I have been trying my hand at baking bread for some time. I still don’t make very good bread, but good enough. I think most people buy rather than bake their own bread because they overestimate the difficulty associated with baking bread. What got me started was simply the thought of having freshly baked bread in the morning. Naturally i wanted to achieve that goal through the path of least resistance – using a bread machine. Since i wanted to just try out, i didn’t want to invest a lot of money. I got help to bring in a bread machine from the UK, since it’s cheaper from there and they use the same voltage and plugs. It is just a China-made OEM machine of course, but with a reassuring “UK stamp of approval”.
The results from the bread machine were less than satisfactory initially, largely due to my not following the recipes strictly, and also, i now suspect, due to using inferior quality yeast. After a while, i decided to try baking bread without using the machine. I still do use the machine for the initial kneading of bread, so, thankfully i am still getting a return on investment from the machine. I think not relying on the bread machine has given me a much better idea of what actually happens during the entire bread making process, like how gluten develops during kneading, how fermentation affects the taste of the bread and the joy of watching oven spring. Only when you get your hands dirty do you really learn how to transform flour, yeast and water into the kind of bread you want.
In my quest to make baguette and ciabatta, two of my favourite types of bread, i came across the recommendation to bake them on stone. I looked up Amazon and found the prices to be beyond what i was ready to cough up, so, naturally, i turn to Taobao. If you searched for baking stone (烘焙石板) on Taobao, you will find few results, but with attractive prices nevertheless. At the time when i did my search a year ago, though, the price of a baking stone on Taobao was comparable to those on Amazon, so i bought a piece of BBQ grilling stone (火山石石板) instead. These are made of volcanic rocks (thus proven to be able to withstand very high heat), and they work just as well when used as a baking stone. With the additional possibility of being used for BBQ, maybe it was a better buy than a baking stone.
The stone actually also serves another useful purpose – generating steam. To develop good crust on the bread, steam has to be applied during the first few minutes of baking. Unfortunately, only the very expensive ovens would provide this function. The workaround i used is to pour boiling water around the perimeter of the heated stone. Once the stone has absorbed enough heat, it can continuously boil the water that comes into contact with it. I can’t be certain if there’s enough steam generated, but any is better than none.
The stone also solves another problem. If you wanted a very hot base for baking (I found that it is required for baking puff pastries), you’ll typically have to place your baking tray at the bottom rack such that it is just above the heating elements. The problem is, though, the top of whatever you are baking may not get enough browning since it is too far away from the upper heating elements. With a baking stone, you can pre-heat the stone and do your baking in the middle rack such that you have sufficient top and bottom heat.
The most common form of bread is none other than the sandwich loaf. To shape the loaf, you need a tin. As usual, Taobao offers you much more attractive prices. The 450g loaf tin which i bought (after trying out a cheaper one) can be had for just 36 Yuan (S$8) Update: apparently the cheaper item is not allowed for overseas sale now, so you might want to try this link instead, and it’s still cheap, at around S$12.
This is a high quality tin that is as non-stick as it gets. There is no need to grease the tin and the bread always slides out of its own. This is different from those tins or moulds which has a thin layer of non-stick powdered coating that isn’t quite non-stick enough. In case you’re wondering, i did the math and estimate that you can save about 25% if you baked your own sandwich loaf vs buying one from the store. The best part is though, you can avoid consuming any food enhancers or additives which are invariably used in commercial bread. Moreover, you can mix and match different types of flour and grains, like whole wheat, aramanth, kamut, spelt, flaxseed meal etc. and reap health benefits.
As baking is becoming quite popular in China, you can find all kinds of baking wares sold on Taobao. There is absolutely no reason to look elsewhere.