Generally speaking, there are two ways to mold and bake bread: Free-form, loaves baked directly on the hearth, like boules, pita, pizza, baguettes or focaccia, or in pans, which give shape and definition to the loaves.
I use a variety of pans: baguette tubes, pullman pans for sandwich bread, loaf pans, brioche, kugelhupf and panetone molds, muffin tins for dinner rolls … the list just goes on and on. I even have a few very old one and two pound coffee cans that I use for baking.
I prefer heavy pans, as I think they give the best crust and finish to the loaf. However, the thin baguette pans seem to do a very good job with baguettes whenever I use them. The “experts” seem to agree that black pans do better than light-colored ones, although I don’t think the French would necessarily agree, given their fabulous line of shiny, tinned pans. As with a lot of things, try several types and see which works best for you in your kitchen.
Be very careful with any pans with a non-stick coating. These coatings can flake off or otherwise detach themselves from the body of the pan. When the coating comes loose, who knows where it winds uP? Bottom line: when you see the first indication of flaking coating, ditch the pan.
I usually coat my pans with butter before baking in them. I’ve tried spray oil and I just like the way the butter works and the flavor and texture it adds to the crust.
Sometimes, I’ll start a project intending to use a pan and decide along the way to make the bread free-form, or vice-versa. A lot of the decision depends on the tradition of the bread, the way the dough feels along the way and, don’t you know, orders from “above.” If I’m told to make bread that will work for sandwiches, I make bread for sandwiches, that’s how I decide.
Here is a picture of some of my bread baking pans. I have quite a few more, but you get the idea: You can use just about any baking dish to bake bread. The only warning I could give is that you should be careful about using glass pans, as they have never given me a consistently good brown crust. Maybe it’s just me.
The front row, left to right: Baguette pan, mini-loaf pan, larger loaf pan and Pullman pan for sandwich bread.
Rear row, left to right: Brioche pan, larger loaf pan and Panetone mold.
Where do I find my pans? The obvious place is kitchen ware departments of stores or specialty kitchen supply outlets. I have a list of Goodwill stores and the like in my area. i swing by these when I am near them and spend a minute or two looking through what’s on the shelves. I’ve found several interesting pans that way, and the price is usually VERY right — a dollar or less! Good bread pans are where you find them.