When you bake a lot of bread, you’ll look through a wide variety of different recipes online. A great number of them will call for a proofing basket and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll ask yourself ‘what on earth is a proofing basket, and why don’t I already have one?’.
If you have been thinking the same thing, keep reading to find out what a proofing basket is, why you might need one, and the best proofing basket substitute that you’ll probably have lying around your kitchen somewhere.
What is a Proofing Basket?
A proofing basket or a banneton is, without wanting to sound a little facetious, a basket that you let your bread proof in. They exist for a few reasons, so let’s break it down and keep things simple.
The main reason that proofing baskets are used is to give your bread some structure and shape while it rests and rises. If you simply lay down some dough on the countertop to proof, then it will expand outwards rather than upwards. Placing dough into a proofing basket force the dough to rise vertically upwards, giving it a natural shape and structure.
This shape and structure are maintained by gluten within the bread created by all that kneading you did, which probably felt like hours of work. When the dough has taken on that shape, it will want to return to it when you remove it from the basket. Therefore, when you place the bread onto the baking sheet and bake it, it will retain its shape well.
The other main reason that proofing baskets are used is to allow for some water from the dough to evaporate as it proves. This will lead to a dough that’s ever so slightly more rigid when it bakes, and will typically brown and cook more quickly overall.
This evaporation factor can be tricky to replicate outside of a proofing basket – most household items are designed to hold water, not allow it to evaporate over time. Thankfully, there are some options that will let you keep this functionality.
What Happens if You Bake Without a Proofing Basket?
If you proof and bake bread without a proofing basket, it’s not really the end of the world. What’s most likely to happen is that you’ll proof bread on a flat surface. In that situation, the dough will not rise much and spread out over the surface very slowly, becoming a little more like a pancake than a loaf of bread. This will mean that once baked, the bread itself will resemble a flatter and wider shape. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it is worth bearing in mind if you’d like to avoid it.
You might also be using a proofing basket alternative without even realizing it – many people simply proof bread in the mixing bowl. That will work well to create and maintain the shape that you’re using, though it won’t allow for great evaporation from the dough.
A bread proofed in that way would typically have a great shape, though it may take a little longer to bake, or otherwise be slightly moister than other loaves of bread.
Best Proofing Basket Substitutes
Strong Linen Cloth
Strong linen cloth is a proofing basket substitute that has long been used in French baking and is referred to as a chouche. The fabric is typically thick and heavy and is heavily floured to prevent the dough from sticking to it. The fabric is fairly rigid and strong and can hold its shape better than a normal tea towel
Strong linen cloth used in this way is typically used for more freeform bread shapes, such as baguette or boule – these less rigid bread shapes can be formed easily within the flexible fabric, while also being gently pressed into a certain shape to ensure the bread comes out in that shape.
This type of linen cloth is also used to line a banneton proofing basket. If you are looking for a proofing cloth alternative to line your proofing basket with, you can use a tea towel, an old bath bowl or an old linen cloth, if you have one.
Here is how to make a proofing basket alternative using a cloth.
A mixing bowl is the most common proofing basket alternative since it’s something we all have lying around somewhere. A bowl made from metal, ceramic, plastic, or bamboo would all work just as well for proofing bread in.
The main downside of using a mixing bowl as a proofing basket alternative is that some materials won’t allow for even evaporation across the surface of the bread dough. While a bamboo basket would allow for almost all the surface of the bread dough to lose some moisture, a solid metal bowl would only allow for the top surface of the dough to lose moisture.
Mixing bowls are often at their best when they’re paired with a proofing cloth. The reason for this is that smooth bowls cannot hold a level of flour all the way from the base to the rim. Lining the bowl with a linen cloth allows a layer of flour between the dough and the bowl itself, preventing sticking.
A cloth-lined wicker basket is the most common DIY proofing basket since it’s functionally very similar to a traditional banneton. But it serves as a great banneton substitute. The only real difference between a banneton and a more general wicker basket would be the shape and usage. A wicker basket is designed for storage more than for use as a proofing basket and they tend to be bigger. But if you have a look around, you’ll definitely find a wicker basket small enough for your bread dough.
Some wicker baskets have quite big gaps too which could cause some of the dough to leak through the gaps of the wicker, leading to dough getting caught in the basket itself, making it hard to remove it.
If you do use a wicker basket as a proofing basket substitute, make sure that there are no gaps between the weaves or at least line the wicker basket with a well-floured linen cloth or tea towel.
A great benefit of using a wicker basket is the texture that the wicker can leave behind on the surface of your bread dough. A traditional banneton leaves a series of gentle rings on the surface of the bread, while a less conventional basket could leave beautiful woven patterns across the dough, leading to a pretty final loaf.
A colander is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of a proofing basket alternative. But, it’s actually a really good alternative as it has holes that will help the dough breathe and release moisture.
At a basic level, though, it works just the same as other mixing bowl-style methods. Line a colander with a floured linen cloth to prevent the dough from sticking to the colander or getting stuck in any small holes in the metal, and it will rise in the rough shape of the colander itself.
A benefit of using a colander over a mixing bowl, as I mentioned above, is that the holes in the metal give you a way to ensure even evaporation across the dough. This level of evaporation is ideal for most bread recipes, so this method certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
We all have an abundance of plastic containers at home and they aren’t just great for storing food. In fact, when I make sourdough or pizza dough that needs to ferment for a few days, I always store it in a plastic container in the fridge.
Yes, containers are airtight and the dough will probably not be able to breathe as much, but I have been proofing dough in plastic containers for years now and I have never had any issues.
Terracotta Gardening Pot
A terracotta gardening pot might sound like a bizarre option, but it truly can work very well indeed. The main reason for this is that terracotta is mildly porous and absorbent. This type of material has been used to create self-watering systems for garden plants for a long time. You can use the same principle to allow good ventilation of bread dough during the proofing phase of baking.
To use a terracotta gardening pot as a banneton substitute, line a pot with a floured linen cloth, and then place your bread dough inside and lightly cover it. Over a long proof, excess moisture will be evaporated from the dough into the terracotta, leading to a dough that’s got a better final consistency.
As a quick note: this isn’t the case with glazed terracotta. Glazing seals the pores within the terracotta, so ideally, try and find an unglazed terracotta pot to proof bread dough.
Take a look at all the creative ways you can find a great proof basket substitute.
Which Proofing Basket Alternative Will You Try?
You don’t need any fancy tools to prove bread. A banneton is nice to have, but it’s not necessary, especially if you are just a home cook that wants to enjoy the occasional homemade loaf here and there.
There are so many proofing basket substitutes, most of which are probably sitting in a cupboard in your kitchen as you read this. Mixing bowls, containers, colanders, baskets, and terracotta pots all work well to proof bread in their own way. Try a few out, and go with whatever feels right for you!