Back in 1999 I took a five-day bread baking class called Artisan I at the San Francisco Baking Institute. This is a baking class for professionals (also open to home cooks) and we baked in a professional deck oven with its automatic steam injection system and automatic laoder.
I was so jazzed that when it was over, I loaded up on equipment: 2 sizes and lengths of linen proofing cloths; 4 proofing baskets; a proofing board; pizza peel; and a lame, a curved blade that cuts the slashes in the top of bread loaves. Then I brought it all home. None of it really worked. My stove is an old Wedgewood, and the oven is tiny. A rectangular pizza stone just fits with just a few inches clearance all around. Almost everything I learned and nearly all I’d bought needed tailoring to fit my home kitchen.
When I shaped baguettes to half the size we made in class, I still could not get them into the oven. The peel was wider than the mouth of the oven, and the proofing board? Let’s not talk about that. I’ve used the proofing cloths a few times but bought enough for ten loaves of bread and can only get two 1 or 1 1/2-pound loaves in the oven at a time.
But the biggest shock was my beloved bread knife which had moved with me from Manhattan to Northern California. When the blade fell out of the handle, I duct taped it together. When I used it to cut into my SFBI-inspired, crunchy, crispy bread, the teeth bounced off the crust instead of sinking in. It was just too old, tired, weak, and dull. I invested in an expensive bread knife thinking that my loaves deserved a good knife. But it was not too long (memory is unreliable here)—maybe eight years (oh dear, longer than I thought!) —that it, too, was no longer up to the task. Even the knife doctor (okay, the professional knife sharpener), could not restore it to form.
Luckily, just about then, my friends and I made an excursion to the fabulous kitchen gadget shop Kamei on Clement Street, in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District. There I found an inexpensive, plastic-handled, terrifyingly sharp bread knife. The blade is long, a full ten inches, and the teeth were so sharp that both G and I immediately cut ourselves. So we resorted to storing the knife with the blade facing the opposite direction from the rest of the knives so we would stay away from its business end.
Two years later and the knife remains, if not fabulously sharp, then very sharp indeed. Its teeth continue to dig through the magnificent crusts created by the no-knead bread baking method popularized by baker Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. (The only problem with the crusts of no-knead breads is that they shatter so exuberantly that crispy flakes and polenta grains fly everywhere.) The knife has not needed sharpening.
A bread knife in my kitchen works harder than any knife other than my chef’s knives. It needs strong, sharp, deep teeth and a long blade to easily cut my over-sized loaves. The handle should be comfortable and nonslip. If it has all this, it does not have to cost a lot. My knife would go in the dishwasher, but it’s too busy to ever take that long a rest.