8 Days in Peru: A Couple’s Trip

For many years, visiting Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains has been on my bucket list. I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve read travel blogs and I’ve always wanted to go. With the events of the world the past two years, we are just now feeling comfortable to travel internationally again with vaccines available and as we watched the COVID case numbers decrease. Thanks to some awesome grandparents who came and helped with our kids, we were able to make this incredible couples trip to Peru happen. This post is all about the eight days we spent traveling in Peru and details our tips, tricks and favorite sites.

Wet Season or Dry Season?

When researching Machu Picchu, many websites talk about the wet and dry season in Peru. Wet season is typically November to March which is actually Peruvian summer. This means you can plan to expect intermittent rain showers and warmer weather (most days averaged from 50-70 degrees depending on our elevation). Dry season is typically from April to October with cooler, though still moderate, temperatures. Machu Picchu is open year round, but the Inca Trail closes during the month of February, so if you want to hike the trail, plan ahead. We arrived in Peru the last few days of February, acclimated to the elevation for a few days and hiked the Inca Trail on March 1st, the day it opened. We were one of only 4 small groups hiking the Inca Trail that day. It was incredible!

Sun Gate Tours

After purchasing our tickets to Lima (I like using Scott’s Cheap Flights—the free version for cheap airfare combined with Google Flights), I researched where we would want to go and what things we’d want to do. I found some amazing hotels but was having difficulty figuring out how to get from point A to point B over the course of our trip. Enter Sun Gate Tours! Initially I was planning to use them only for the Inca Trail portion of our trip but after seeing how accommodating, quick to respond and helpful they were, I asked them to quote us the entire trip. Sun Gate Tours gave us a reasonable price for a private 8 day tour of Peru with all transfers, admissions and some food included. They would have happily booked us hotels as well, but I was a little particular about our hotels and am so glad I was. Their tour guides always showed up 10-15 minutes early. They took very good care of us with safety precautions and were constantly checking in with us on how we were enjoying the trip. They booked us the best of the best: from picking the best side of the train to sit on to making sure we had delicious boxed lunches for all our excursions. The combination of Sun Gate Tours and the hotels we booked made this vacation amazing.

Our Itinerary

  • Day 1: Depart Kentucky. Flight to Atlanta. Overnight flight to Lima, arrive around 5 AM.
    • Airport Tip: If you are planning a domestic connection from Lima, give yourself plenty of time to get through customs at the airport. We landed in Lima shortly after the airport opened and it still took us 1 1/2 – 2 hours to clear customs with many flights arriving at the same time (very long lines)!
  • Day 2: Flight from Lima to Cusco. Check in to hotel and walking tour of Cusco.
    • Tip: We booked our flight from Lima to Cusco ourselves with LATAM Airlines. Give yourself plenty of time in the airport to get in between flights.
  • Day 3: Tour of the Sacred Valley: Pisaq, Lunch, Ollantaytambo
  • Day 4: ATV adventure to Moray ruins and Maras Salt Mines
    • Tip: Wear sunscreen on all exposed skin–even on your hands! We put sunscreen on our face and neck and wore long sleeves, but forgot that the tops of our hands were exposed while on our ATV adventure. With the high elevation, you will get sunburned with much shorter exposure time.
  • Day 5: Train to Km 104 and hike on the “short” (one-day) Inca Trail into Machu Picchu
    • Tip: Wear hiking boots (my favorite for my sensitive feet/heels) here and use a walking stick! Ask your guide if they will provide one for you. If not, bring one. It was invaluable to us on the rocky terrain. I cannot stress enough how helpful it was for getting up and down the terrain especially in some areas that were wet and slippery. Our guide Richard had collapsible versions for us that were very light but sturdy.
  • Day 6: Tour of Machu Picchu, Train/bus back to Cusco
    • Tip: Pack ponchos! The weather can be unpredictable and it was nice to have the ponchos when we needed them. We had rain jackets but the ponchos helped even more, especially to cover our backpacks during rainy periods.
  • Day 7: Hiking Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain
    • Tip: This excursion overall was about 10 hours long, with 3.5-4 hours one way by car. If it’s raining, the colors may not be as vibrant. On the city outskirts as you leave Cusco you will pass an area with a lot of local bakeries. Be on the lookout and ask your guide to stop and grab some fresh bread if you’d like.
  • Day 8: Tourist Bus from Cusco to Puno
    • Tip: Hopefully as tourism increases, the train will begin running again from Cusco to Puno. You also have the option of flying.
  • Day 9: Tour of Lake Titicaca
  • Day 10: Flight back to Lima, overnight in Lima
    • You would probably have enough time to tour Lake Titicaca and still take an evening flight back to Lima on the same day. I would check that out if I was looking to save a day. The airport is located in Juliaca (about an hour outside of Puno).
  • Day 11: Morning flight back home from Lima to Kentucky via Atlanta

Hotels

I typically prefer booking hotels on our own. This way we can get the location and amenities that are important to us. We stayed at one hotel booked through the tour company and while it was totally adequate, it didn’t compare to the hotels we picked ourselves. If you use a service to book your trip, like we did, they will provide you with hotels they use and pricing. We preferred to pay a little bit more for nicer hotels because this was a couples trip. Being able to come back to beautiful accommodations after long days of site seeing and hiking were worth a little bit extra money to us. Below are our favorite hotels from the trip:

  • Cusco Hotel Antigua Casona San Blas: This hotel was the perfect location right in the older part of Cusco. Rooms were very clean, the courtyard beautiful and the service was top notch. The hotel supplied filtered water in jugs in the bathrooms to brush teeth with and drink as well as filtered water in the lobby to fill up water bottles. They also held our luggage for us when we hiked on the Inca Trail. Breakfast was delicious (more on the hotel restaurant below), and we reserved the spa one night for a massage, which was incredible.
  • Ollantaytambo: Las Qolqas Eco Resort: Another absolutely amazing hotel, nestled right into the Andes Mountains. Located about 10 minutes outside of Ollantaytambo, this resort is picture perfect and has incredible gardens. The service was once again amazing and the location could not be beat. We enjoyed meals made from their gardens, beautiful views, a wood burning stove to keep us warm at night as well as a beautiful spa. I highly, highly recommend this little piece of paradise! Note: Wifi was only available in the lobby of this hotel.
  • Lima: Wyndham Costa Del Sol Lima Airport: This airport hotel was nice, but the real reason it is listed here is the location. It is literally steps away from the airport, which makes it very easy if you have an early morning flight or if you get in late. We went when it was not crowded, but I’ve read to book this early during busy seasons because it fills up quickly.
The hotel is literally across the street from the airport.

Note: The hotel we stayed at in Puno was not our favorite. We stayed outside of the city a bit and would have preferred staying in the city.

Favorite Eats

All the food we ate in Peru was delicious. We love trying local food and though we never ate “cuy” or guinea pig, a specialty in Peru, we still ate a lot of local food. Our favorites were lomo saltado, chicken in a yellow sauce and stuffed peppers. Our absolute favorite restaurant we ate at was in Cusco. Piedra & Sal was the in-house restaurant at our hotel, and we highly recommend eating there, even if you don’t stay at the hotel. Everything we ate was incredible. We are still dreaming about the lomo saltado and their amazing house-made pasta. We also enjoyed a few delicious meals in Ollantayambo at our hotel there. All of the food was made fresh using produce from their gardens and it was delicious.

One word of caution: Be careful eating anything that has been washed in tap water (potentially lettuce/other fruits and vegetables). Most of our hotels had water filtration systems but some did not. I found out the hard way about this at the end of our trip when I thought the lettuce in my sandwich would be okay to eat. It was not and I ended up with food poisoning the night before we were leaving.

Elevation

This is the most common question we got asked, “How was the elevation?” The elevation is manageable. Cusco is actually higher than the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu, so it is recommended to arrive 2-3 days before going to Machu Picchu so you can acclimate to the elevation. I had a dull headache for the first two days that went away with some ibuprofen/tylenol but after that was fine. My husband drank the coca tea that they offer everywhere and said that he thought it helped him. All in all, I would recommend spending a couple days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley to help acclimate yourself before hiking on the Inca Trail. The highest point we reached on our trip was 16,000 feet at Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain. We planned this toward the end of our trip so the elevation change wasn’t as difficult, but we took the hike nice and slow.

Don’t Miss This On Your Trip to Peru

We booked all of these “excursions” with Sun Gate Tours. They took us on a private tour; just us, our guide and a driver to all of these sites. Sun Gate Tours will plan exactly what you want your vacation to be and give a reasonable price.

  • Cusco City Tour: This was a great introduction to Peru, the Incas and the Andes mountain region. We visited Qorikancha, a local market (my favorite) and the Sacsayhuaman ruins. Our driver would drop us off, we would walk for a bit with our guide and then get picked up and taken to the next location of the tour.
  • Sacred Valley Tour: We drove from Cusco about an hour down into the Sacred Valley (about 1,000 feet lower than Cusco in elevation) heading toward Ollantaytambo. On our way we stopped for a breathtaking small hike in Pisaq. You can just walk around the site or you can do a small hike from here. We thought the hike was definitely worth it with beautiful views and it helped prepare us a bit for the Inca Trail we would be hiking a few days later. After Pisaq we had a delicious lunch (included in our tour) and then drove the rest of the way to the ruins at Ollantaytambo. The driving time from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was about 2 hours. The Incan ruins and terraces were worth the climb, and we ended our tour in Ollantaytambo.
  • ATV Tour to Moray/Maras Salt Mines: We took this excursion, also booked through Sun Gate Tours. We were picked up from our hotel and drove about 45 minutes away to get on the ATVs. We rode through beautiful fields to the ruins at Moray. Make sure to use sunscreen especially on sunny days, even on your hands (or wear gloves). After the ATV ride, we were driven to the local salt mines and enjoyed learning all about the history of these unique mines. We had such a fun day and would highly recommend adding this to your trip if you have an extra day on your itinerary.
  • Inca Trail One-Day Hike: We woke up early, met a car (all arranged by Sun Gate Tours) who took us to the train station in Ollantaytambo and transferred our luggage back to Cusco. We carried with us all of our things for the 12 kilometer hike and an overnight in Aguas Calientes. After about a 1.5 hour train ride we got off at Kilometer 104 and met our guide (tell the conductor you are getting off at KM 104 and they will help you to not miss it). We spent the whole day hiking up stone paths built by the Incas into the mountain. We hiked through waterfalls and the incredible ruins of Winay Wayna until we reached the Sun Gate, from which we could see beautiful views of Machu Picchu. The hike ended by walking down into Machu Picchu shortly before it closed and taking a bus down to the city of Aguas Calientes, the city closest to Machu Picchu. One of the benefits of this hike is we had the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu twice–when we arrived directly from the trail (close to the site closing time), and then our ticket was valid for the next day to tour the whole archeological site. The short Inca trail was a difficult but very rewarding hike, especially with the higher elevation. We were glad we did not bring kids (teenagers could probably do it) but we were so grateful we did it!
    • Tips: I highly recommend wearing hiking boots (these were wonderful for sensitive feet). They saved my ankles multiple times on this hike! A hiking stick was also invaluable (our guide brought them for us, check with your guide or bring your own). We also liked these ponchos as we experienced a little rain on the trail.
  • Machu Picchu: Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world for a reason! It was absolutely breathtaking. We took a bus from Aguas Calientes back up the mountain to the entry point. You are required to have a guide take you through Machu Picchu. You can find a guide in the city, but we had our awesome guide Richard from Sun Gate Tours. When you arrive you can only enter once (and bathrooms are OUTSIDE the entrance, so be sure to go to the bathroom before entering). It used to be that you could walk wherever you wanted around Machu Picchu. Due to COVID, different paths have been organized to reduce crowding. You now choose a path you’d like to follow (the guides know) and take time walking around on your path. You are not supposed to backtrack on your path. We enjoyed gorgeous views and learning more about the history of such an amazing place. You can also choose to hike up Wayna Picchu directly from Machu Picchu, if tickets are available. We skipped this and just enjoyed a leisurely visit. After our tour, we took the bus back down the mountain, ate lunch and then took the train to Ollantaytambo and a bus back to Cusco. It took us at least 4 hours to get from Machu Picchu back to Cusco. During the dry season the train usually runs from Machu Picchu all the way to Cusco. During the wet season the train only runs to Ollantaytambo and a bus shuttles you the rest of the way.
  • Tip: We rode on the Peru Rail expedition train and on the Vistadome train. The Vistadome train had a “show” specifically for tourists and souvenirs for tourists to buy. In non-Covid times I think they have food too. The windows are a little bigger on the Vistadome train but overall we preferred the expedition train and wouldn’t choose to pay extra for Vistadome.
  • Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain: Talk about a highlight! This is an all-day excursion from Cusco. We left early in the morning, were provided a box lunch and drove about 4 hours to Palcoyo. The last hour of the drive was beautiful going through the Andes Mountains and seeing hundreds of alpaca and local farming communities built into terraces on the mountainsides. Once we arrived, we had a gentle hike (much easier than the Inca Trail hike, though the elevation was much higher about 16,000 feet) to see a beautiful range of colorful mountains. We hiked on an overcast day, but the colors were still stunning. This area is not yet very built up with tourists, but we expect it will become very popular with its sheer beauty and relative ease of the hike. It was cold at this high elevation, so it is helpful to bring gloves and layers as well as water for this hike. In total we spent about 2 hours at Palcoyo before returning back to Cusco. On our drive home, our guide had us stop and check out the local baking area of Cusco. It was fun to see how much of the bread in the region is made.
  • Tourist Bus to Lake Titicaca: I don’t think this is a necessity, but it was a convenient and interesting way to get from Cusco to Puno. We did not have the option of taking a train, and we preferred seeing more of the country instead of flying, so we choose to take the tourist bus. The sites were interesting, but nothing i would go out of my way to see. It included lunch and it was a comfortable ride. The bus goes both directions: Cusco to Puno and back. We only used it one way and would recommend it as a good option instead of flying. However if we had the option to take the train, we probably would have.
  • Lake Titicaca: Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake (elevation of 12,500 feet) and is shared by Peru and Bolivia. It is right near the city, Puno with Juliaca being the closest airport in Peru. Lake Titicaca is home to the Uru who live on floating islands. You can choose to stay on the floating islands or just visit them. We enjoyed a day trip boat tour where we learned about their way of life and how they build and maintain the floating islands. We then took a boat ride to Taquile island where we learned about a whole different group of people, walked along the beautiful island streets and watched people celebrating Carnaval. We also enjoyed a traditional lunch with beautiful views of the lake. Because we happened to be visiting over the Carnaval holiday we got to witness the local festivities including parades throughout the town. This tour was unique and a must-do when visiting Puno. Once again, we booked with Sun Gate Tours. If you’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that we were blown away with our tour company: Sun Gate Tours! One of the best tour companies we’ve ever worked with.

What should I pack for a trip to Peru?

We travelled to Peru at the end of February/March during their “wet season.” This also happens to be summer season, so we had temperatures varying between 50-70 degrees. Pack layers! I packed a few pairs of hiking pants, a few t-shirts, some long-sleeves, a sweatshirt and a rain jacket/shell. I also packed:

  • good walking shoes
  • hiking boots that saved my feet,
  • amazing hiking socks (they were so comfortable and not too hot in any weather),
  • rain ponchos (these were awesome)
  • a hat
  • sunscreen (that sun is STRONG)
  • headache medication to help the first few days with elevation
  • toilet paper/hand sanitizer: carry some toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you–not all the restrooms always had toilet paper/soap

COVID Pre-cautions

This seems to change from day to day. What I will say: If you are fine masking, you will be fine traveling in Peru! Sometimes you are asked to double mask, wear N95 masks or even use a face shield (differs depending on the mode of transportation). It was not difficult for us to mask on our trip. COVID has really decimated the tourist industry in Peru and we felt very fortunate to be able to visit and hopefully help encourage tourism to come back. Currently many places have reduced numbers (Machu Picchu at the time we went had decreased their visitor limit from 5000 people a day to 2500–and still only around 1000 a day were coming…if that). If you are vaccinated and willing to mask throughout your trip at times, you will be rewarded with very few crowds on your trip. Be sure to bring your vaccination card as you will need it throughout your trip (you must also have your booster to be considered fully vaccinated). Check out this website for more information about COVID-19 in Peru. To get back into the U.S. we needed to have a negative COVID test. Many hotels in Cusco can book you an appointment for a COVID test and send someone to your hotel to test you. We ended our trip in Puno, though and our hotel did not offer that service. Instead, we bought the BinaxNow COVID tests and brought them with us on our trip. One day before our flight left Peru, we took the tests with a virtual person watching us. The tests gave us a quick result that we could send to the airline (we flew with Delta) to get back into the U.S. If you do this, make sure to register using your full name on your passport (we had to enter first and middle name in the first name box because there was no box for middle names, but it gives you the best chance of success when submitting the info to the airlines). Overall, it was a very easy process and we would use those tests again. Bring 1 or 2 extra just in case though!

We had an absolutely amazing trip to Peru! I know we only scratched the surface, but Peru blew us away with its beauty, kind people and amazing food. If you have the opportunity to go to Peru, take it! It was a bucket list adventure that we will never forget.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I drink the water in Peru?

Most likely no. Some of our hotels provided filtered drinking water but it was always labeled as such. We avoided foods that may have been washed in tap water (think lettuce) and we used bottled water to drink and brush our teeth. The locals are just more used to the water and their immune systems tolerate it better, but as a tourist you should avoid it.

How hard is hiking the Inca Trail?

We hiked the “short” Inca trail which takes 5-6 hours and is 12 kilometers long. The path is carved into the mountain with the first 2-3+ hours being a hike up the mountain side (somewhat gradual but lots of rocky stairs as well). Once you reach the beautiful ruins of Winay Wayna, the trail is fairly flat with a few up and downs until you have to climb up the stairs to the Sun Gate. After the Sun Gate it is all downhill to reach Machu Picchu. This was a difficult hike and we were exhausted by the end of it. All that to say it is worth preparing for and doing if you can. It was the highlight of our trip, despite the difficulty.

Will I get altitude sickness in Peru?

If you live at sea level or close to it, expect to feel some effects from the altitude, but it affects some more than others. Drink the coca tea you are offered and bring some good headache medication with you. I needed it for about 2 days before I acclimated to the elevation. My husband drank the coca tea daily.

If I only have 5 days is it enough for Peru?

If you are coming solely for Machu Picchu, I think it’s worth it. Take a red eye to Lima, spend day 1 in Cusco. Day 2 Sacred Valley. Day 3 Hike the Short Inca Trail. Day 4 Machu Picchu and back to Cusco. Day 5 Head Home. If you’re coming from the U.S. you will likely have little to no jet lag to get over (Cusco was in the same time zone as the Eastern US, but I don’t know if that will always be the case with the US switching to permanent DST). This makes it a lot more do-able for a quick trip than some destinations.

Which Rainbow Mountain Should I Visit?

Most tourists heading to Peru and the Andes have heard of Rainbow Mountain. We did not go to the traditional “Rainbow Mountain” known as Vinicunca. This hike we’ve heard is very difficult where you hike for a couple of hours to get to it and you get one iconic view of a “Rainbow Mountain.” Instead we went to the lesser known Palcoyo Mountain, which was incredible. The hike was considerably easier and although for a lot of the hike you get teased with just seeing one Rainbow Mountain, when you get to the top of that mountain you will suddenly see a whole range of them instead of just one. Ask your tour guide about Palcoyo, lesser known but an incredible experience!

Did you feel safe in Peru?

We felt completely safe everywhere we travelled. People were very kind and helpful, even when we didn’t speak any Spanish.

What is the best time of year to travel to Peru?

We loved traveling during the rainy season. We experienced very little rain, mostly warm weather and low crowds. However, the dry season tends to be more popular with a better chance at dry weather and cooler temperatures.

Should I tip in Peru?

From everything we read and saw, locals don’t tip much if at all. However, tips are somewhat expected from foreigners. We felt it appropriate to tip our guides, drivers and leave a small tip at restaurants.

Did you have cell service in Peru?

You will have to have a plan that allows international roaming, usually this costs a daily fee if you use it. One possibility for a couple is for one person to use it and then turn on a hot spot for the other person when needed. All of our hotels had wifi which we used in the evenings to connect with our kids.


I love writing about our travel destinations and hope that it can help some of you who are planning your own trips. You can read about another of our couple trips here and some of our family vacations here and here.

Disclaimer: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a very small amount from qualifying purchases.

Follow me on Instagram @amybakesbread, like Amy Bakes Bread on Facebook or follow me on Pinterest for my baking ideas with a few travel adventures too.

19 Gifts for A Home Baker

With the holidays coming up, I thought it would be nice to make a list of my tried and true favorite baking tools that would make great stocking stuffers or “big ticket” gifts. I started this as a “top ten” list, but the more I listed the things I love to use in my kitchen on a weekly basis, the more this list grew! So here it is: 19 things that would make the perfect gift for a home baker or someone who just loves to bake. Everything that made this list is something that I use and love in my kitchen (or something I want for myself for Christmas) and would be thrilled to receive as a gift over the holidays. If you have an aspiring baker in your life or someone who just loves baking in the kitchen, check some of these ideas out. I hope it helps!

Disclaimer: These are all products that I use and purchased myself or a few that I would love to receive. I am a member of Amazon affiliate. Clicking on any Amazon link and purchasing through my link will earn me a very small amount through qualifying purchases. Thank you for supporting me in running this website so I can bring you more great content.

  1. 1. Zester: Whether I’m zesting lemons, frozen ginger, oranges or limes, this zester comes in handy to add bright flavor to many baked goods or dinners. It’s the perfect size for a stocking stuffer too!

  1. 2. USA Pans: These are my long-time favorite pans. They are the easiest to clean of any pans I’ve ever used. I found them at Costco a few months ago, so be sure to check there as well. I love their traditional loaf pans, baking sheets and cookie sheets the most. They are perfect for baking brioche buns or these cloverleaf dinner rolls.

  1. 3. Pastry Mat: Using a pastry mat to roll out and work with dough is a game changer for me! I love turning out my dough onto a pastry mat instead of the countertop. I also love how easy it is to have the measurements right in front of you when making cinnamon rolls, rolling out pie dough or shaping a cookie cake.

  1. 4. Sourdough Bread Lame: I love the UFO bread lame from Wire Monkey which I received last year as a Christmas gift. It is easy to hold and makes bread scoring very easy. I’ve also liked this one you can grab on Amazon. Either of these options will change the way you score bread and give your finished bread a beautiful look!

  1. 5. Tartine Bread Book: This is the book that started my love of sourdough. It has beautiful images and amazing recipes from the beginning of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. It is not an easy book to start with, but would be perfect for someone who loves baking with sourdough or wants to learn more complex recipes. I also love their second book of mostly pastries, and their third book (all about baking with whole grains) is making its way on my Christmas list this year.

  1. 6. Potato “Bread” Pot: I’ve waxed poetic about this potato pot to bake bread in before on Instagram. It is not necessary. You can make awesome bread with a baking stone or using a dutch oven (I used a pot like this for many years before upgrading and it worked really well). But, if you want to splurge on someone for Christmas who loves baking sourdough, this pot is the way to go! At the time of posting Costco online also carries these pots if you want to save about $40. This is where I purchased my pots (and I have four of them!).

  1. 7. 00 Pizza Flour: Have a pizza lover in your life? Grab them a bag of this Italian-style pizza flour to mix up their next batch of pizza dough. It costs more than a regular bag of flour but makes delicious chewy and crispy crust, just the way they eat in Naples.

  1. 8. Cookie Dough Scoop: I use this cookie scoop ALL. THE. TIME. From small batches of cookies to scooping out my favorite muffin batter, it makes my life easier. I like the 2 Tablespoon size which is good for most cookie recipes, mini muffins or scoop twice to fill a muffin tin. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer or small gift for anyone who loves to bake.

  1. 9. Meat Thermometer (Candy Thermometer): I went too many years without using a thermometer in my kitchen. I love using this one to cook meat on the grill to the perfect temperature. I also love that I can use it when making caramel sauce on the stove to check the temperature as I go. It makes a great gift or stocking stuffer.

  1. 10. Danish Dough Whisk: Want a unique Christmas gift that looks neat and is so much fun to use? This Danish Dough Whisk is fun for any baker, whether it’s for mixing up waffles or stirring together a wet sourdough. I bought mine a few years ago and use it every week. This dough whisk is perfect for a unique gift exchange or to place under the tree for your favorite baker.

  1. 12. Bread Banneton: If you have been around here for awhile, you know how much I love to bake sourdough bread. These bread bannetons are perfect to hold sourdough bread while it proofs. I love the circular lines that form on the bread loaves when I use these (compared to small kitchen bowls). For someone who wants to bake sourdough or up their bread game, this is a great gift.

  1. 13. Bench Scraper: I use a bench scraper every time I make sourdough bread and almost anytime I work with roll dough. I bought this nice one from King Arthur Flour, but this one on Amazon would make a great gift too.

  1. 14. Sourdough Starter: If you want a really unique and fun gift for your favorite baker, grab this sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour. It will save time vs making one from scratch and is really good quality.

  1. 15. Parchment Paper: My all-time favorite parchment paper is this Kirkland brand you can find at Costco. I tried so many different brands of parchment paper during the pandemic when the supply of parchment paper was running low and this is far and away my favorite. If you don’t have a Costco membership, go with a friend or you can grab a roll or two on Amazon (but Costco is much cheaper)!

  1. 16. Metal Measuring Cup and Spoons: I’ve been meaning to upgrade my measuring cups and measuring spoons and these are the ones I’ve got my eye on with their many great reviews on Amazon. Maybe they will find a place in my Christmas stocking this year. Wink, wink to my hubby.

  1. 17. Bosch Mixer: If you’re looking for the best bread mixer for a home baker, the Bosch Universal Plus cannot be beat. This is definitely a high ticket item but it will last years and there’s nothing better than turning it on and letting the high quality motor knead the dough for ten minutes to really develop the gluten. I find this is best for large (two loaves or more) batches of dough.

  1. 18. KitchenAid Mixer: Another high ticket item that any home baker will love. I love using a KitchenAid for cookies, cakes, frostings and marshmallow. My daughter uses it a lot for her cookie business. Definitely go with the Professional 600 or higher series for the higher power motor. This mixer can also knead bread with a dough hook, though it isn’t quite as powerful as a Bosch for bread.

  1. 19. Ooni Pizza Oven: This one is a big splurge but it puts out amazing pizza and naan bread. Be prepared for a long wait time when you order (it may take awhile), but the wait is worth it. I love experimenting with the Ooni Koda Pizza Oven and will be posting more recipes as I use it more. I chose the Ooni Koda 16 specifically because it can make larger (16 inch) pizzas, and I have been very happy with it.

And there you have it! Nineteen awesome gifts for a home baker. I hope this is helpful as you are gathering your Christmas gifts and buying for those you love. And really, the best gifts are the gifts of time spent together, enjoying family and friends and making memories. I wish I could bring you a plate of Christmas cookies this year as a thank you, but a recipe for the Best Christmas Cookies Ever will have to do. Thank you for being here and have a wonderful holiday season!

Disclaimer: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a very small amount from qualifying purchases.

Follow me on Instagram @amybakesbread, like Amy Bakes Bread on Facebook or follow me on Pinterest for more baking ideas. Please share this recipe if you enjoyed it! Post a photo and tag me @amybakesbread so I can see your bake.

All About: Vital Wheat Gluten (And why It deserves a Place in Your PANTRY)

Vital Wheat Gluten. What is it? Is it a staple in your pantry? Why should you have it on hand if you are baking bread? All of these questions I asked myself as I started baking bread many years ago. As I would research a recipe, oftentimes I would find the author recommending vital wheat gluten. Initially I had no idea what it was or why it should matter, but I started using it. I don’t always keep bread flour (or high gluten flour) on hand. If there is one ingredient that has made a big difference in my bread, vital wheat gluten is it. I’ve compiled some information on what it is and why you should have it in your kitchen as a home baker if you want to make some seriously delicious loaves of bread.

What is Vital Wheat Gluten? 

Vital wheat gluten is the natural protein that is found in wheat. It is made by hydrating wheat flour (this activates the gluten) and then processing the flour to remove everything except for the gluten. This gluten is then dried and ground back into a powder and voila: vital wheat gluten! Many people who buy vital wheat gluten use it to make seitan which can be used as a “meat substitute.” It is very popular in some Asian cultures, where it is mixed with water and some spices to form a “dough” and then cooked. It becomes very chewy and has a meat-like texture. 

The Importance of Protein Content in Flour

Vital wheat gluten is made from the protein in the endosperm of a wheat berry. I’ve written about wheat before; if you want to learn more about wheat to pick the best type of flour for your bake, you can read here. Typically, vital wheat gluten is made up of anywhere from 75%-90% protein. The more protein in flour, the stronger the gluten bond is in the flour. A strong gluten bond traps the gas produced by the yeast and gives a strong rise to your loaf of bread. If you are having issues with your bread not rising well or recipes not turning out exactly as you like, check the flour you are using. Protein content matters. 

  • Soft Flour: Anywhere from 5%-10% protein, best used in pancakes, waffles, quick breads where you want soft, tender quick breads and don’t want the gluten to develop.
  • All Purpose Flour: 9%-11% protein, best all-around flour for your kitchen. Can be used to make pancakes, waffles, muffins, breads and give a good result. If you are making bread, add some vital wheat gluten for superior results.
  • Bread Flour (hard flour): 11%-13% protein, best for baking bread (no need to add vital wheat gluten, unless you are working with whole wheat flours).

All Purpose Flour vs Bread Flour

In a standard home kitchen, you may use only all purpose flour. It is the most common flour and has a protein content of anywhere from 9-11%. You can make good bread from most brands of all purpose flour. If you want to make superior bread, it is best to increase the flour’s protein content. You can do this by buying bread flour which has a higher protein content OR you can add vital wheat gluten to your all purpose flour, essentially making your own bread flour. This increases the protein content of your flour, which results in a better loaf of bread. For best results, sift the vital wheat gluten together with the all purpose flour, though if I’m being completely honest here, I often just throw in a few Tablespoons about halfway through adding flour, and it works well too.

How Much Vital Wheat Gluten Should I Add?

When baking with vital wheat gluten, you want to be careful not to add too much to the recipe. My rule of thumb is to add 1 teaspoon for every cup of flour the recipe calls for. Wheat gluten absorbs liquid at a higher rate than traditional flour, so you may need to increase your liquid by a few Tablespoons. Let the dough be your guide.

Whole Grains and Vital Wheat Gluten

Vital wheat gluten is especially helpful when baking with whole wheat and whole grains. Adding a little to bread made with whole wheat flour produces a soft, light and fluffy texture to a bread that can often be a little coarse. Whole wheat flour typically has all of the bran, germ and endosperm in it. The bran has little shards or sharp edges that cut the strands of gluten forming in the dough. Whole grain loaves tend to be more dense and don’t rise quite as tall as loaves made with processed white flour. Adding a little vital wheat gluten and some extra liquid to these whole grain doughs helps soften the texture and give more oven rise in baking.

Substitutions

So what should you do if you come across a recipe that calls for vital wheat gluten and you don’t have any? In a bread recipe, the vital wheat gluten is there to help give structure to the bread. If the recipe calls for all purpose flour and vital wheat gluten, you can substitute bread flour (you may need a little less flour due to the high protein content in bread flour). If a recipe calls for whole wheat flour and vital wheat gluten, you can leave out the vital wheat gluten. Your whole wheat bread will not rise quite as high and tall or taste quite as soft as it will if you add in the wheat gluten, but it shouldn’t stop you from making a delicious loaf.

A Pantry Staple

I have never made seitan, but I use vital wheat gluten almost weekly in my baking. I buy this large bag from Amazon (affiliate link) and it lasts me a long time. You can also find smaller sized bags (affiliate link) at your grocery store, usually in the baking aisle. A small amount of vital wheat gluten added to yeast bread recipes improves the texture and elasticity of the dough. It helps produce tall, round loaves and gives a light and fluffy texture when used in moderation. Vital wheat gluten also helps soften breads made with whole grains and results in a superior bread bake. Add it to your grocery list and start using it in your baking. You won’t regret it!

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Easy Overnight Brioche

Buttery, soft, crispy exterior with a super soft middle, brioche is eating bread that tastes like a croissant…with a lot less work. It is a rich, decadent bread that is perfect for toasting, slathering with jam or eating plain. I was accustomed to picking up a loaf of grocery store brioche to make french toast for my family on special occasions, but with this recipe, those grocery store brioche days are in my past. With just a little planning and the work of a stand mixer, you can have some amazing loaves of bread and will never go back to the grocery store stuff again. Promise!

Use a stand mixer

A little disclaimer: This recipe really needs the use of a stand mixer. Brioche dough is very, very soft and unlike other dough that you may have worked with before. I would not try to hand-knead this dough. It kneads for a very long time as it incorporates all the butter. My hands are also usually warm and warm hands trying to incorporate butter will end in a melty mess. Do yourself a favor and pull out a stand mixer.

Brioche Dough is Unique

The first time I ever mixed up a batch of brioche, I was a bit overconfident. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this dough was definitely different than dough I had worked with in the past. I thought I had ruined the dough because it was so sticky, wet and taking forever to incorporate the butter. I now know that this is the normal process of brioche and the refrigeration process helps to solve all of those issues.

Why Should I Refrigerate Brioche Dough?

After mixing the brioche dough for a long time…at least 5 minutes before adding the butter and then 15-20 minutes as you incorporate all the butter (yes, please use a mixer for this dough!), the dough will turn shiny and be sticky. Transfer the wet dough to a large bowl. You may think, “this can’t be right!” but it is! Cover the dough with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge overnight (or up to 8 hours). While in the fridge the cold air helps solidify the butter and makes the dough more workable in the morning. The dough should be left in the fridge for 8 hours or up to 2 days. This long refrigeration time not only makes the dough easier to handle and shape but improves the flavor. Win-win!

How to Shape Brioche

Once you pull your dough out of the refrigerator, cut the dough into two loaves and then decide how to shape your bread. Add a little bit of flour (not more than a Tablespoon) to the countertop and place the cold dough on top. Work the flour in a bit and shape it. Some of my favorite shapes for brioche are pictured below:

Alternate balls of bread in a loaf pan

Cut into three pieces, roll into three long strips and braid

Fill with cinnamon sugar (or other filling), roll up cinnamon-roll style, cut and twist

Make 6-8 buns out of one loaf of dough, shape into balls and flatten with hand

I do have a very good brioche burger bun recipe on my blog already, but I often will make burger buns out of whatever brioche dough I am making. In the case of this recipe, instead of shaping another loaf, I shape 6-8 buns out of the dough even if we won’t be using them immediately. If I’m going to take the time to make brioche, I may as well make some extra buns! The buns freeze so well, toast up beautifully and are ready to pull out anytime we decide to throw some burgers on the grill. Bake buns at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Brioche Has a Longer Shelf Life

Due to the high amounts of egg and butter, brioche has a bit of a longer shelf life than traditional bread. After a few days if we have brioche left over, I like to slice the remaining loaf and freeze it. When we want a piece, we will pull a slice out and toast it. We also use leftover brioche to make amazing french toast if the bread has been left out for a few days without being eaten. I usually have to reserve a loaf specifically for french toast because it doesn’t happen very often that we have leftover brioche. 

A Little Planning for a Big Payoff

Brioche takes more of a time investment than a traditional loaf of bread. I don’t find it difficult, just something to plan around. This recipe makes two loaves of bread. If you’re going to take the time, you might as well get two loaves out of it! I will often double this recipe for my Kitchen Aid Mixer (affiliate link, though if you are in the market for one I would make sure and check Costco before purchasing from Amazon: they have great deals!) and make four loaves. This gives me enough dough to shape some of my brioche into burger buns, some into loaves of plain brioche and gives one or two loaves of cinnamon swirl brioche. I always end up sharing a loaf too.

Easy Overnight Brioche

Yield: Two loaves of brioche

Time: 40 minute mix/knead, Overnight refrigeration (8 hours to 2 days), 20 minute shape, 3 hour rise, 45 minute bake

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup milk, warmed
  • 2 Tablespoons instant yeast
  • 6 Tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 large eggs
  • 5 ½ – 6 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cup (20 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1 egg (for egg wash)

Directions:

Day 1 (Evening)

  1. Warm the milk in the microwave (be sure that it is warm – not hot, or it will kill the yeast). 
  2. To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, add the warm milk, instant yeast and sugar. Check to make sure the yeast is activating. It will look a little bubbly and smell yeasty within a minute or two.
  3. Add the salt and eggs. Stir to combine. 
  4. With the dough hook running, begin adding the flour a cup at a time into the mixer. Depending on the size of your eggs, you will need a little more or less flour. The dough should be a little sticky and clear the sides of the mixing bowl. Mix well until all the flour is incorporated. Knead for 5 minutes.
  5. While the mixer is kneading, cut the butter into chunks. 
  6. Add the butter a cube at a time into the mixer, trying to place the butter right near the dough hook in the center of the bowl.
  7. Once all the butter has been added, knead the dough for 15-20 minutes. 
  8. As the dough kneads, the butter will incorporate into the dough and the dough will become glossy and smooth. It will also be sticky and a little wet looking. 
  9. After a long kneading process, transfer the dough to a large bowl (with enough room for the dough to double in size in the fridge). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge overnight or at least 8 hours to rise. You can leave the dough in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Day 2 (Morning)

  1. When ready to shape your brioche, pull the dough out of the fridge. Lightly flour a hard surface and turn the brioche dough out onto the floured surface.
  2. Cut the dough in half and set one half to the side for the second loaf.
  3. Line two loaf pans (my favorite here, affiliate link) with parchment paper.
  4. Shape the brioche as desired.
  5. Cover the loaves and let rise in a warm place (not hot or the butter in the dough will melt). I like to choose a window or place the dough under a light to rise. Let brioche rise for about 3 hours until puffed up.
  6. Once the brioche has just about doubled in size, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  7. In a small bowl, crack an egg. Add a teaspoon of water and whip together with a fork. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash lightly over the brioche.
  8. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. After 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 30-35 minutes. Check on the brioche in the middle of baking. If it is browning too quickly, cover the tops of the loaves with a piece of foil to prevent further browning.
  9. Allow the loaves to cool before slicing into them. Enjoy!

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Please share this recipe if you enjoyed it! Post a photo and tag me @amybakesbread so I can see your bake 🙂

Baking Tip: How to Line a Pan with Parchment Paper

Do you use parchment paper? Parchment paper has upped my baking game immensely. It helps create the perfect bottoms for cookies. Parchment paper is invaluable when making sourdough bread. It makes clean-up a breeze and can get you the best looking bars/brownies you’ve ever baked. If you haven’t started using parchment paper, now is the time. Keep reading to find out how to line a pan with parchment paper.

I buy parchment paper in bulk at Costco

Why should you use parchment paper?

Parchment paper allows for easy clean up

Parchment paper has the unique quality of being non-stick (it is NOT wax paper) which means that rarely do you have to grease a sheet pan or bread pan if you cover the pan with parchment paper before baking. Sometimes dark pans can leave the bottoms of your cookies very dark. Parchment paper helps provide your baked goods with an even bake. One of the worst things that has happened to me as a baker is mixing up a delicious batter, baking it and watching it fall apart when I turn it out because it’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is where parchment paper saves the day. That little extra step of lining a pan is worth the peace of mind and the perfect bake. 

Lining Baking Sheets and Loaf Pans

I almost always line my sheet pans with parchment paper when baking cookies on them. A simple sheet with a little bit of overhang is fine, though I do like to cut it down if it’s hanging over the edges too much.

For a loaf pan, with a stickier batter, like this banana bread or the lemon blueberry bread that is pictured, I will often drape the parchment paper over the sides. I spray the paper and let it hang over the sides of my non-stick bread pan (affiliate link). This makes it simple to pull the bread out of the pan (you may need to run a knife along any edges that are not touching the parchment paper) without it sticking to the bottom.

How to: Make a Parchment Sling

I use parchment slings when baking bar cookies or brownies in an 8 by 8 or 9 by 13 pan. I also use parchment slings for sweet peach bread and rhubarb snack cake. When baking cookies and cakes, I line my pans with parchment paper too…though those don’t require a sling. A parchment sling is a tiny extra step that will save you clean up time and give your bar cookies a five star rating.

1. Set the parchment paper on top of the pan. Allow for an inch or two of overhang on each side.

2. In each corner of the parchment paper, make a cut from the edge of the paper to the edge of the pan, as pictured below. Remove the small corner squares that result from the cuts.