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Why should one wrap bread dough in a towel during the last rise, instead of some other material?

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I've made sourdough bread a few times following the same ("beginner") recipe. After the dough rises overnight in a bowl you put it on a floured surface, fold it in on itself to shape it, and let it rise again for a few hours. For this final rise, the recipe says to take a bowl or bread basket, put a towel in it, flour it, and then put the dough in and cover it with the towel.

Why a towel in particular? I know we want to avoid exposure to air. A towel is porous in a way that a sheet of foil isn't; does the dough want a little air? Why not instead put baking parchment in the bowl, flour that, put the dough on it, and then cover the bowl with either a towel (if porosity is important) or foil (if it just needs to be covered and it doesn't matter with what)?

I tried to answer this question through experimentation; in one case I used the floured towel and in the other I used floured parchment paper and foil. (I haven't tried parchment paper plus covering with a towel.) In both cases, the dough stuck a little to what it was sitting on despite the flour. I didn't notice a difference in the resulting loaves, though I did them on different days, not side by side, so I didn't control for other factors like humidity.

Does a towel, specifically, matter in some way? If not, I'd rather use disposable materials than add a towel to the laundry every time I bake.

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1 answer

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The goal is not so much to limit exposure to air, as to limit humidity loss. Covering your bowl with plastic film or foil is perfectly reasonable, as long as it has enough room for expansion. Remember that the yeast is going to be making lots of carbon dioxide bubbles, and you don't want to end up with an explosion.

Restaurant kitchens generally have lots of clean towels around, so it's a handy barrier.

3 comments

One of the reasons I thought of foil in particular, aside from the laundry factor, is that foil can be shaped into a dome over the bowl, while a towel will sit on top of the dough unless the bowl is tall enough that even the risen dough doesn't reach the top. Monica Cellio 13 days ago

@MonicaCellio I usually use a very large bowl for raising doughs. I've never seen someone shaping a dome out of foil to cover the dough - this seems rather complicated to me. Zerotime 12 days ago

@Zerotime actually, you just gave me an idea -- a bowl inverted over a bowl should do the job until I get myself some bigger bowls. (I have some large plastic bowls, but it seems to be easier to guide the raised dough out of a metal bowl and I need to get a larger one of those.) Monica Cellio 11 days ago

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