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Did you know Mike sends out a newsletter (almost) every week? It's filled with news about bread or whatever Mike is excited about this time. It's "Mike's (more or less) Weekly Baking Tips"!

2019-07-21 I Have SO Many Kneads!!

Friend of the blog Tre' asked another insightful (OK, bothersome) question. "What is the best work surface for a baker? And, oh, yeah, what changes between a home baker and a commercial bakery?" You ask a lot of questions for someone from Oklahoma!

Tre' probably wanted a nice and easy answer, but there's just one thing, we never, ever, do, and that's give nice and easy answers! Just this time, we'll start out easy, and then we'll get into details! (With apologies to Tina Turner.)

Having gone down the work surface rabbit hole a few times the good news is you can make any surface work. The bad news is no matter what you'll select, you'll probably have buyers remorse and be envious of people with other work surfaces. It's also worth noting that if you ask 4 bakers, you'll get at least 5 answers. And that no matter what you select, and no matter how happy you are with it, someone will tell you that you could have made a better choice.... or that they don't see how you could have possibly made a worse choice.

A major up front question is, are you replacing all the counters in your kitchen, or are you just looking for a small and more or less portable work surface? We had some really unpleasant Formica counter tops and Beth wanted nicer counters to make it easier to resell our home. We went with granite, and the new counters look great! However, for most home owners (including us) it makes more sense to just get a smaller work surface.

There are many options for someone who just wants a portable work surface. You can have a dough trough. A rustic wooden dough troughMany people love them, and they are very attractive. I've seen troughs like this in flea markets, in road side stands, and even in foodie stores. Look for one made with a clean piece of wood - no knot holes - which is either unfinished or was finished with food safe finishes. They can be reasonably priced, or the price can be out of sight. These troughs look like they'll contain your baking mess, and to some extent they do. However, most of them have a round bottom - look for ones with flat bottoms - and whether the bottom is round or flat they are difficult to keep in place on your countertop. A rubber mat helps. The one in the picture is mine, and mostly it is used for its decorative qualities these days. We'll talk about them again in this article when we talk about NSF listing.

There are also flat portable surfaces. An Amish kneading boardWe like the looks of this style board because the lip catches on the edge of your countertop and won't slip and slide as much. This one has two lips, so you can use either side. A bread board is easy to move for storage, though some of these are on the heavy side. You can find similar products made from wood, marble and other surfaces. The good folks at Flo Flo Kitchen have put together a nice review of what they feel are "The Best Pastry Boards".

Of course, there are other portable solutions, like kitchen islands. Sadly, island in the kitchen isn't as romantic as an island in the sun, but they are more practical. They are available in a large variety of forms. Wheels are at once a blessing and a curse. They make it easy to move the cart, but can reduce it's stability. If you opt for a cart with wheels, make sure the wheels are sturdy and can be locked. A rustic wooden dough trough Ikea has a wide selection of carts, and I've included a link to their web site. Sadly, Ikea changes its web site often, so the link may not work. If it doesn't just go to the Ikea Web site, select a country and then search for "Kitchen Island". Many other companies sell kitchen islands, or work tables. John Boos is a brand that you'll find in many professional kitchens - they are attractive, durable, and approved by the NSF.

The most immediate concerns for any baker are how well the work surface works and ease of cleanup. Many people like stone for pastry work as it always feels cool. Some people don't like stone for bread dough because dough needs to be warmer. I've used stone for dough with no real problems due to the coolness of the stone.

Some surfaces "grip" a dough better than others when you are kneading or shaping dough. If you use a mixer, do stretch and folds or otherwise don't knead your dough on a work surface, that is less important. You'll still be shaping your loaves on the work surface so this is still a matter for some concern. That said, I've used formica counters, wooden surfaces, granite, and stainless steel to knead and shape loaves on. You can make them all work.

Some surfaces are easier to clean than others. The first big take home here is that tiles with grout between them are a pain to clean - just say no to grout! Wood with artistic knotholes fall into the same category. With some patterned surfaces you can't see dough residue very easily, so cleanup is tedious and has to be done more by touch than sight. Some surfaces are rough and dough can get stuck in crevices or inclusions in stone. Wash cloths soaked with water as hot as you can stand help here - as with just about all bakery cleanup, hot water is your friend. Kneading troughs and pastry boards are nice because you can just put them into the sink and clean them.

If you are baking in your home, replacing your countertops can impact the resale value of your home. As much as you might like butcher block countertops, they can be hard to maintain, they show wear, and not everyone loves them as much as you do. The same thing applies to stainless steel countertops. Dough troughs, pastry boards and kitchen islands are ways around both the cost of replacing all your counters and the unpredictable impact some surfaces will have on your resale value. It may be prudent to discuss this with a Realtor.

If you are baking in a commercial setting, by which I mean any setting that is likely to have food safety inspectors visit, you have to keep a close eye on food safety regulations. In some states, like Texas, food inspectors are not allowed, as of this writing, to inspect a cottage food industry kitchen. In other states, like California, you need to be inspected and be rated before you start your cottage food business, and more inspections can be expected. It is confusing, but the rules vary from place to place and with time. The best option is to head off the problem before it can become a problem - talk to your health inspectors and find out what they suggest. Let them know about your issues, such as food safety, cost, home resale value and so on. Most food inspectors appreciate being a part of the decision making process and helping you avoid problems. In the USA, you can assume health inspectors want you to use products that have been approved by the NSF, or National Sanitation Foundation. This approval should mean that a product is easy to keep clean and sanitary.

For a long time wood was the default go-to work surface. Then it was determined that wood is unsanitary. After a few decades of banishing wood it was discovered that wood has natural antibiotic qualities and it is hard to pass disease germs from one batch of food to another on a wood surface, so wood is having a revival of acceptability. Your best bet is to talk to your local food safety inspectors and get their input as to what surfaces are acceptable. Usually "fairly smooth and easy to clean" are the basic guidelines. However, picking the wrong work surface can be an expensive mistake, so ask for advice before you spend money and have something unsuitable installed.

Clean is one thing, sanitary is another. Clean means no dirt, no leftover food debris, nothing on the surface that would cause problems. Like jalapeño juice where you're about to knead some delicate dough. Sanitary is more focused on an absence of biological pathogens, of things that will make your customers sick. We really want work surfaces that can be kept clean AND sanitary!

Price is always a consideration. Your Formica is already paid for, but if you had to install new Formica or other laminate, it would run $10 to $40 per square foot, installed. The rest of the products range from $40 to $150 per square foot, installed, with a lot of overlap in the different products. You can expect the installer to uninstall your old counters, remove them from your home, install, level and seal your new counters. Prices vary depending on the material you select, the grade you select, and the installer's fees. Those prices are a very rough guide as of July 2019. It turns out that Consumer Reports has a great article about counter tops you can find here, but remember Consumer Reports changes what you can see on their site fairly often, so the article may go behind their pay wall.

Now that we've spent a lot of time mumbling around the matter, looking at determining factors, let's actually talk about materials:

  • Bamboo is ecologically friendly, it is a warm wood and it looks great. At first, anyway. It is easy to stain, scorch and nick. It can absorb water very readily and warp, making most bamboos poor choices for next to sink installation. You can refinish it with mineral oil. This might make it a better choice for cutting boards and bread boards, but Alton Brown has commented that he REALLY wants to like bamboo, but finds it's a slow surface - for some reason it takes longer to cut things on bamboo than on other cutting board surfaces.
  • Butcher block Oil finished butcher block is easy to stain, but resists heat fairly well and is a good cutting block. Varnished butcher block is more stain resistant, but worse in every other way. Again, this is probably better as a cutting board or other portable surface than for use as all your countertops.
  • Concrete is seen more and more often as domestic flooring and also as flooring in high end grocery stores, so it is quite trendy. As a countertop, it is custom formed for each job, so the quality can vary considerably. It chips and scratches easily, and can develop hairline cracks. Using concrete topical sealers can protect it against stains but not heat. Penetrating sealers can handle heat but not stains. All in all, we like the looks, but we're not so wild about living with it!
  • Formica and other laminates are the default countertop in most homes. It's the surface we love to hate. However, the good news is that it works well for bread making. All the Formica counters I've used have a good amount of grip on bread dough. As with most countertops, you shouldn't cut things on Formica - it is relatively easy to cut, and it's not good for your knives. It probably speaks volumes that no one makes Formica bread boards. It tends to resist damage from stains and heat. Still, treat it well and it will last a long time - invest your savings, you'll be happy!
  • Granite is what many people dream about when they think about countertop upgrades. It is available in a wide range of colors, from whites that look like marble, to incredible multicolored stones that should be hung on the wall as art work. We got granite, and it is beautiful! As a natural stone, each stone slab is unique. Heat, cuts, and scratching largely don’t harm granite. However, corners and edges can chip. Repairing that is not a DIY project - let a pro repair the damage. Polished and matte finishes resist most stains when properly sealed. The down side is that granite needs periodic resealing. Like every time spilled water spreads rather than beading. Also, as a natural stone, it can develop holes where inclusions pop out. This makes cleaning more difficult - when you run your hand over the granite you ask yourself if that irregularity is dough residue, left over schmutz, or a fresh hole in the granite. To be honest, if I had it to do over, I doubt we'd go with granite, but, dang, it sure is gorgeous, and it is a good surface for working on dough.
  • Limestone is attractive but impractical. While it resists heat, it nicks, cuts, and scratches easily, and from what we read, even a high quality sealers don't fend off stains. If you have it, blot spills immediately and periodically reseal. Or, just say no!
  • Marble is a beautiful stone and pastry makers love it as it has a cool surface. However, it is relatively soft, so you should be careful using bench scrapers on it, and shouldn't cut dough on top of it even with a bench scraper, and certainly shouldn't cut things on it - it's not good for the marble or your knives! Acidic spills can etch marble, so one should be careful of spills. If you want to get marble countertops, you might ask your contractor for some samples of the stone and use them as you would the countertops. Are you scratching the marble? Etching it? If you use sourdough, leave some sourdough on it for a few hours and see what happens to the finish. If you don't encounter problems, it might be a good match for you. Again, you can get bread boards made of marble, so you don't have to replace all your countertops to get the advantages of marble.
  • Quartz is a mix of mineral, color, and resin meant to mimic stone but it is more durable and requires less maintenance, making it a good choice for a kitchen that gets a lot of use. Hot pots, serrated knives, abrasive pads, and most stains were no match for quartz. We didn't see any quartz we liked when we bought our granite countertops. Today, I'd look some more and try to get quartz.
  • Recycled glass - large shards create a bold look while finely ground glass looks subtle. This is resistant to heat, cuts, and scratches, but chips and stains can be a problem. Some recycled glass products are prone to cracking. Get a good warranty from a reputable vendor.
  • Soapstone is not as common as granite, and it’s stunning at first. It resists heat and small scratches, it can be sanded finely, then coated with mineral oil. But it nicks, cuts, and scratches easily, and some tough stains won’t wash away. All in all, just say no.
  • Stainless Steel is a great product! It is hard to stain or discolor the steel, it is heat resistant, and it resists cutting. However, it will dull knives if you're foolish enough to let them come in contact with one another. While somewhat slick, it is easy to develop dough on this surface. The biggest problem is most civilians recoil at the site of a kitchen wrapped in Stainless Steel, so this kills home resale value.... think about this one carefully before letting it into your home!

Whew! That was a LOT longer than expected! In closing, may your dough always rise, no matter what surface you developed it on! -Mike