Tins versus baskets – proofing sourdough bread

Rise in a tin?

A few weeks ago I wrote a few pithy words about creating sourdough starters and baking sourdough bread.  Recently, however, there has been a very interesting exchange in Twitter about whether or not it is ok to proof sourdough bread in a tin.  My answer is a categorical yes and it had not occurred to me that there would be a problem with this until Dan Lepard tweeted that the acidity of the sourdough may eat into the tin.  He is right and it’s a great point.  So far, it has not happened to me and I will be on the watch from now on for pock marked and/or rusty tins.   That advice being given, let’s go on to the great tin versus basket debate.

Why tins are great

1.  If you want a square loaf you need to bake in a square tin.  Some people really like square loaves.  One of my clients really likes square loaves.  She gets a square loaf.

2.  If you are just starting out with bread, it is easier to get a good result with a tin:

– If you grease a tin your bread will never stick

– It is easier to see how much your bread has risen in a tin and, therefore, when it is ready for baking

– If you do not have confidence in your shaping skills and/or you are working with a really wet dough, you can relax when your bread is in tin because the dough is contained by the tin and so it’s shape is guaranteed.

Going down the basket route

So, why bake in a basket?  Well, before we had tins we had free form bread and bread that was proofed in a basket, in heavy linen, or in a bowl/pot with solid sides.

Rise in a basket?

This free form bread was necessarily drier – it kept its shape while proofing or it relaxed into a round puddle of dough, ready for the oven!  Bread proofed in a basket/linen/bowl could be wetter, was somewhat contained as it proofed, and was rolled out of its container and into a HOT oven – so it had little chance to relax into a puddle before it was baked.  That, and the fact that it was well shaped, more about which is below.  Today, non square bread is seen to be more “authentic” (kind of like odd shaped sugar cubes?) and as people become accustomed to it not being square, more attractive.  I like it because no two loaves are the same.  Every non square loaf is visibly unique, reflecting the baker, the state of the dough, the humidity of the day, and a million other things that give that loaf individuality and humanity.

If you choose to go down the basket route, however,  things do get a little trickier for the novice.

The first problem people face is their dough gets stuck in the basket.  A great way to deal with this is to do what is always done in a German bakery: you treat your basket by washing it with a thin paste made of cornstarch (corn flour) and water.  Paint it all over the inside of the basket and let it dry.  Once every few months, scrub out your basket and treat it again.  In addition, you can flour your basket before you put in the dough or you can dip your dough in flour before you put it in the basket.  Too much flour results in a tough, thick crust so you may have to experiment before you get it exactly right.

Dough rising in a tin

The second problem people have is that it is more tricky to tell whether your dough is oven ready in a basket. Within reason, if you fill a tin 1/2 full for light flour and 2/3 full for whole meal flour and let it rise until it has come to the top of the tin before baking it should be fine.  If you bake your dough before it has sufficiently risen, the loaf may split in an irregular pattern and may be a bit “worthy” in texture but will still be great sliced thinly and toasted.  This holds true whether you are proofing in a tin or a basket.  If you allow to dough to over rise, and you are baking in a tin, you may see bubbles on the top of the dough before you put it in the oven and it may collapse a bit.  So you will have a bit of a wonky crust and a worthy crumb.  It will still taste good, especially toasted.  In a basket, however, over-rising has an additional complication.  If your dough is over developed, it tends to collapse a bit when it is turned out, appearing like middle aged spread bread:  bulges where you may not want them, but loveable nonetheless.

To test for rising when using a basket, prod the dough gently with your finger.  The dough is ready for the oven when the indentation comes out fully in about a minute.  More than a minute = not ready.  Significantly less than a minute (or dough that is so soft and airy that your finger goes straight in) = dough over proofed.  Bubbles on the top of the dough also indicate that it is over proofed.  If your dough is seriously over proofed, just take it out, knead it again with some more flour, shape it and put it back in the basket and wait for an hour or so and it should be oven ready.  You can get away with this a couple of times before your dough runs out of puff.  You are looking for your sourdough to rise by 50% – not by the 100% that you are looking for in a yeasted dough.

The third problem people may have with basket risen bread is that their dough is inadequately shaped.  Shaping is not just putting

Dough rising in a basket

the dough into the form of your choice.  It is a key process, the objective of which is to prepare your dough to get the loaf you want.  However, here we have to digress into a discussion about flour.  Wheat and spelt flour both have the particular gluten structure that transforms them from a sandy mess at the bottom of your mixing bowl to a pillowy, elasticy blob on the counter, assuming you have kneaded well (10-15 minutes).  Rye, on the other hand, although it contains gluten, has a totally different gluten structure from wheat or spelt.  You can knead all you want and your dough will resemble clay.  It will never become pillowy and elasticy.  The best you can do with 100% rye is shape it into a sausage with wet hands, roll it in flour and lay it tenderly in your basket.  It will rise – yes indeed!  And quickly (well, quickly for sourdough).  The more rye in your dough, the less elasticy it will be.  Even if you use a tiny bit of rye starter and make a wheat or spelt loaf you will see that your dough is less elasticy than a 100% wheat or spelt loaf.

The tightness of the dough determines the shape of the bread and the number, size, and distribution of air bubbles in the bread when it is baked.  Most important is to get the surface of your dough taught so that it rises in the shape of your choice and does not bulge around.  As Richard Bertinet says, in the hilarious and informative video you can look at here, “no Mr Floppy”.  To shape you need to “stretch and fold”.  Even the traditional “knock back and roll into a sausage and drop in a tin” is a way of stretching and folding to get a sandwich loaf:  lots of small, evenly distributed holes in the bread to hold in the butter and the ham.  The stretching creates the surface tension and lengthens the strands of gluten to enable them to rise better; and the folding/rolling puts the dough back into a smaller shape of your choice than a stretched out blob of dough and within reason ensures the crust actually sticks to the crumb.  You can shape in lots of different ways and every baker has his or her own ways.   The point is to have a sausage or a blob that is firm to the touch.

Working with a very wet dough is a challenge.  You need to really develop the dough by proper shaping if you are going to get it to hold its shape when you turn it out of the basket.  If you are interested in the science behind developing gluten structure, you should read Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley.  There is a baker in San Francisco who, after kneading, stretches and folds his dough on the hour every hour for 12 hours before baking it.  I don’t do anything of the kind.  I tend to knead and let rest for one hour.  Then I begin the “stretch and fold”, sometimes leaving the dough in the bowl, sometimes turning it out into a large tupperware box.  I will stretch and fold at least twice, and usually 3-4 times over a 2-4 hour period (depends on how hot it is in the kitchen).  I will then turn the dough out, cut in into the size of pieces that I want, stretching and folding those and working them into loose balls.  I let them rest for 30 minutes or so and then do a final shape before the basket which goes like this:

– Stretch and fold around the dough in a circle, stretching out and folding the dough back on itself.

– Roll it up, pinching out the ends.  Fold the ends in and roll it up across the fold, let it rest 10 minutes.

– Roll it out into the length you want or the size of ball you want, using the counter top as resistance to create surface tension.

Basket.  Let rise 1-5 hours depending on what is being made and how cold it is.  Bake.

Your simple alternative if you are nervous or adverse to middle aged spread it to bake in a tin and there is no shame in that!

A perfect little square loaf

30 thoughts on “Tins versus baskets – proofing sourdough bread”

  1. Michael Fletcher

    This is the first time I have seen your site and the very question that has been on my mind you have tactfully covered,. – “Basket Route”.
    For the last 10 years I have used greased aluminium foil, folded to hold non-soughdough rolls of consistant size made with 80% water. I was trying to work out if linen could be used instead and this arrtical has shown lots of advantages and disadvantages, well covered. Thank you. – Michael.

  2. Been making 100% rye sour-dough bread for about 2 months now (my new year’s resolution, along with sprouting seeds!) and its going very well, but yes the question of how best to proof has been bugging me ~ so thanks very much for your informative discussion ~ I’m now sending my husband off to “the shed” to make me an oblong wooden proofing bowl or 4, as he likes that shape best! So Big thank you…F~

  3. Finally a thread about how to use proofing baskets 🙂 I am constantly having a fight with them because the dough just keeps sticking to them. More flour? Less water in my dough? I bought my proofing baskets on Amazon (click here for a list) but I have a feeling that the quality of these baskets are not the same… Does anybody have any tips for me how to use them without the dough sticking? I don’t line them. I can use my fingers but the dough deflates quickly that way…

    1. Dear Henny

      The first top tip which Amazon does not give you sadly is this: When you have a new basket, it helps if you paint it with a thin solution of corn starch (corn flour) and water. Make a think paste and using a paint brush or pastry brush, thoroughly coat the inside of the basket. let it dry. This helps enormously. Then when it comes to your bread – dust the inside of the basket AND dust the dough (where it will be in the basket). It will then just pop out when you over turn the basket. Every once in a while scrub out the basket with hot soapy water, rinse it and let it dry thoroughly. After that, treat it with the corn starch and water paste again before you use it. Voila! Your dough will never stick again!

  4. As a very recent geriatric sourdough maker I found this information of so much value but could not identify how to prevent a very large air pocket at the top of my loaves just below the crust. The air pocket accounts for about a quarter of the size of the loaf. Are you able to identify a very obvious mistake that i’m making?

    1. Hello! Thank you for writing and yes, I may know the problem: it sounds like the dough has over risen. This happens when the yeast turns (ie runs out of steam) and the dough begins to collapse beneath the crust and (mean, mean, mean) it is not obvious! It’s SO HARD to tell when your bread is in a basket. Try doing the exact same thing and popping half the dough in a tin and half in a basket. Time how long it takes to rise by 1.5 (not double) using the tin as your guide (much easier) and then bake (taking the basketed loaf out of its basket first, clearly). If that is NOT the problem, it could be that you used too much flour when you Were shaping? when you have two floury surfaces together (ie if you stretch and fold with too much flour) the two floury surfaces just come apart. You can usually tell this because the hole (or cavity!) is all shiny and really regular. Let me know what you think? Did it taste good though? That’s the most important thing. And EVERYTHING is good toasted!

  5. Hi, I`ve been making my own bread for a number of years now and there were times when success hasn`t passed me by,I would love to make sourdough bread but not sure on the ratio of ingredient to sourdough,am I right in thinking that you use 25% of the total(other)ingredient e.g. 200g.sourdough mix to 800g flour? I`ve yet to start my sourdough starter but reading your site I`m heading into town for a decent plastic container, my thanks for opening a door to a one time mystery…………….. sourdough….Bob

  6. Do you actually bake the bread in the proofing basket or do you turn it out onto a baking sheet before putting it in the oven? If you turn it out I can see it will be tricky to avoid deflating it in the process. Probably a very amateurish question, but I need clarity about this.

  7. Hi. Love the blog. Having a problem with a tight dough falling apart during the rise procsses. I’m going along fine, the dough is tight smooth and holding shape fairly well. During the second or third rise and the dough structure sometime just turns into a sticky loose mess. I typically make two loaves at a time and bake them one at a time. (Capacity issue) Using the proof baskets the 1st bakes off fine but by the time the second gets to the oven the tightness can fall apart into goo-dom. I just can’t seem to put my finger on what changes….too long in the rise phase, too much gluten in the recipe, too much water, too warm environment. ….argh!

  8. I am going crazy with my sourdough crust, it’s very very hard, people have suggested many things to remedy, but nothing works, any chance you can help, I have been trying for 3 yrs, I used chad robertsons recipe. Cheers

    1. I do not know Chad Robertson’s recipe so cannot advise on that per se. A couple of things to try:

      1. Add more water for a more hydrated dough
      2. Practice shaping so that you get as thin and tight a surface on the dough before it goes in the oven
      3. Start the oven as hot as you can get it – after 10 minutes bring the temp down to 200 and bake for a further 30 minutes
      4. Put a tray of water in the oven as you pre heat it. Put the bread in and when you turn down the temp after 1o minutes (not before 10 minutes) open the oven to make sure you let out ALL the steam. After the crust has formed (about 10 mins) you want dry heat in the oven.

      Let us know!

  9. Many portions of this article were exceptionally helpful. The 1.5 rise, the over relaxed due to over proofing, the info on prepping baskets for use, the info on folding (i totally forgot i used to do this). Really, the article as a whole was very helpful and closed many gaps in my knowledge.

    Thank you 🙂

  10. I’ve had luck making a hard crust softer by storing the loaf in a plastic bag. I use one kept over from a store bought loaf of bread or buns.

  11. thank you so much -reading your advice has given me so much more confidence. I have been using a Rye starter -I now understand why my bread doesn’t rise as much and also I have had a large hole under the crust! I will use the indentation in the dough to check to see if has risen sufficiently today.
    If I put my dough to rise in the fridge overnight do I need to bring it up to room temperature and let it continue to rise before I cook it?

    1. Dear Jenny, sorry for the delay. If the bread has risen up (which it will) you can put it straight in the oven. Main issue is that it will take down the oven temp (same idea as putting cold chicken in the oven) so it may take a wee bit longer to bake.

  12. Thank-you for this information. Today is the first time I have tried making sourdough rye bread, I have eaten sourdough rye bread since I was born but have never made it myself and as I cannot find any in my neighbourhood I plucked up the courage to try – I got what looks like a good german recipe but the info on the second rise was missing ( just said let it rise again – no time) and also it just said put it in the proofing basket and then bake so I was concerned that the basket would burn and googled it and our site answered that question and so man more. I am never sure about kneeding – I am recently disabled so have very little muscle strength and when I kneeded the re dough it just went on and on without getting much more elastic – so glad it is not supposed to 😉 – there was no info on the recipe about folding and am at the end of m second proof so out of time to do it this time but will make sure I do next time. If you have an videos on kneeding I would love to know – I have found an number on youtube but the are all different so just left totally confused.
    Thanks for your great advice…confused UK

    1. Hello there! Thank you for this. Sourdough can be very overwhelming and the easiest way to get around that is to take a class. where are you based? In advance of that, are you wanting to make 100% rye or a rye/wheat or spelt mix? This is a very important question as it talks to the kind of starter you use (and make) and whether or not you need to knead at all. My preference is 100% rye and a rye starter and this means two exciting things: 1. No Kneading!!!!! 2. You mix and shape and put in a tin and just leave it there for 3-5 hours and then bake it. Honestly it could not be easier. If you want a mixed rye/wheat you can still start with a rye starter or you can use a wheat starter. You see the importance of my question! Please come back to me and let me know where you are based, and what kind of bread you would like to bake! Thank you.

  13. On the subject of dough sticking to baskets, can I suggest using rice flour. I use a small 5cm stainless sieve to lightly dust the inside of the baskets. It doesn’t absorb water like other flours and also provides the attractive (and edible) stripes around the loaf. Just tap out and re-dust before using next time.
    I’ve recently started to use tins, having free-formed for many years, as most of my sourdough is toasted and I got fed up with an inch of free range loaf sticking out of the top of the toaster. The tins are non-stick, never washed, just wiped out when still warm and re-oiled with a little olive oil. Oiled again dusted with a little rice flour on the bottom before using. Works very well.

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