I'm ready to try proofing baskets. Is there a preferred brand or source or is this something I can "wing" at home with a mixing bowl and cloth lining? Tricks, tips or other?
For a first proofing basket a large collander (the big plastic kind for rinsing veggies) will work well. Just line with a cloth.
Once you decide you like the method, there are all sorts of places to get them. I think that maybe the SFBI has pretty good prices. You can also hunt for tightly weaved baskets at the goodwills, although I haven't had much luck with them.
I saw an older post on TFL for plastic and cheap proofing baskets that you could purchase online recently. I didn't go to the link but you might try searching for it. I bought mine from King Arthur when I was making an order. It was more expensive but still not too bad.
but that's because I didn't know they were available when I bought what I have. Most recently, I did a lot of online searching, and ultimately ordered from SFBI, in part because there prices, for proofing baskets were the lowest, their coiled willow baskets' prices are competitively priced, and they sell baker's linen, which I couldn't find elsewhere, except a tea-towel size at King Arthur at a ridiculously high price.
I'm going to buy a couple plastic bannetons, next time, probably from Fantes.
I have not used TMB Baking but I believe it is a company owned by the founder of SFBI http://www.tmbbaking.com/supplies.html. This site has plastic items too. Hope this is helpful.
I bought a couple plastic bannetons when I stopped by SFBI (they also gave me a tour of the place and a pastry. It was delicious.). The bannetons are definitely not cheapo imitations. They have a very solid, very thick, commercial-grade construction, and I have no doubts that they'll last a very long time. They also stack nicely on top of each other should you need more than one.
However, they left less of a noticable coiled flour pattern than my wicker bannetons. They're well suited for commercial bakeries, but considering that wicker baskets are only 4-5 dollars more, for the home baker the advantages are pretty muted.
If you must have that flour pattern, I'd go with a traditional coiled banneton. Otherwise, a bowl with a floured towel works every bit as well as a "real" banneton.
I normally line my wicker baskets (about $2 each at a local craft store) with floured tea towels for proofing loaves. The tea towels were given to me by my mother-in-law, she says they were cut from old flour bags, so I know they're foodsafe!
But out of curiosity, what would happen if I skipped the tea towel and floured the wicker basket directly? (I'd like to get the nice weave pattern on my loaves.) Would the dough stick to it a lot more than a proper willow brotform? Or maybe I would end up with bits of wicker in my bread; these aren't the highest-quality baskets and pieces do fall off. Come to think of it who knows if they're foodsafe, they might be sprayed with some chemical...
Okay, I guess I convinced myself not to, but I wouldn't mind others opinions on proofing in wicker baskets directly, without a lining.
If you flour the brotform well with an equal mix of rice and AP flour, the bread won't stick.
On the other hand, since you're concerned about bits of wicker mixing in your dough, probably a wise decision to keep using the floured cloth between that basket and the dough.
BTW, I chuckled at the way you talked yourself out of it.
I always use my wicker baskets without lining - I just sprinkle them with flour (it sticks well enough). The result is a pretty, distinct pattern (unless you use too much flour and the pattern gets blurred).