The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Couchie Couchie Coo - Testing my new Linen Bakers Couche

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

Couchie Couchie Coo - Testing my new Linen Bakers Couche

I recently got a $20 bakers couche from brotform.com and tried it out for the first time today.  I floured it up liberally and whomped up a couple of sourdough loaves with sesame seeds for tomorrow (Thanksgiving). 

The loaves expanded lengthwise more than I expected as they rose in the couche so I had to sort of scrunch them a little as I maneuvered them onto my oiled baking sheet so they would fit, and they wound up with some minor "accordian pleats".  A nice skin formed on the loaves as they rose in the couche and that made slashing easy as pie.  Somewhere along the way the "accordion pleats" mostly went away and the loaves turned out rather pretty!

I'm not really sure how to get the excess flour off without losing sesame seeds but I'll try to deal with that tomorrow.  Aside from the unexpected lengthwise expansion and the excess flour problem I think I like this new couche!

Any input from others on "couche techniques" would be most welcome!

 

Comments

MichaelH's picture
MichaelH

I find that couches dry out the crust in addition to leaving fold marks. The dry crust is inelastic, thick,  and does not give me the oven spring that I expect. I get good results with cane bannetons sprinkled with rice flour and proofed in plastic bags.

Michael

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I got what I consider good oven spring with these loaves by steaming the oven.  To do that I put the loaves in, pour 1/2 cup of hot water into a cast iron pan on a lower shelf, and quickly slam the oven door (pushing the lower rack in and trapping the initial steam).  These  loaves had qiute a thick skin going into the oven, from several hours rising in the couche.

AnnaInMD's picture
AnnaInMD

I set a couple of tall bottles on either end and "tent" a trashbag over the dough, this way the skin doesn't get too dried out, glad you got a nice oven spring though.  Awsome :)

anna

 

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I think I'm OK with the surface of the dough drying out a bit, especially if that makes the loaf easier to score and perhaps helps keep the dough from sticking to the couche.  These were some of the prettiest loaves I've ever baked because the dough surface parted willingly under the lame' knife.  Often before I've had trouble slashing damp loaves with no skin, when dough stuck to my knife and tore raggedly as if clawed by some wild beast.

AnnaInMD's picture
AnnaInMD

do its last proof uncovered for part of the time to achieve, what you did, a thicker skin to score more easily.  (book = Secrets of a Jewish Baker).

Your loaves look wonderful !

anna

 

gary.turner's picture
gary.turner

I don't know whether mine is a unique experience, or if it can be applied universally. I simply spread  a bit of white rye flour into the linen with the bench brush; no extra flour. For me, the extra, raw flour detracts from the appearance and the taste of the loaf. There have been no problems with release even with the somewhat higher hydration doughs. (though I am not one to go for the upper reaches of hydration)

cheers,

gary

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I got most of the excess flour off these loaves by slapping them with a tea towel (thin cotton kitchen towel).  The sesame seeds stayed on for the most part.

proth5's picture
proth5

You should rub flour into your couche and after use, take a bench scraper and scrape the couche thoroughly to remove excess flour (not always required if you flour lightly) - make sure it is hung to dry and roll to store.

A couche treated in this way will not always need extra flour as the flour in the cloth itself may be enough to keep loaves from sticking.  If additional flour is needed - or indeed desired - use a strainer or sieve and tap it over the couche to creat a "light snow" of flour.  Flouring "liberally" is usually not required.

Some people like rice flour or a combination of rice and all purpose flour.  I've always used only all purpose flour. 

In general, seeds are not applied until the loaf has been removed from the couche - or - if they are loaves are proofed "seed side up."

A tool called a transfer peel is valuable when moving loaves from a couche.  Its proper use is a skill well worth cultivating.  I'm sure there are many videos that demonstrate this, of you know how to look for them.

Hope this helps.

 

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I did indeed find some helpful videos on YouTube. 

One is titled "Using a flipping board to transfer baguettes".  There's also some guidance in another YouTube video titled "Couche Use and Care - How to get the most from a baker's couche from Bread Technique"Another I found helpful was titled "seeding multi-grain and placing in the couche"

I found two or three other videos too.  My impression is there is no "standard" way to deal with issues like forming the folds, transferring loaves from couche to oven, and deciding how much flour is enough.

The idea of removing excess flour from the couch with a scraper is helpful!  I didn't see that demonstrated in any of the above videos.  One issue I have with rolling this couche up is it's 24x36 inches and won't fit in my storage drawer rolled.  Also, guidance elsewhere suggests folding it up and storing in a plastic bag to prevent insect infestations.

I think I still have much to learn about couche use.

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I think I put way too much flour on the couche in this first test.  I put so much flour on I couldn't see the fabric at all.  In part this was because I recently had a high hydration loaf stick bigtime to a cotton brotform liner and didn't want to repeat that with this new couche which came with instructions saying it should never be washed.  In part I think I put so much on because I was using some A.P. flour I oven-sterilized at 220F for use in activating dried sourdough starters from sourdo.com.  The sterilized flour was clumped and lumpy and didn't lend itself to "sprinkling" at all, and I rubbed it in with my hand as shown in one of the videos I linked to above.  Most of the videos I've seen seem to show couches where the fabric color is not obscured by the flour!

proth5's picture
proth5

between cotton and linen is that linen is "lintless" - that is it does not have all those little tufts of fiber that aer evident in cotton.  There are long explanations for this (which I won't give unless asked) but it is true nonetheless.  So, not having those little tufts of fiber means that doughs will stick less to linen than to cotton and less flour will be needed.

If dough does stick (and in general couches should only be used for lean breads) let the dough dry and use the bench scraper to clean the couche.  Also, a tip that I have learned is that if the loaf sticks, hold the couche and let the loaf hang upside down.  Often gravity will pull the loaf away from the couche more effectively than mighty struggle.

As for rolling - I know that people have differing levels of feeling on decor/organization vs care for equipment.  The reason that we roll a piece of cloth is that over time those folds you make to store the cloth will become part of the cloth's "memory" and become semi permanent which may interfere with the couche's function.  Folds also break fibers and create weaknesses in the cloth (over a long period of time) and the ability to hand the couche down to your grandchildren will be compromised (so, yes, I have done some studying on fabric conservation).  For me, it is more important to roll the cloth than to have my work areas look "perfect."

Hope this helps...

Chuck's picture
Chuck

...suggests folding it up and storing in a plastic bag to prevent insect infestations...

I found that although I prevented new insect infestations coming from outside, I made the problem of the bugs that were already there (invisible mealworm eggs in the flour, which are apparently always present, and generally harmless) worse. Rolling the couche cloth up allowed it to be moist and dark enough for these things to hatch and live.

I've heard that in bakeries (where there tends to be room), couche cloth is generally stored by simply hanging it over a rolling rack, or a door that's always open, or a pipe running through the ceiling, or a towel rod mounted way up high, or whatever. Getting a bathroom towel rod and mounting it way up high on a kitchen wall that's out of the way might not be a bad idea.

For putting couche cloth in a plastic bag, what I've always heard is then put the plastic bag in the freezer. The low temps in the freezer keep anything from hatching or growing.

proth5's picture
proth5

The couche should be hung up to dry before storing it rolled.  Rolling a moist couche is asking for mold or worse... If you've ever encountered a moldy couche, it is not something you want to repeat...

But roll, don't fold...

ehanner's picture
ehanner

This is an area where there are many variables that could affect the need for change in your procedure. First, I know many people use flour only on either the dough alone or both the dough and fabric. I've found that a shaker of a mix of white rice flour and AP or BF works wonders. You can't get seeds to stick on the dough if the fabric didn't.  If I wanted seeds on the top of a loaf that was going to be proffed on a couche, I would plan to brush the flour off after proofing with a dry brush and then apply an egg wash or milk or even plain water sprayed on will help. Then you need to pause for a few minutes and let the dough recover and become sticky enough to glue the seeds in place. Otherwise, after baking a light touch will knock them off.

If you dust the top of the dough with the mentioned rice/ap mix before laying it in the couche, and keep it there only long enough to proof in a warm climate, it will release. Refrigerated proofing on a couch is asking for it, lol.

Eric

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

It seem using a baker's couche is more of an art than a science.

I wound up shaking most of the flour off the couche in my front yard, scraping some caked-on residue off with a bench scraper, shaking it out again, rolling it up, and stashing it in my widest drawer (at ~24 inches the roll would be too long for most kitchen drawers).  I hosed down the "snowy spot" on the lawn so the neighbors wouldn't get confused.

I find myself wondering if a dense coating of sesame seeds on the loaf top and bottom might work as well or better than flour to keep the loaf from sticking to the couche.  I have developed a taste for sesame seeds recently.  I'm not sure what the best way to totally cover a loaf with sesame seeds might be, though.

LindyD's picture
LindyD

While they're terrific on bread, sesame seeds won't do anything to keep the dough from sticking to the couche.  A good linen couche needs nothing but a light coating of flour.  As Pat (proth5) noted, proper treatment will result in very little flour being needed in subsequent use.   Try her suggestions the next time you use your couche, and unless you like a heavy coating of flour on the top of the loaf, you can omit flouring the bread.....or go lightly.

By the way, it's perfectly okay to wash a linen couche if it's really grubby.  You can find the washing instructions at SFBI.  I washed (soapless) my SFBI couche linen right after I received it and recently washed two linen liners, also from SFBI.   They still work perfectly.

proth5's picture
proth5

OMG - wash a couche!!!  Unheard of :>) ! 

Joking aside.  Proper care will avoid the need to wash, but linen is one of the most durable fabrics and a little wash is not the end of the world.  SFBI is a little wimpy - since linen cannot shrink (read my blog "the couche chronicals to understand why) a wash in hot water is not out of the question, but to get that nice flat look, you must iron it. I've (hot water) washed and machine dried my couche cloth with no ill effects.

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

Thanks proth5 for steering me to your "Couche Chronicals" post!  I read the post and all the comments and learned a lot!  I only wish there were pictures of the different couches you've tried!  I notice couches like mine from brotform.com aren't mentioned, and I plan to say a little more about mine in a while and post some pictures of it.

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I got my couche from brotform.com for $20.  The label says it's 100% natural flax linen, unbleached, imported from France, 24 x 35 inches, "heavyweight professional grade fiber", "finished seam on both sides so it will not fray".  Label instructions say it should never be washed and should be air-dried after use and rolled for storage.  It's hemmed on both ends as well as having "finished seams on each side; the "finished seams" are different on each side (see photo below).  It seems quite thick and strong to me, and unlikely to unravel at the edges barring serious mistreatment.  The label says a slight odor will abate with time but I noticed no odor.  My only minor problem with it is it barely fits in my widest kitchen drawer when rolled up.

Here are photos:

^The couche unrolled on my counter.

 

^Closeup detail of corners drawn together showing hemming of end and different "finished seam" method on each side. The penny is to give a visual indication of the photo's scale. The strand of hair on the penny is totally unintentional.

 

proth5's picture
proth5

couches are a hot topic.  I've really only tried two - the linen couche from the Baker's Catalogue  which I bought many, many years ago (when "artisan" baking at home was not quite so hot and the "interweb" was in its infancy - so not so many resources were available to home bakers) and the couch sold for $9 a yard or so by TMB Baking. 

The "slight odor" that they refer to is an "overwhelming odor" for me.  Oh, my sensitive little nose...   But both have performed well for me.  The TMB couche is, of course, more economical.

I've never gone the route of cotton tea towels or all the other things that other home bakers swear by when I am baking in my home.  Because I like the feel of linen, I've always had some kind of linen available.  For some reason, this is a piece of baking equipment that people "won't waste money on."  I respect their opinions, but personally disagree.  It is a small enough price to pay for what should be a once in a lifetime purchase for the average home baker.

Hope this addresses your question.

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

Linen canvas by-the-yard couche fabric from TMB Baking (link) comes in widths of 18, 26 and 31 inches.

The bakers couche from the KAF "bakers catalog" (link) is 18 inches wide.  Edit:  Actually I guess they have the same widths as TMB above and also the same address.

My linen couche from brotform.com (link) is 24 inches wide.

Linen canvas by-the-yard couche fabric from San Francisco Baking Institute (link) is 18 inches wide.

My IKEA kitchen drawers are 20 inches deep and the widest is 26 inches wide.

My oven is 25 inches wide and 18.5 inches deep inside but the biggest pan that will fit on a rack would be about 24x15 inches to clear the rack supports; by inverting a rack I could perhaps use a 24x18 pan and still clear the door and rack supports but it would overhang the rack.

My biggest sheet pan has a baking surface that's 13x14 inches.  My pizza stone measures 16.5x14.5 inches.

I conclude that an 18-inch wide rolled up couche would fit in my drawers easier than the one I have and accommodate any loaf I currently have the equipment to bake.

Thus do I ramble on , measuring tape in hand.

Juergen Krauss's picture
Juergen Krauss

I got this idea from the Lighthouse bakery.

The left bar is fixed, the bars provide a good sideways restriction if you are making baguettes.

And it's so handy if you need to move your proofing goods

ph_kosel's picture
ph_kosel

I've heard of wooden blocks being used with a couche too.  I usually bake only one loaf at a time so I need to work out something like that.  A few weeks back I found myself daydreaming of a sort of "bread hammock" for proofing battards, which might involve a piece of fabric hung between two dowels mounted on adjustable frame.  If I ever get around to buildind such a contraption I'll post pictures.  For now, though, I want to practice using my new couche!

EvaB's picture
EvaB

yes it wrinkles but it can be ironed out. You can wash it in hot water (after all clothing used to be boiled, yes boiled) and I've never had a problem with it I love linen.

Linen tea towels are the best for drying glasses, give a nice shine to the surface, and picks up all the water!

One tip I will say is to iron the linen damp, it works much better than trying to iron dry linen, and I've even ironed dry a linen tea cloth (small table cloth) from almost soaking wet, it gives the nicest finish and keeps it from wrinkling as badly as it might.