Necessary and Unnecessary Tools for Baking Sourdough Bread
What tools do beginners need to bake sourdough bread?
If you are just starting out on your Sourdough Bread Baking journey, it's natural to think that you need a lot of expensive equipment to bake beautiful artisan sourdough bread. But don't let this thought hold you down from moving forward. You really only need a few inexpensive things to begin, and you might already own them.
I am a true believer that if you are a beginner at anything, you don't need a whole array of the most expensive things in order to start doing something. You might realize in the process that you need certain essentials because they make a real difference in the end result, but definitely not a long list of tools that some sources recommend. My point is: If you are just learning to drive, you usually won't use a brand new and expensive car to do it, right? You just need "a car." As beginners, we all make mistakes, which is ok, as that's what the learning process is about; however, some of them can be avoided. To save you from the regret of spending a lot of money and later realizing you don't really need half of the things to bake bread, I made a list of essential, secondary, and unnecessary tools for beginner sourdough bread bakers.
Unnecessary tools (nice to have, but do you really need them?):
$400 Dutch Oven - believe me, if you messed up your dough, not even the most expensive dutch oven will fix it. Dutch oven creates steam while baking and will definitely improve the "oven spring" of your bread, but it's not magic. Opt-out for this 10 times less expensive Cast Iron Combo Cooker instead that provides the same result.
A super-expensive Lame for scoring - if you own a double-edged razor blade - that's all you will need to begin (you can buy a whole bunch for $3-4); I personally have used them for a long time. If you have a little bit of extra money, I recommend a UFO lame; it lets you hold the blade more comfortably and creates precise cuts.
Dough Whisk - another tool not necessary to bake sourdough bread - in the beginning, the mixing is done with your fingers to combine all of the ingredients, and then it's followed by a series of stretch and folds. This tool and the next one are included in a lot of the bread baking sets, but I wouldn't pay extra for them.
Bowl Scraper - if you own a spatula, it will work just the same.
Essential tools (these 4 products make a real difference):
Banneton Proofing Basket - compared to a regular bowl, this simple basket affects the crispiness of the crust and the look of the loaf tremendously. Bannetons, hand crafted from natural rattan cane, help the dough hold its shape and draw moisture away from it, resulting in a perfectly shaped loaf with a spiral pattern that looks and tastes amazing. This is the #1 thing I would invest in.
Digital Kitchen Scale - almost all recipes for sourdough bread use the weight in grams for accuracy. Using volume is not precise enough if you want to achieve consistent results. This very inexpensive scale I got on Amazon with overnight shipping, and it works great! The surface is big enough for large bowls, and the screen is backlit.
Instant Read Thermometer - starting from the water temperature in your sourdough starter and dough to the final temperature of the bread, it's essential to have it right because it affects the fermentation process and the outcome. After a lot of research and comparison (that's what I usually do for everything I buy), I purchased this waterproof digital Instant Read Thermometer with a large LCD screen and backlight, and automatic screen rotation. It's ultra-fast, and I like that it turns on and off automatically by opening and closing the probe that rotates 240° and is long enough to protect from heat.
Combo Cooker - I experimented with baking sourdough without it by placing a tray with water under the bread (I really tried to avoid spending money and accumulating more things in my small condo), but it never came out as good as when I started using a Cast Iron Combo Cooker. It really traps the steam from the rising dough and keeps the surface moist, ensuring an amazing oven spring. Plus, it costs only a fraction of what other baking vessels do. I also love that it's designed with a lid to be used as a base, making it so much easier to flip your dough onto and score it right there. It is versatile and can be used as a shallow or deep skillet, fryer, or griddle on any cooking surfaces - all for $39.99 (the price will likely change over time).
Secondary tools (helpful overall):
Large cutting board for shaping the dough - I recommend it if you have small countertops like me. I bought mine at Ikea for only $19.99! 18x20 3/4 in size.
Bench Scraper - good to have to divide the dough and remove any dough that's stuck to the surface, but can be substituted with a knife. It is also used to shape the dough, but I do it with my hands, no matter the hydration level.
Superfine Mist Spray Bottle - for misting the banneton proofing baskets with water. I like this set that I bought with a fine mist, so it doesn't soak the bannetons with water in patches but distributes it evenly.
Large Clear Bowl - for mixing the dough and for the bulk fermentation stage. Transparent ideally, so you can see how the dough increases in size. I found this glass bowl set that I love because not only the bowls, but the lids are clear as well. Alternatively, any other bowl or container will do.
Small Strainer - convenient to use for dusting the bannetons and dough with flour; otherwise, it can be done by hand. This stainless steel set with fine mesh is perfect for this.
The verdict: to begin baking sourdough bread, you only need a few essential inexpensive tools. Don't let something you don't have stop you; there is always a workaround. However, if you get any of the other tools for Christmas, don't say no; you can always use them for something else!
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