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Baguette Couches

From Baguettes at Home

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).

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*