Whenever I get newly into something, I’m a sucker for buying all the gadgets, all the add-on bits. When I was eighteen – eighteen for Christ’s sake – I got into cycling and had a racing bike hand made. It cost over £600. This was in 1984, when £600 could buy you a house. The bike had all the latest everything on it, I went completely mad.
I’d like to point out I funded its purchase myself. Entirely. From the proceeds of selling ice-cream outside my parents’ shop all summer, every summer, from 1979. Aside from the loan I extorted off my aunt in Italy. But I paid it back. But the bike wasn’t enough. I had to have special cycle shorts (because of course I couldn’t ride it without them). And a special cycle jersey. And hand-made in Cumbria (I didn’t even know where Cumbria was at that point) cycle shoes. And I had a computer thingy on the handlebars that told me how far I’d cycled (not very far at all) and for how long.
Thankfully, I lost my virginity a few years later and stopped being quite so mad.
My friends from school, of whom I still have four (they are my top, top friends, the inner circle): Alex, Claudia, Emma and Sandra, still occasionally hint at my prior madness. They know that it’s rare I get into something and don’t decide it’s really essential that I have that extra bit of kit.
So when I started making bread, I was determined, really determined, that I wouldn’t clutter up the kitchen with any more extra ‘stuff’. I proved my first loaf in a bowl, lined with a tea towel. It worked fine. Well, I say that but the teatowel stuck a bit (was it pure linen? who knew) and well, it was a bit of a faff, turning the loaf out.
I’d read about bannetons (aka pa(n)netons in some books), proving baskets, which are made of wood fibre, or cane or wicker. Because sourdough dough is fragile, it needs support when proving, otherwise it’d just spread out like a thick puddle. I decided I liked the wicker ones best, they seemed to make the most sense to me.
I was adamant I didn’t need them. I could manage fine with a teatowel and a bowl or sieve, which is what loads of people did I was sure.
But then I bought one. And I can reliably report that they really are a purchase worth making. You put the dough in the panneton for the final proof. Then, I cover it with a teatowel (see, I still am using that teatowel!) and put it in the fridge for an overnight or longer, prove.
When I’m ready to bake, I simply tip the bread out onto the polenta lined baking tray. No fiddling about trying to transfer the dough out of the teatowel and bowl and onto the tray.
Mine were the wicker ones from Bakery Bits, my absolute favourite website for buying all things bread-baking related. Everything on there is easy to understand (lots of bread websites are commercial and not reader friendly at all), and the service is great.
I started off with a 400g round wicker one and now have two 600g batons and 1k round. I really recommend you get them lined, as the cost isn’t that much more and I really don’t see the point of them unlined. Although NOTE: I washed mine after several uses (you don’t wash them after every use, see the BB blog for more advice on looking after them) and they split. So when you do wash yours, take extra care. I put mine on a short rinse in the machine (which is a Miele of course, so double-good), a process I really think linen liners should be able to withstand. But one split so badly it’s unusable, the other did along one seam. Only one survived completely intact. I wrote to BB about this and they are replacing them and were very courteous. Which goes to show you can’t always control it when something goes wrong, but you can control how you handle it.
However, in chatting to Patrick at Bakery Bits, I learned some interesting things. Since I bought my bannetons the site now also sells Matfer wicker lined bannetons (advertised as “heavy-duty” on the site). These are about double the price of the Bakery Bits bannetons. So for example a 1k round regular one would be £10.99 (all BB prices excl of VAT), but a Matfer one would be £19.99.
However, the Rolls Royce of wicker bannetons are Vannerie ones, people on bread blogs talk about these with real reverence. To continue the comparison, a 1k lined Vannerie basket is £34.99. I believe they are things of of beauty, and I’m sure are very robust, but that’s just too much for me! But it’d be nice as a present (HINT HINT to all those people who say I’m hard to buy for).
If you’re serious about bread-making – and I guess you wouldn’t know that until you’d made lots – then I think the Matfer ones would be good to get, a good half-way house. I can see how the wicker is more substantial and I’d hope the lining didn’t rip. I think the Vannerie ones are for people with the money. But I have a soft spot for the most basic ones, they do the job not just well, but great and considering that you can make sourdough just fine with a tea-towel and bowl, anything above that is surely a step up.