on a flat floor of the same material with a low opening on one end as loading door.

The door should be low to prevent the escape of steam and heat. On the other end, halfway between the floor and the top, an exhaust port is open to allow the smoke to escape.

This oven is operated in two stages:

1.- Heating: having the vent uncovered dry firewood is introduced through the loading door and is given fire. Flame and embers heat up the walls and floor of the oven. When the firewood is consumed ashes and embers must be swept out using a poker shaped as a solid rake through the loading door.

It is very important this oven be absolutely dry. Humidity in the walls or floor will prevent it to get properly hot. Must be protected from rain between uses.

The fire must be given until the walls inside look like white in contrast with the black soot that covers them when combustion starts and the bricks are cold.

2.-Bread Cooking: After leaving the oven completely closed for a while, so that the heat is evenly distributed and the temperature descends to the right point, the proofed loaves are introduced using a wooden paddle and left on the oven floor until cooked.

Bread is baked only with the remaining heat in the mass of walls and floor. No flame is burning during the cooking time.

A piece of metal sheet propped with a stick is usually used as a door. The smoke exhaust port must be closed tightly.  A piece of brick wrapped in wet cloth or burlap is generally used as a stopper. It is important to keep the oven closed as well as possible to keep the heat inside.

-Burning firewood ovens: These ones, used for pizza and some kinds of traditional bread is a continuous brick oven. The door is bigger than the alternative ones to facilitate continuous operation and is left open all the time along with the exhaust vent.

On one side of the chamber–most commonly the left side–firewood is burning continuously. On the right side of the chamber, pizza or bread is introduced. The floor does not receive much heat and tends to be colder than the walls in comparison. For that reason, they are not used generally to bake bread. This oven can be seen in pizza shops offering wood-burning baked pizza.

There is much more to say about these furnaces. I’ll come back later to this in a section devoted specifically to brick ovens.

Ovens commonly used in the house

In my practical experience as a family baker and having had to move many times, I have had the opportunity to try many different ovens.

We could say that they all fall into one of two basic groups: Ovens heated by a flame and heated by an electric heating element.

-Ovens heated by a gas or liquid fuel flame are not the most suitable for bread. The reason is that the flame requires continuous air circulation and this causes the crust of bread to become dry and hard. Some selected brands minimize this hot air current and work much better. In these ovens, it is impossible to retain the steam in the chamber which is critical in bread baking, especially in French style bread.

There is a type of ovens for family use with a double wall on the sides. The flame burns under the floor panel, but does not enter the cooking chamber, it runs up between the double side walls instead and escapes by a vent on the top. The air in the cooking chamber is relatively still and, although not all the steam can be held inside,  the drying effect on the crust is reduced to a minimum. The problem is that stoves with these ovens are scarce and expensive. A kitchen stove with such an oven costs much more than a regular stove.

Old firewood stoves made of cast iron are a clear example of these double wall ovens. Fire and smoke ran around the baking chamber without entering it.

Skilled people on ironworks can easily build an oven like this with success.  It is in my plan to deal more broadly with double wall ovens in a no far future (Or on special request). These furnaces can be operated with gas or liquid fuel, and also with firewood.

When nothing better is at hand–in order to keep moisture–large pots with a lid can be used successfully (provided they have no plastic or wooden handles). The made-up piece of dough is placed inside the previously greased pot where it is allowed to proof. Then it is taken to the oven. The final product is usually very good in crusty french style bread.

-Dutch Oven: Cast iron pots are still used in some countries to bake bread. The lid has a rim around on top which allows pieces of burning coal to be placed all over. The pot with the proofed piece is carried to a grid placed on burning coals and the lid is filled with more coals. With a little skill and practise, these cast iron pans work wonderfully as bread ovens. They are usually named “Dutch Oven”. I still remember my aunt Lina baking a cake in an oven like this.

-Electric ovens are very common in North America, although they are rare, in other areas. They have the great advantage of not requiring air circulation inside. In order to save electric power, it is better to have no air circulation at all. This is good as the crust does not dry up and remains tender. The crust takes a little longer to take colour which allows the radiant heat from the walls, ceiling and floor of the oven penetrate into the piece of bread thus ensuring proper cooking of the crumb.

-Convective electric ovens for domestic use: These electric ovens have also an internal fan driven by an electric motor, which causes the hot air to circulate throughout the oven making it possible to cook on two or three levels at the same time.

In my personal experience, I have noticed that these convective ovens are good for baking many small rolls at once. But they are not the best for cooking large pieces.

They cook mostly by the contact of circulating hot air with the surface of the bread. But the ideal heat for baking bread is radiant heat, projected into the piece from the walls, ceiling and floor of the oven the same way as sunlight gets into a greenhouse. Convective electric ovens tend to burn the crust and to leave the crumb inside uncooked. I’ve had some sad experiences with the use of convection in large pieces. So when it comes to large pieces I always turn convection off and bake on one level only in a still atmosphere.