Why do bakers cover dough when proofing? Is it really necessary to cover dough, and what happens if you don’t have anything to cover your dough? Well, let’s take a look at why covering dough is important and the best way to do it!
When bread dough is exposed to airflow, moisture evaporates, making the dough dry out. The severity of this varies from making the surface tough and difficult to stretch to the outer perimeter becoming so dry that it can’t possibly rise further. Leaving dough uncovered ruins its texture and attracts bugs and insects. These would create an unpleasant experience for whoever eats your bread!
|Bread making stage||Cover required?|
|Autolyse||For less than 10-15 minutes, it’s not necessary, but the dough should be covered in longer periods|
|Bulk fermentation in the fridge||Yes|
|Between pre- & final shaping||Usually yes. If the dough is overly sticky, leave it uncovered to dry out|
|Final rise||Yes or in a humid environment (proofer)|
|Final rise in the fridge||Yes|
Bread dough should be covered when it isn’t handled for more than 10 minutes. This is typically from the moment the dough leaves the mixing bowl to when it goes into the oven. If proofing your dough in a Brod & Taylor home proofer or DIY proofing solution, you don’t need to cover it if you are creating humidity with hot water.
You can cover the dough with whatever you want as long as it forms an airtight barrier between the dough and the air. There are a few covers that are better than others. Here are a few suggestions to cover your dough and how they stack up:
Plastic wrap (clingfilm) was my cover or choice for years. I used it when wrapping all my small batches during bulk fermentation. It creates a tight seal and is the benchmark for covering dough, as it’s readily available. The reason I use it less and less is environmental. The amount of plastic that was going into the bin was painful. I opt for a reusable solution as often as possible but still have some plastic wrap around just in case.
Verdict: A fantastic solution that works for bulk fermentation and protecting preferments as they develop. Sadly quite wasteful, so I’ve stopped using this solution all the time.
Dropping some oil in a mixing bowl and tossing the dough around creates a barrier around the dough to offer some protection from the elements. This technique works pretty reliably for bulk fermenting dough batches but can’t be used for the final rise. French bakers tend not to include oil in their bread-making process.
Verdict: It’s not the best solution, but a covering of vegetable or olive oil works well if you’re leaving the dough for short periods (or it’s particularly wet).
Brushing beaten egg over the surface of proofing brioche and viennoiserie provides moisture and protection from drying out. The extra fat and protein in eggs produce a dark and shiny crust. Egg washing bread is not used for bread to be baked in a hot oven, making it unsuitable for traditional sandwich loaves. Use an oven temperature below 210C (410F) to prevent it from burning.
Verdict: If bread requires an egg wash before baking, you can egg wash at the start of proofing to remove the need for a cover. Egg washing works well for certain bread types but isn’t a fit-for-all solution.
A dinner plate, chopping board, laptop (maybe not!), or whatever you can find that’s level and covers the mixing bowl can be used as a cover. Most won’t have the tightest seal but offer enough protection to protect proofing dough.
If using to cover dough rising in a banneton, check that the dough won’t rise above the basket!
Verdict: Not the best seal. However, I’ve used this method many times for bulk fermentation and never had an issue -except when needing the chopping board back to prepare dinner!
An old plastic carrier bag is one of the items that most households have lurking in cupboards or drawers. Providing they are clean, you can use bags to cover your dough during bulk fermentation and for the final rise as they fit over most bread tins and bannetons.
Verdict: By reusing the bag, you help save the planet somewhat. Most bags are pretty small, so only protect small batches or individual doughs.
Plastic shower caps are a fantastic way to protect your dough. They fit neatly over a banneton and small mixing bowls. An excellent seal is made, and you can reuse them several times before they break.
Verdict: Fantastic for sourdough bakers making small batches and relatively inexpensive.
As a baker, you cannot forget about the importance of fermentation. Fermentation is what makes dough rise and gives it that perfect texture! Providing the container is made from food-safe material, and the lid is airtight, any design will do. Here are some plastic containers with lids
Verdict: A reusable solution and a fantastic way to protect your dough during bulk fermentation.
When baking several batches of dough at a time, space is a massive commodity. Professional bakers use plastic dough resting trays to store their dough during bulk fermentation and also for divided pieces of pizza dough. The trays are stacked on top of each other, with the top tray kept empty and used as a lid.
Verdict: Dough resting trays are the perfect solution to store dough when making medium and large baking quantities. Too bulky if you only make a couple of loaves at a time.
When producing larger quantities of bread, it’s common for bakeries to store their dough on bakery racks. They are the best space-saving solution, and you can wheel the trolley over to where you are working. Racks are used in every small commercial bakery.
Purchasing a box of rack covers is relatively inexpensive, and a box is exceptionally long-lasting. They can be reused many times. However, don’t provide the best seal as lower shelves tend to dry out regardless.
Verdict: A fantastic solution in small bakeries where a proofer is out of the price range. They can be used to cover racks containing dough buckets and to prove bread. Just be prepared to give the dough the occasional spray with water. They are only suitable if you have racks in your bakery.
Placing a sheet of greaseproof or silicone paper over resting dough is a popular choice. This solution doesn’t provide complete protection from the elements, but covering dough with greaseproof or silicone paper makes a massive difference over short periods.
Verdict: Not the perfect solution as not airtight but offers some protection. I use silicone paper when bench resting to prevent the dough from drying out and forming a skin.
I use this method a lot. A suitable mixing bowl can perfectly cover the top of a rounded banneton. It creates a seal that’s not perfect but definitely good enough. It does take up a lot of room if put in the fridge for an overnight rise.
Verdict: Using the same mixing bowl you used to make the dough to cover the banneton is a great way to prevent wasted plastic. It also saves on the washing up! It is more durable than a thin plastic layer but does take up a lot of space. This method can be used for bannetons, bench resting, and bulk fermentation.
My go-to solution. Bin liners are big, so they fit over the largest bowls I have. They can cover trays of proofing rolls too, all without touching the dough! Clean and very cost-effective.
Verdict: The ideal solution for many home bakers. Bin liners create a good seal, are easy to remove, and are reusable.
Ahh, this brings back memories! It was a sad day when I ran out of plastic wrap and had to resort to using wet kitchen towels to cover the dough during a night of busy production. They helped protect the dough, but the coverage wasn’t perfect! There were several dry patches!
Verdict: It stuck to the dough occasionally when peeling it off. Only use it as a last resort!
When proofing big batches of dough, it’s hard to find something big enough to cover the entire batch, especially without touching it. I’ve stacked torches, mugs and other items in an attempt to raise multiple bags over dough. They fall over most of the time, or I later find a gaping hole!
A large cover such as a bin liner is the best DIY solution that isn’t a proofing box. If you regularly bake in large quantities, invest in some bread racks and some plastic rack covers.
If you can’t cover your dough, or only partially, there is no need to despair! All you have to do is check on the dough every 30 minutes. What you are looking for are signs that the dough is drying up. If you notice the surface of the dough starting to harden, spray it with a water mister. A gentle wipe with a wet hand or pastry brush is just as good if you don’t have one.
If the dough is still wet, don’t mist it. Return in 30 minutes and check again. Avoid wetting it when it’s almost ready to bake. If the surface of the dough is overly wet in the oven, it can weaken the oven spring and create blisters on the crust.
If you didn’t cover the dough well and it has dried out or formed a skin, you can often still fix it! What you have to do is rehydrate the dough’s dry areas. Just take a cup of water and gently brush the dry surfaces of the dough. You can use a brush, your hands or a trusted water mister to do this. After 15 minutes, the dough should be revitalised, but if it’s still dry, repeat applying water every 15 minutes until the water is absorbed. It should return to a lovely soft texture very soon!
Today we’ve covered why you should cover bread dough and many ways to do it, but I bet I’ve missed some! Let me know in the comments below if you have any other methods to cover dough as it rises or any bread baking questions that you want to be answered.