Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Science Behind... using a couche

For most of my breadbaking, I have avoided using a couche.  I didn't really see the point - what does a floured towel do that an oiled bowl couldn't also do?

But for the past few weeks, I've been making loaf after loaf of Preston Yancey's white bread from his latest book, Out of the House of Bread.  After his dough is shaped, it goes into a couche for the second rise.  And, it appears, that makes all the difference in getting a crackly crust and a beautiful scoring pattern.

What does a couche do?  A lot, it turns out.

In this post on The Science Behind, I'll be answering the following questions:

1. What is a couche?
2. What are the benefits of using a couche?
3. How can I use a couche to improve my bread?
4. How do I make a couche?

1. What is a couche?  Literally, "bed" or "resting place," a couche is a tea towel or piece of thick canvas or linen that provides support for boules or baguettes.  Couch cloths are sometimes placed into baskets to support round boules, or they can be folded around baguettes, like the photo below.
 2. What are the benefits of using a couche? The benefits of a couche are two-fold, I've discovered.  First, by cradling your dough after it's been shaped, you maintain the integrity of the shape without having to worry about the dough spreading out and flattening.

Here is how I usually let my doughs rise after they've been shaped:

This is perfectly fine for a low-hydration dough, that holds its shape well and has lots of gluten formation.

 But for doughs that are high hydration and very slack, they can spread during the final rise if they are left without anything to cling to.

Second, the couche breathes and is covered in flour, drying the surface of the dough to create a skin.  Now, I always though you wanted to avoid a skin, since I thought it would impede oven spring.  But the more I looked into it, I realized that a skin on your dough is the first step to a super crispy crust.  Also, I recalled that by scoring your dough, you are cutting through the skin and providing weak points for the oven spring to expand.

As you can see in this picture, the contrast between where the bread was scored and where the skin was left intact is very distinct:

3. How can I use a couche to improve my bread?  Couches are typically used during the second rise, after a dough has been shaped.  You put the dough into the couch seam side up (if your couche is in a bowl) or seam side down if you are making baguettes.

4. How do I make a couche?  You can buy a couche, but making one is really easy.
First, sprinkle some flour on a linen, canvas or cotton towel.  Make sure it's a flat weave towel, not a terry cloth one.  

Use your hand to rub the flour into your towel.

If you are using the couche for a boule, line a mixing bowel with your couche cloth.

If you are making baguettes, you will want a stiffer material than cotton.  Canvas and linen are better choices.  This is a graphic I found about using a couche for baguettes.

Once you have baked your bread on your homemade couche, you have two options.  You can either designate your towel as your official couche cloth, at which point you can stop washing it and let the flour build up in the weave of the fabric.  Otherwise, if you know you probably won't be using the couche method often, you can wash it in between baking sessions.  I haven't had any problems washing the flour out of the towel.

It's up to you - most bakers don't wash their couches.  Since I'll be making Preston Yancey's white bread at least seven more times, I have my couche cloth stored in a drawer, still full of flour.

Have you ever baked with a couche?  Do you think it enhances the appearance of your dough? Let me know in the comments!



Hugh Janus said...

"most bakers don't wash their couches."

Would have thought the moisture would make their couches yeasty. What if my couche gets dirty enough that froth develops?

Suq Madiq said...

@Hugh Janus

When I check my coche for yeast, usually just give it a wiff and you'll know. So if frothy, it has probably been a while since it's good.

Unknown said...

Do you place your rolled couche in a pouch or bag of some kind? I'm wondering how to store it without attracting bugs to the flour.

Unknown said...

I have seen it suggested that you store your couche in a plastic zip lock bag, in the freezer.