A couche cloth is a specialist piece of heavy linen cloth, made especially for the final proving of sourdough bread (couche = ‘laying down to sleep’). I’d wanted one for ages but for some reason never got myself one. Isn’t it weird how there are certain things that are perfectly affordable and yet they are regarded as luxuries and we never buy them for ourselves? The couche cloth came under this category for me, even though it only cost a tenner and I’ve easily wasted ten pounds on loads of other crap.
You can of course use a dish cloth in a bowl for proving sourdough, and lots of people do. But, for me, it’s not really the same as it’s clumsy and the dough can stick to a dishcloth, no matter how dusted with flour. I have umpteen bannetons now – hence why the couche cloth seemed like a luxury. But I sometimes wanted to make sourdough baguettes and rolls, just some different shapes occasionally, and I couldn’t do those in the bannetons, because the shape of the banneton determines the shape of the final loaf. And most bannetons are round or baton shaped. Here is a pic of my sourdough rolls, after they’d been proved in the cloth, and on the flipping board about to be flipped onto the baking tray, to go into the oven.
Then one day, I was talking to my mother and she told me about how she and my grandmother used to make bread when she was a girl, and she was telling me all about how they used to lay the shaped dough down in a piece of linen cloth and pinch the cloth up so that the dough held its shape. And I recognised that of course, she was talking about a couche cloth.
Well. Now I knew it was part of my heritage, I knew I had to get one. And with a couche cloth you need a flipping board or planchette. So I put both on my birthday list and I got both. They were bought from the fabulous Bakery Bits.
I got my couche cloth by the metre, going for the 60cm by 1m length, which, weirdly, ends up cheaper (£10.14) than the pre-cut cloth of the same size (£14.40).
I immediately realised that I’d got my couche cloth too big, but that’s no biggie as I cut it in half. The thing with couche cloth proving is that you then either need to keep the dough out for proving or put it in the fridge. And if you put it in the fridge you need to make sure you have a tray big enough to hold your shaped dough AND that, then, your fridge and your oven are big enough to hold the bread when you prove and then cook it. No point making a 3ft long baguette if you then can’t get it into the fridge to prove and then the oven to cook it.
Here are two great videos, that Joanna from Zeb Bakes put me onto, ostensibly to help me with shaping my baguettes (more about baguettes another time). This one shows you a couche cloth in use and this one shows you the flipping board in action.
I dust couche cloths with rice flour. I find it much better than the usually recommended rye flour – my loaves never stick – and also it gives a lovely contrast on the crust of my cooked loaves. And when I’m done, I brush the cloth with a grouting brush which I keep just for that job (being a grouting brush it has stiff bristles). Then I hang them out in the glorious sunshine to dry.