To bake is to be human. And baking, like life, is about reinvention and improvisation. Whether your tastes run to crusty breads, flaky pastries or chewy cookies, you’ll need to build your skills on a solid foundation. And that’s easier if you have your kitchen set up for learning. Great tools won’t do the job for you (well, a bread machine can do part of it), but with the right gear, you can experiment with confidence. And that way, your cookies won’t crumble — unless that’s what you want.
“It’s never perfect,” says Abra Berens, chef and author of “Grist,” “Ruffage,” and the forthcoming “Pulp.” “If your cookie doesn’t hold its shape, then just break it up and suddenly it’s a bar or a crumble.”
ˆBerens recommends new bakers find something they love and make it consistently — maybe it’s chocolate chip cookies once a week for a month — to understand where things can go right and wrong. Sometimes you’ll find that your browned butter has burnt or your cake is runny in the middle, but it’s all part of the learning process, and it’ll make you a better baker.
“Get comfortable by making something over and over,” says Berens. “Then layer in something new and give yourself the space to riff and adjust.”
Gluten-free baking demands the same willingness to experiment, says Hiro Saito, baker and founder of Confections by Kirari West and Kirari West, a dedicated gluten-free bakery in Redondo Beach, California.
“There will be a lot of trial and error,” says Saito, and many bakers looking to make a treat for someone with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance find themselves struggling to get started with a flour mix. Saito suggests finding a gluten-free flour you like. Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 Baking Flour is a readily available substitute for all-purpose flour.
For Saito, the best gluten-free baked goods are soft and moist, the two textures often missing from dry cookies or dense cinnamon rolls. To keep your brownies soft, don’t overmix your dough “as it tends to break the structure of the flour and your flour won’t work as intended.” If your cake is dry, Saito recommends tweaking the flour ratio by 5% or 10% at a time and noting what happens.
“A lot of people don’t have experience with gluten-free baking,” says Saito. “But the key is not to stress about it and instead just keep trying to make it better.”
No matter what kind of baking you’re pursuing, we talked to these accomplished chefs to find ten of the best kitchen tools to help you become a better baker.
Essential cookware for bakers
If you’re making cookies, toasting nuts or even preparing a sheet pan dinner, Berens recommends a “heavy-duty baking sheet,” and this lightweight pair of Chicago Metallic half-sheet pans fits the bill. The stainless steel baking sheets are oven-safe up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and performed solidly in our testing. Berens prefers pans without nonstick coatings like these that heat evenly and are still easy to clean, as they can be tossed in the dishwasher when you’re done baking.
A cast-iron dutch oven is a great tool for home bread bakers, letting you lock in heat and moisture so you can get dramatic spring and a professional-looking blistered crust. The Lodge enameled Dutch oven — our pick for the best Dutch oven overall — performed just as well as models costing hundreds more, and the solid build and well-applied enamel mean it’ll be part of your kitchen toolbox for years to come.
Essential kitchen tools for bakers
The J.K. Adams French tapered rolling pin shows that a straight line really is the easiest way to get somewhere. The single piece is long enough at nearly 18 inches to give you the space to press down and flatten pie dough or crush graham crackers without being unwieldy. The slightly narrower edges make the rolling pin more maneuverable, so you can direct and adjust your force to ensure evenly rolled out dough.
Also known as a bench scraper, a dough cutter is like a knife, spatula and mini broom in one. The Nordic Ware is a well-built, affordable model. Berens explains that it's “a nice way to cut through dough without nicking it and for cleaning up floury projects.” The sturdy beechwood handle gives you something to grip, while the stainless blade is fine enough for piecing out dough, but flexible enough to scoop up chopped nuts or dried fruit to add to your muffin batter.
Silicone baking mats are come in a variety of sizes to match your sheet pans, and even with printed-on guides for cookies. “Silpat mats take the places of parchment or greasing a cookie sheet,” says Berens, who has four in her own kitchen. “They’re a sustainable product and they’re great for cookies, making brittle, chocolate and candy.” They're even freezer-, microwave- and dishwasher-safe.
When visions of Instagram cakes dance in your head, it's likely the baker on the other side of the camera used an Ateco offset spatula. Offset spatulas have a long, thin, flexible blade that is rounded at the edge, built for spreading and smoothing the icing of cupcakes and the layers of a cake. You can also use it to release muffins from a pan by trailing it around the edges, spread batter in a pan or sauce a pizza. You’ll end up reaching for this spatula all the time, even to butter your toast.
Essential small appliances for bakers
“The KitchenAid mixers are beautiful, classic and nostalgic,” says Saito. “They’re also versatile; you can use them for cakes, muffins and brownies. It’s one of the main tools you need for baking so you can be confident in trying different recipes.” With just the right balance of performance, capacity and design, the KitchenAid stand mixer topped our rankings.
“Making bread can be intimidating for gluten-free households,” says Saito. “But with a good bread maker, you get the ingredients and just hit a button. It’s definitely a time-saver.” The Zojirushi Virtuoso Plus makes the best loaves of any bread machine we tested, and has a timer you can set overnight, a rapid setting that produces a loaf in under two and a half hours and a dedicated gluten-free setting. Plus it can whip up jam for cake layers or silky rice pudding.