How we tested
Before putting baguettes into a hot oven, professional bakers tenderly tuck each loaf of shaped dough to rest in a specially folded, floured cloth called a baker’s couche (pronounced “KOOSH”). Always made of loosely woven linen, the couche (from the French word for lying down or sleeping) keeps the dough’s shape intact and its surface uniformly dry as it proofs and rises, helping develop a thin “skin” that bakes up to the perfect crispy, chewy crust. Only cloths made of 100 percent linen will release the dough without sticking or tugging it out of shape.
We mail-ordered three baker’s couches, along with a common substitute—a linen tea towel—to see if you really need to invest in a professional proofing cloth. Prices ranged from $8 to $19.95 for the couches, and it was $10.99 (plus shipping) for a set of three plain white linen tea towels. The good news is that all four did an acceptable job; the difference lay in how much effort we had to put into making each work.
Applying the necessary light, even coat of flour (too much will mar the crust’s texture and appearance) to the three tan-colored couches was simpler than when using white tea towels, where it was hard to see the flour. The coarse weave of one couche let more flour pass onto the loaves, causing them to bake up paler and slightly blotchy, with a duller flavor. The other two models, with finer weaves, kept the flour off the dough to deliver crusts with deeper, more even browning.
Next, shaping the cloth into a series of wavy folds to cradle the loaves was much easier when the couche had sufficient body to stand up but was pliant enough to stay where we put it. Stiffer, heavier couches fought back, while the too-floppy tea towels provided sufficient structure only when we doubled up and used a pair of stacked towels. The right size helped with handling: Oversize professional couches, designed to hold long baguettes destined for industrial-size ovens, were excessive for our home-oven-size loaves, and we struggled a bit with the extra cloth. The best couche for our purposes was the narrowest. The tea towels seemed skimpy at just 21 by 14 inches but were still just big enough to work.
With its fine weave and easy handling, our winning couche was the top performer, and it didn't hurt that it was also the cheapest in our lineup. However, if you’d prefer not to invest in a single-purpose item, a set of three linen tea towels worked fine (most 100 percent linen tea towels should perform equally well).