Handcrafted Bakers’ Peels, Dough Bowls & Cutting Boards
by Bakery Boy
If you’ve ever seen a baker use a big flat board with a long handle to shovel baked goods around in a hot oven or move them to cooling racks, then you know what a “peel” is. Peels used by commercial bakeries—sometimes six feet long and three feet wide—won’t fit easily into your home kitchen or oven, but scaled-down versions work fine and even look cool hanging on a peg between uses. Don’t settle for the cheap metal kind you see at pizza joints. Get one of the handcrafted beauties Tom Sternal of Elkland Handwerke makes out of hardwood trees he salvages around his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
A retired art professor who taught sculpting at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, Tom now works with wood and stone at his studio in the former Elkland Elementary School in the tiny town of Todd. He mostly makes hefty tables, chairs, benches, and other furniture from massive slabs of fallen, storm-damaged, or construction-removed hardwoods. “I call them ‘maverick trees,’ too big or too oddly shaped to fit in most sawmills,” Tom says. “They’re harder to handle but have far more interesting grains.”
Devoted to recycling and determined to waste nothing, Tom turns leftover pieces into artful peels, bowls, cutting boards, spatulas, ladles, letter openers, and more. He even makes kindling and charcoal from splinters and sawdust.
Here are a few things he makes suitable for us bakers:
BAKERS’ PEELS As a kid I marveled at the quick agility on display as my father, grandfather, uncles, and other bakers wielded giant peels to transfer hot loaves from oven to cooking rack. When I first noticed ushers at church working their long-handled baskets in a similar fashion at collection time, I thought they were all bakers too. Now I finally have my own smaller peel to use at home, a thin slab 12 inches wide and 24 inches long counting the slender handle, shaped from a single piece of tulip poplar. “I use whatever kind of wood I have leftover from bigger projects,” Tom says. “Poplar, cherry, oak, walnut, maple—they all have wonderful grains that show really well when they’re milled just right.” Price range: about $20-$50 depending on size.
DOUGH BOWLS You could let your bread dough rise in any kind of bowl, but there’s something rewarding about choosing one of Tom’s handcrafted dough bowl instead. Made from a single chunk of maple, oak, walnut, poplar, cherry, or other hardwoods, each is different because he considers the grains, knots, and other characteristics as he shapes it. On non-baking days, leave your artisan bowl out as a conversation starter. Price range: about $28-$100.
CUTTING BOARDS You probably already have several utilitarian boards, but these thick slabs add something special to chopping chores. Tom cuts them thicker than most for a reason. “Think about how many times you’ve hit your knuckles on the counter while cutting on a board that’s too shallow for the knife handle you’re gripping,” Tom says. “My boards are several inches thick so when you’re chopping there’s room for your fingers.” Price range: $12-$32.
CARE & MAINTENANCE Tom coats his kitchen-bound woodwork with mineral oil. It seeps in to keep the wood from drying, visually enhances wood-grains, and has no toxic effect on food. “You can clean these pieces with soap and hot water,” he says. “It’s best not to leaving them soaking. Don’t put them in a dishwasher. When they start to look dry, re-apply some mineral oil. And especially those thin bakers’ peels: Don’t drop them!”
WHERE TO FIND Tom’s work goes as fast as he can make it, so truth is there’s not a large supply on hand anywhere. Here are a few promising places to look.
Todd Mercantile & Bakery – If there are more pieces here than elsewhere it’s because owner Emilie Enzmann, Tom’s feisty sister-in-law (who nicknames her place the Todd Mahal), pulls strings; 3899 Todd Railroad Grade Road, Todd, NC 28684; toddmahalbakery.wordpress.com; 336-877-5401; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stick Boy Bread Co. – This is where I first found Tom’s peels and cutting boards, an appropriate setting because they make terrific baked goods (see the Stick Boy article on the Bakery Boy Blog); 345 Hardin Street, Boone, NC 28607; www.stickboybread.com; 828-268-9900; email@example.com.
The Shoppes of Farmers Hardware – Elkland Handwerke joins other crafts at this market in a former hardware store; 661 West King Street, Boone, NC 28607; 828-264-8801; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watauga County Farmers’ Market – Saturday mornings May-October in the parking lot for the outdoor drama Horn in the West (about wilderness pioneers and the American Revolution); 591 Horn in the West Drive, Boone, NC 28607; www.wataugacountyfarmersmarket.org; 828-355-4918; email@example.com.
SPECIAL THANKS South Florida-based photographer Robert Stein of Robert Stein Architectural Photography (www.robertsteinphotography.com) contributed the image of Tom Sternal working on a dough bowl.