Over the past few weeks, Americans’ everyday vernacular has grown to include phrases like “self-quarantine,” “social distancing” and, perhaps the strangest addition of all, “sourdough starter.” Maybe it’s because loaves are scarce on grocery store shelves, or maybe it’s a rediscovered streak of self-reliance, but making bread has become one of the most popular, time-consuming projects of the housebound—so much so that sales of baking yeast went up 647.3 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019, according to Nielson.
Professional baker Daniel Riesenberger, who produces artisan sourdough loaves in Columbus, Ohio, says his popular Instagram page, “Dan the Baker,” has been flooded with questions about baking at home all of a sudden. He says he’s never seen anything like it.
“The food systems are still fine, but the thought is, well what if they weren’t?” he said. “I feel like there’s going to be a lot of preservation and food-making things come out of this and maybe bread is just the most quick and obvious one that’s in the forefront of people’s minds right now. It’s not a bad thing to know how to make bread.”
Riesenberger is now posting instructional videos on his Instagram page for the bread curious, and he shared with Robb Report his list of must-have gear for baking professional-quality loaves at home.
Books: Breads from the La Brea Bakery and More
To begin your bread education, Riesenberger recommends flipping through Daniel Leader’s Local Breads or Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery.
“La Brea was one of the very first books that I worked with and it really opened my eyes to how good bread can be and how easy it is to make it at home,” he said. “She’s got so many cool, unique recipes in there and her approach really blew my mind.”
Once you feel confident with your baking skills, Riesenberger says to move on to a modern classic: Tartine Bread, by award-winning pastry chef Chad Robertson.
“Recipe books are really excellent for a rubric or a guideline, but they don’t often convey the intuition that these processes require. Tartine Bread and Tartine: Book No. 3 are the best at this, but they’re a little unapproachable because they’re intuition-based and heady, and the formulas are not as exact as the other books,” he said. “Tartine is the hardest kind of bread to make, period, and diving right in will be discouraging. It’s taken me many, many years to get there and I failed many times.”
Flour: Stone-Ground Whole Wheat
Sourdough bread is made with only flour, water, salt and leaven or sourdough starter, while other basic bread recipes add yeast. With so few ingredients, it’s important to get the highest-quality flour you can find. Riesenberger likes to use a mix of artisanal high-protein bread flour from Central Milling and heirloom spelt flour for his sourdough. He recommends baking with organic, high-gluten flour that’s milled locally, if available, and fine sea salt.
“Anything works,” he said. “There’s so much flexibility in baking—whatever’s best for you in your place and time.”
Digital Scale: My Weigh KD-8000
Getting your ratios correct is essential in baking. Riesenberger’s recipes are exact down to the gram. He uses the stainless steel KD-8000 by My Weigh, which can measure up to 18 pounds of raw material at once.
Sori Yanagi Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls
The first step in baking bread is mixing your ingredients together. You can use a stand mixer for this, or do it by hand in a stainless-steel bowl. Riesenberger likes to bare-hand it in a lightweight and modern bowl from Japanese design company Rikumo. These bowls are durable enough to stand up to the aggressive folding and slapping that goes into this step, which builds strength within the dough.
Dough Scraper: King Arthur Heavy Duty Dough Scraper
To get every morsel incorporated and out of the bowl, you’ll need a dough scraper. King Arthur’s polypropylene dough scrapers are flexible but sturdy and can be used to scrape every angle, divide and portion dough and can double as bench scrapers to clear off work surfaces. Because they aren’t metal, you can use them to cut confections right in the pan without worrying about scratching them.
Fermentation Container: Cambro Camwear
Once the dough is sufficiently mixed, it needs to ferment for a few hours. While many people re-use their stainless-steel bowls for this, Riesenberger prefers to move the dough to plastic. Specifically, he likes the clear food storage containers from Cambro, which have snap-on lids and molded handles. They’re stain- and odor-resistant and have volume markings on their sides; he rubs it down with olive oil before putting the dough inside to rest.
“Metal is very thermally conductive, so your environment will play a larger factor than it needs to [when fermenting],” he said. “The plastic tubs are kind of insulated. And with the clear ones, you can see what the dough is doing and exactly how much it has risen or not. When you’re dealing with a bowl that’s unmarked and kind of tapered, it’s hard to tell what the dough has been doing unless you know exactly what it feels like, which is hard to do without years of intuition.”
Riesenberger recommends storing your other baking equipment inside the tub when you’re done, so you can have a baking kit at the ready.
Work Station: Wooden Butcher Block
Once the dough has completed the fermentation process, you’ll want to dump it out of its container onto your workstation. Riesenberger prefers a wooden butcher block or cutting board for this job; like with the mixing bowl, steel or marble surfaces will chill the dough and slow its fermentation process. Cut the dough with your scraper, portion it out using your scale and then gently form it into shape.
Proofing Container: Banneton Proofing Basket
If you’re making focaccia, you can now put the dough straight onto a sheet pan to proof. For loaves, Riesenberger places the dough balls into Banneton proofing baskets. These woven rattan baskets are lined with linen to help wick moisture away and produce a thick crust while baking.
“The linen kind of breathes and lets the bread expand and ferment slowly so that it gains more flavor and texture,” he said.
Cooking Vessel: Staub Cast Iron Dutch Oven
In Riesenberger’s pro kitchen, he uses a steam-injected Polin oven, which infuses moisture into the baking process at the touch of a button. To best replicate this steam chamber at home, use a Staub cast iron Dutch oven. First, crank your oven up as high as it will go, with the Dutch oven and its lid inside. Heat them for at least an hour until they get extremely hot, like 500 degrees.
“Then take it out and very carefully load the bread into the Dutch oven,” he said. Score the top with a razor blade and then put the lid on. “The loaf creates a large amount of steam proportional to the space itself, and it’s trapped in there. So it allows the bread to rise and expand in a very steamy environment, giving it a nice glossy sheen.”
When the bread is done baking, pull it out of the Dutch oven and place it on a cooling rack. Choose one with feet to allow ample circulation around the loaf.
Wüsthof Bread Knife
Finally, it’s time to eat. People always ask Riesenberger how he cuts his bread so nicely. His answer? A good knife. He likes Wüsthof’s line, which are forged from a single blank of stainless steel and their handles are made from heavy Grenadill wood, or African Blackwood.
“There’s a lot of uncertainly in the world right now,” Riesenberger said. “That’s why people need the stability of a loaf of bread.”