There is nothing I love more than digging into some fresh homemade bread straight out of the oven. Spread a knob of butter on that bad boy and I’m in heaven.
But making bread isn’t all that straightforward, especially if you are new to the game and are still finding out your way around the kitchen. During your research on how to make the perfect loaf, you’ve come across a proofing basket. What is a proofing basket and do you need one?
A proofing basket is a piece of kit that is used to help shape and rise the dough. If you want to find out a little bit more about what a proofing basket is, I’m going to run you through everything you need to know about proofing baskets.
What is Proofing?
Proofing, also known as proving, is part of the process of making the dough rise. It’s most commonly done for yeasted bread, but it is necessary when you use yeast in any recipe. To understand proofing, let’s quickly run through what yeast does in your bread.
When you add yeast to your bread dough, it dissolves, and the tiny little yeast molecules live amongst the flour, sugar, and other ingredients in the bread. Yeast will metabolize the carbohydrates in the flour, digesting it to give themselves the energy to multiply.
As a byproduct of the yeast eating the flour, some carbon dioxide is produced. When baking bread and other yeasted items, we can use that carbon dioxide to make the dough rise. Bubbles form throughout the dough and are trapped by the sticky gluten structure within the dough. As the yeast keeps on making carbon dioxide, the bubbles of gas get bigger, and the dough rises more and more.
It is possible to make bread without yeast, like sourdough or soda bread, but adding yeast to dough is the most popular and easiest way to make bread.
Proofing is a part of the breadmaking process where you simply leave the bread somewhere to rest and allow the yeast to feed off the sugars in the flour to produce carbon dioxide. Essentially, proofing it’s a fancy way of saying that you’re leaving the bread dough alone to chill for a few hours.
Proofing can also function as a way for the gluten strands within the bread dough to relax and be under less tension. When you knead bread dough, you’re pressing and stretching little tiny strands of gluten out, like an elastic band.
When the gluten is stretched, it’s under tension, like a rubber band. If you keep on stretching the gluten, it will eventually snap. To prevent that from happening, you can rest the dough for a little while, and the gluten will be ready to stretch a little bit more.
This is why some bread recipes have several proofing phases – the gluten is stretched and relaxed several times over to create a delicate dough.
What is a Proofing Basket?
A proofing basket is essentially just somewhere you can place the dough while it’s proving. They exist for two main reasons: shaping the dough, and allowing moisture to evaporate.
The dough will shape over time spent in the proofing basket as it rises. If you were to let the dough sit on the countertop, it would slowly deflate and spread outwards. By making the dough rise in a proofing basket, though, you force it to rise upwards. This helps the gluten to settle in a certain direction, which shapes the dough to some extent.
The dough can also be shaped if the proofing basket has a certain texture to it. For example, some woven proofing baskets can leave intricate reed patterns on dough, which leads to a pretty pattern in the crust of the finished bread.
A proofing basket can also be used to help moisture evaporate from the dough. This happens when the basket is porous, or at least has some small holes in it. This takes place because it allows the dough to brown more quickly in the oven, and therefore be cooked more quickly, too.
If you are wondering what you can use as a proofing basket, you can literally use any bowl or container you have in your kitchen. You can prove your bread in a plastic bowl covered with plastic wrap. You can use a square container with a lid. You can even use a cake tin if you are really desperate.
The shape and material of the basket don’t matter, as long as the dough is in a warm environment so it can thrive. If you really want to take it up a notch, you can get a bread-specific proofing basket called a banneton. More on that later.
Why Use a Proofing Basket?
The main reason that proofing baskets are used is to shape and support the bread while it proofs. When you have to proof and rest bread dough several times over, the dough can lose its shape quite easily. It’s wise to avoid the bread losing its shape through the use of a proofing basket.
When you knead bread dough, you stretch and strengthen gluten within the dough.
When you proof the dough, you’re essentially resting those strands of gluten. When they have been rested, it’s essentially like they learn a default state: the shape of the basket they rested in. That helps the bread to maintain its shape while baking.
How to Use a Proofing Basket
The simplest way to use a proofing basket is to well flour a linen cloth, and line the proofing basket with it. The lining doesn’t have to be totally perfect, as the bread dough will press the fabric into the creases of the basket with time. Some people use a linen cloth, others don’t. It’s entirely up to you and how much you want the weaves of the basket to press into your dough.
Once you’ve finished kneading the bread dough, you can transfer it to the proofing basket that you’ve lined with the floured fabric. There, the dough will rest and rise, shaping well to conform to the basket you’re using.
What is a Banneton?
A banneton is essentially a proofing basket made from concentric rings of wood. This presses a pretty and interesting pattern into the bread that you’re proofing while also allowing moisture to evaporate from the banneton thanks to the small gaps between the rings.
This type of proofing basket comes in different sizes, usually round or oval. If you want to sound fancy, you can call them by their French names, boule or batard.
Bannetons come in different materials, the most popular being cane and wicker. You also get a brotform material which is compressed wood fiber and even plastic.
What to Avoid When Using a Proofing Basket
When it comes to using a proofing basket for your home baking adventures, it’s really quite hard to get it wrong. Despite that, though, there are a few things that you should really bear in mind and try to avoid.
The first thing that I would recommend avoiding is an overly damp and humid environment. While a slightly damp space is a good choice for proofing bread dough, a painfully steamy one is not. Humid air won’t allow the moisture in your bread dough to evaporate as evenly or effectively as it otherwise could have, leading to dough that doesn’t brown as well in the oven.
Another key thing to avoid is direct contact with heat sources, such as radiators or fireplaces. The reason for this is that your bread will still rise, but it will likely begin to rise in a very directional manner, and not in the direction you want the bread to rise in.
Instead of the bread rising vertically upwards, it will rise more at the point touching the heat source, and less further out from that location. In time, this could result in an unevenly risen loaf.
Do You Need Additional Equipment to Use a Proofing Basket Well?
Not really, no – a proofing basket can be used with a fine dusting of flour and a bit of good luck. However, if you’re looking for things that will make the whole process of making your own bread easier, then a piece of floured linen cloth will help to ensure that the dough doesn’t stick to the basket. The use of floured linen originates from French baking and is called the couche, used to shape baguettes and boules.
In this case, the couche won’t be used to shape the bread dough itself too much, instead, it will be used to prevent the dough from sticking to the basket. That makes using the basket a lot easier since you haven’t got to spend time picking small pieces of bread out of the basket itself.
Are There Good Alternatives to Proofing Baskets?
Yes, there are a number of good alternatives to proofing baskets, including mixing bowls, colanders, and even terracotta pots. I wrote another post about this not too long ago – see it here!
I hope this article has filled in any blanks that there might be in your mind with regard to proofing baskets. They are simple things, but they can make such a difference in your baking!