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Plastic Wrap Or Wet Towel: What’s Best For Covering Dough?

There’s nothing better than the smell of freshly baked goods when you come in the door. Apart from maybe that first bite of your homemade sourdough loaf.

But to get the perfect bake, you need to create the perfect dough.

So what’s the best covering for dough: plastic wrap or a wet towel? Plastic wrap is the best cover for dough. It’s the best at trapping moisture, and if you spray it with a light misting of oil, it won’t stick to your dough. However, if you avoid plastic due to environmental concerns then a lint-free, damp towel will work just fine.

Why do you need to cover dough?

Most recipes that involve proofing a dough require you to cover the dough while it rises. 

This is important for two reasons:

  • To keep the dough from drying out and a crust forming on the top. A crust will impede the dough rising and impact the final bake
  • To protect the dough from dust and small flies

What makes a good covering for dough?

Before we talk about if plastic wrap or a wet towel is a better covering for dough, we should go through the qualities a good covering will have.

Whatever covering you use needs to be able to trap humidity. If the covering lets moisture escape, the dough will quickly dry out.

But the covering also shouldn’t be totally airtight. As the dough rises, it releases CO2 gas. If the gas has no way of eventually escaping, too much pressure will build up inside your bowl and the covering will pop.

Once the covering has ‘popped’ it will no longer be efficient at retaining moisture and it could lead to the dough drying out.

The opening for gases can be as small as a pinprick. It doesn’t need to be large. 

During the first rise, the dough will most likely have plenty of headroom, and you won’t need to worry about it coming into contact with the covering. But once you’ve shaped the dough and its ready for its second rise, sticking becomes an issue. You want a covering that won’t stick to the dough.

So a good covering for dough:

  • Traps humidity
  • Lets excess gas escape
  • Won’t stick to the dough

Is a wet towel or plastic wrap better?

These are two of the most common suggestions when it comes to covering dough.

I would recommend using plastic wrap over a damp cloth for covering dough. Plastic wrap is better at trapping humidity, more convenient, and won’t stick to the dough. You can also easily create a small hole or slit to allow excess gas to escape.

Plastic wraps are better at trapping humidity

Wet towels are what people used to cover dough before plastic wrap was invented. Baking is a family activity. Baking habits and recipes tend to be passed down through generations.

This is why damp towels are still so popular. People who grew up watching their nan using a damp towel to proof their dough have carried on that tradition and are now recommending it to other beginner bakers.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. Wet towels will do a good job. They’re permeable to air, and as long as they’re damp, they’re good at trapping humidity and retaining moisture. 

However, if you live somewhere quite dry, you might find that the towel dries out quickly and you have to keep re-wetting it. A dry towel is no good because it will absorb moisture from the dough, which is the opposite of what you want. 

With a plastic wrap you don’t need to worry about it drying out. Once you’ve covered the dough, you won’t need to check on it until you think the proof is done.

Also, wet towels can be quite sticky. If you’re not using a lint-free towel, you could end up with a furry ball of dough. Lint-free towels remove the issue of fibers getting stuck in the dough, but the towel’s surface could still stick to the dough. This will ruin the dough and mean you need to wash the towel.

Flour sack bags are a good lint-free option. They’re thin and lightweight so will allow the dough to breathe but also keep it moist. They also have multiple other uses around the kitchen. For example, you can use them as you would a cheesecloth for straining things like fat.

Wet towels are the original method of covering dough and are usually found in older recipes

There is one area where plastic wrap falters and that’s the environment. 

Using a new piece of plastic wrap every time you want to cover some dough could be considered wasteful. If this is a concern for you, a damp towel might be the better option. Or you could invest in some reusable plastic wrap made from beeswax. The large size from Bee’s Wrap will easily cover a mixing bowl.

If you want to use a towel, it’s best to use a linen towel and use the same one each time. Linen is more breathable than cotton, and over time, the flour you use to prevent sticking will work its way into the towel. Once this has happened, sticking will be much less of an issue.

Alternative covers for dough

Plastic wrap and wet towels aren’t the only options you have for covering your dough. Other ideas include:

  • Place the dough in a big saucepan and cover it with the lid. If you have a lid that fits your mixing bowl then you don’t have to worry about transferring the dough to the saucepan
  • Use a plate to cover your bowl. Or anything you can find that will cover the bowl! Chopping boards, large books, and baking trays are all good ideas
  • Cover your dough with an overturned pot. This one makes it harder to see when the dough has doubled in size though
  • Place the dough in the microwave with a cup of water (or in the oven with a tray of water). This is a good option if you want to keep your dough really wet
  • Place the bowl with the dough in a food-grade plastic bag and tie the top
  • Use a shower cap. Shower caps are like plastic wrap but reusable so better for the environment

Your options are more limited for the second rise because your dough will be shaped. Here is where plastic wrap becomes very useful, but you can still use the oven, the microwave, or a damp towel.

How to stop dough sticking to its cover

As the dough rises, there’s always a chance that it will stick to whatever you’ve covered it with. Luckily there are quite a few different tricks you can try to prevent this from happening. 

Most recipes will advise you to grease your dough before the first rise. The benefits of this are twofold. It helps stop any crust from forming and means the dough won’t stick to your cover if it happens to touch it. 

Taking inspiration from this, you can lightly mist your covering with oil to stop the dough from sticking. This is easy if you’re using plastic wrap. Simply spray one side of the plastic with oil.

If you’re using a towel, this is harder. A good alternative is flour. Lightly dusting the towel with flour will have a similar effect to oil and prevent sticking. Rice flour is the best flour to use for this.

Another idea is to remove the cover for the last half an hour of the rise. This will create a thin, dry skin on the dough’s surface. A thin crust won’t impede rising, and can even be beneficial because it makes it easier to cut patterns into the surface of the dough.

How to clean a towel thats covered in dough?

A dough-covered towel can be tricky to clean and if you use the wrong technique this can make the problem even worse.

To clean towels that are covered in dough never use hot water. Hot water strengthens the gluten in the dough and makes it even stickier. Instead, either let it soak in cold water for 10 minutes or let the dough dry and then crumble it off with your hands.

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