Let’s talk about… proofing cloths

Dough cloth, proofing cloth, baker’s couche, or baker’s linen. There are several names for the stiff, thick flax linen cloth that bakers use to stabilize doughs during the final rise. Unlinke a banneton, where the shape of the bread depends on the shape of the banneton, you have much more freedom using a couche.

I use it mainly for rolls and baguettes, because you need to make more than just one for the couche to properly work. It isn’t just the cloth that’s keeping the dough from spreading all over the place, it’s mainly the different pieces of dough that give each other stability, with the cloth acting as a barrier so they don’t get stuck to each other.

In addition to stabilizing, the cloth completely covers the soon to be breads/rolls, keeping the temperature stable and wicking up excess moisture for a super thin and crackling crust while protecting the dough from a draft. It’s a very handy tool to have, but I admit that using it requires a tiny little bit of a learning curve.

Of course, you could just buy several baguette pans and let your baguettes and hard rolls rise in there, but I’ve never seen a more useless tool. It lets you easily achieve a successful bake, no matter how sloppy your shaping is, but by using it you’ll grow complacent and the shaping will never improve. Plus, those baguette pans are yet another thing to clutter up your kitchen cupboards.

Shaping baguettes and different kinds of rolls isn’t too hard once you know how to do it and had the opportunity to practice a few times.

What size of cloth do I need?

Mine’s about 65 x 85 cm (25.5 x 33.5 inches). It seems huge, but considering all the folds you’ll need plus a big part to cover the top, it’s perfect for me. Smaller makes little to no sense.

I have two flax linen towels that I sometimes use when I divide my dough to bake a small bread plus 2-3 rolls or so, but that’s about all they can handle. They’re much too small for a full batch. And I always have to use both, so one can make the folds and the other can cover the top.

How do I prep the baker’s cloth?

When you first use it, very slightly mist it with water and generously flour it. I use a medium rye flour for nearly all my dusting, but whatever flour you use should be fine. Rub it in, let it dry, wipe off/ shake off the excess, and you’re good to go. Roll it / fold it up and store it somewhere dry and airy.

After that, you just lightly dust the cloth before every use. No more water!

How do I actually use the cloth?

You basically create folds where the dough can rest against.
Start with two baguettes or two lines of rolls, place them a few inches apart, then pull up the cloth in between. You can flour either before or as you go, and once you have all the dough resting in there, pull the rest of the cloth over the top to cover all the dough completely.

Can I use the cloth for every type of dough?

No, you can’t. Lean bread doughs only, which means no fats and and no eggs! It’s ok if your dough has rested in an oiled bowl, that’s a tiny amount we can ignore. I mean butter, lard or oils that were added to your dough to make it richer. Fats will wick into the fibers of the couche and mess with the moisture absorbtion and turn rancid eventually. Eggy doughs are usually sticky because there’s also sugar in them, and raw egg in the cloth isn’t really hygienic.
If you have a favorite recipe for brioche burger buns or something similar that results in a super soft and sticky dough like my za’atar buns, use a pan, rings, or another form of support. Not the linen cloth!

How do I clean the cloth after use?

There’ll be a bit of moisture in it from the dough, so hang your cloth up and let it dry completely. Then shake it out and store it. That’s it. Don’t wash it!

The cloth smells and I really want to wash it. How do I do that?

It’s normal that the cloth smells a bit when you get it. The raw fiber itself has a bit of an odor, and the stay in the plastic packaging doesn’t really help. If you bought a french linen baker’s couche, it’s already pre-washed and that smell will dissipate on its own. Hang it outside and air it out.

There aren’t any chemicals in it, so please! Don’t wash it, you really shouldn’t. You’re more likely to mess up the cloth than improve it. The only reason to throw your cloth into the wash is a big, fatty or eggy accident. So make sure you eat your egg salad sandwiches somewhere far away from it! If it’s unavoidable, wash it without any or just very little neutral detergent on warm. No softeners, no spinning cycle. Hang dry it. Pull it into shape while still dripping wet, and season it when it’s done drying. You’ll find that it has shrunk, is creased, has developed light patches around those creases and (depending on your water quality) it’ll either come out a bit softer than before or stiff as a board once it’s dry. It’s better if you just don’t mess with it! If you wash it, you’ll probably regret it.

Some cloths come in a set with a piece of wood. What’s the purpose?

It’s a flipping board, a very handy tool to pick up super soft baguettes or rolls that won’t hold their shape when you try to pick them up by hand. You set the board down next to your unbaked baguette, lift the cloth to roll/flip the baguette onto it and from there flip it onto the parchment or directly onto the pizza stone/baking steel where you then score and bake it.

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