As home cooks and bakers get more sophisticated, they’re becoming increasingly frustrated by the limitations of their standard array of kitchen appliances, i.e. the contemporary quartet of refrigerator, freezer, oven and microwave. They see the results professional culinarians get from subtle manipulations of temperature and they want the same thing at home. Up until very recently, the vast majority of us have been completely out of luck on that front.
When affordable sous vide cookers came along about two years ago, all that started to change. Able to hold temperatures of 100-190 degrees Fahrenheit to within half a degree, sous vide water ovens allowed home chefs to effortlessly turn out steaks and chops that rival the very best restaurants can deliver. I snapped up one of those just about as soon as they came out, and I’ve loved it. However I’ve found precious few applications for it in the sphere of bread and pastry, mostly because everything inserted into it must be vacuum-packed in a plastic bag.
Where’s a low-heat gizmo that bakers can love? I caught myself wondering from time to time these past eighteen months. Then it showed up on my front porch: the Brod & Taylor Folding Proofer. About six weeks ago the good folks at Brod & Taylor got in touch via email to ask me if I’d review one. At the time I thought: eh, sort of a cool idea. After all, home bakers — especially yeast bakers — are forever trying to improvise their own proofing cabinets: plastic bags, low-heat ovens, microwaves with teacups full of boiling water. None of them work especially well or consistently. A home proof box — especially a folding one — could be a reasonably cool thing.
Then I got it and started playing with it. I realized it could do quite a bit more than raise my brioche in a timely manner. It was a full-on baking nerd machine if the highest order. Yes, certainly it’s a bread proofer, but then so is a bread machine. This box is a multi-purpose starter grower, dairy fermenter and chocolate temperer. Ah sweet mystery of life, at last I found you. Here’s what it looks like:
Collapsed it’s about the size of a briefcase, roughly 18″ x 14″ x 3″. Open this baby up and you can see the pieces-parts inside. Basically what you do is remove the grate and the little water dish…
…un-clip the box section from the base…
…open the box section…
…then stand it up on the base. All you do then is replace the little water dish (with water if you need humidity) and the grate…
…put the top on and you’re ready. Overall the box is about 11″ high with the lid. The controls are perfect for an idiot such as myself. On/off, up/down, power/no power…you get the idea. The machine can be set for anywhere between 70 and 120 degrees Fahrenhiet (21-49 C).
When you’re all done you fold the proofer back down again and it’s ready to store. Very cool.
The collapsible engineering, it occurred to me the first time I used it, is really the key to this entire device. I mean, who wants another big box sitting on their counter or on a closet or basement floor? That the designers recognized this early on speaks well of them, for even frequent bakers don’t need something like this within arm’s reach all the time.
So what did I do with this in the Joe Pastry test run? The first thing I tried was some yogurt, which is something the whole family enjoys but which we long ago gave up making on our own. The heating pad technique is difficult and I never wanted to own one of those one-trick-pony yogurt makers. That went so well I made some crème fraîche (high-fat sour cream made from heavy cream) the same afternoon. (I’m something of a fermented dairy geek if you didn’t know that already…check the components menu under “dairy” if you want to see for yourself).
After that I used it to grow some starter for a large batch of bread, and let me tell you, at 110 degrees and high humidity, starter grows about twice as fast as it normally does on my countertop, especially in February. Very convenient for me, since I generally procrastinate on growing my starter until a day or two before I hope to bake. My sleepy starter generally takes a day to get motivated, then I’m really under the gun to bulk it up in time. This time I was all done in one day.
Next was the chocolate tempering test. I confess I harbor something of a fantasy: to be able to create flowing, tempered chocolate without having to go through the heating/seeding/cooling/warming process. Harold McGee theorizes such a thing is possible, provided the chocolate can be melted at a perfect 89-90 degrees. I’ve tried it twice with my sous vide cooker and once now with the folding proofer, but the best I could do was get the chocolate soft, not pourable.
Oh well. That aside, the folding proofer worked almost perfectly with a traditional seeding method. I confess there were a couple moments of anxiety, since the proofer, being relatively small, loses most of its heat as soon as the top is removed. The other side of the coin is that it recovers fairly quickly. And while it was hard for me to calibrate the proofer with any degree of accuracy, judging by the performance of the chocolate, it seems to do a good job of maintaining a steady 90 degrees (at least with the lid closed). Good enough for those of us who only do incidental chocolate work to get a Sacher torte or a batch of truffles done.
But while it’s a serviceable temperer, the sweet spot of this machine is clearly growing microbes. Regular bakers, quite honestly, will find this box a godsend. Friday evenings I generally make my Chicago-style pizza. I’m usually successful at setting aside 75 minutes for rising, but this last Friday I worked too late. Ah! I have a proofer! I suddenly remembered. I pulled it out, set it up and the dough was ready in 40 minutes. Nice, nice, NICE!
For me the only real drawback to this machine is its size. Coming from a commercial bakery background, I generally like to do things on half sheet pans, especially things like croissants which I don’t like to transfer once I’ve proofed them. I also bake more than two 2-pound loaves of bread, which is pretty much the capacity of this device. However for most home bakers, who only bake a couple loaves of bread and/or proof only a handful of pain au chocolate for an afternoon snack, the size is more than adequate.
At just under $150, it’s a very reasonably-priced item. Maybe not for the occasional baker, but definitely for the habitual one. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than the proofing drawer/warming drawer appliances I’ve seen in custom kitchen installations. Those things pretty much never get used. But that gives me another idea about how I’ll be using this thing come Thanksgiving: to keep my parker house rolls and green bean casserole warm while I make the gravy. Because I’m not giving this thing back. Nope, you can forget about that.