You’ve measured, maybe you’ve sifted, you’ve definitely kneaded and, now you want to know if and when your bread dough is ready to bake in the oven. Knowing what to look, feel, and, pay attention to can help you determine at what point during the bread-making process is ideal for the dough to go in the oven.
The most crucial step in deciding whether or not your dough is ready for the oven is by proofing. Proofing gives the fermentation process the time it needs to establish the resulting size and shape of the dough. By paying attention to time and observing the overall size, the proofing step is done once the dough has doubled in volume. Additionally, what’s known as the “Rise” or “Poke” Test can be used as a determining factor.
Why is the Proofing Stage so Important?
First and foremost, what does the proofing stage refer to? Is it the first rise? Or the second rise? Well, the proofing stage of bread dough refers to both. The fermentation process of bread has two parts, a first rise, and a final rise, both equally important if you want to have the ultimate baked bread.
Allowing your bread dough to rest and rise is crucial in developing both the taste and the texture of the baked bread. Yeast based doughs require time to develop gluten and ferment. It’s a fine balance of the yeast creating carbon dioxide to create pockets of air in conjunction with the gluten to expand and stretch, improving the texture. If the dough isn’t proofed or isn’t proofed enough, the gluten will not form, there will be no air pockets which compromises the flavor and texture of the bread.
The flavor is determined by the fermentation process, in that it occurs once most of the oxygen has been used up by the yeast. If the proofing process is rushed, a lot of carbon dioxide is developed but little alcohol is produced, making the bread tastes a little lackluster.
The texture is produced simultaneously with the flavor of the bread during the proofing process by allowing the gluten structure to steadily stabilize, stretch, and expand. Dough that isn’t proofed enough will have bigger air bubbles that puff up too much and burst. This is also the leading cause of bread turning out flat.
Where Should I Proof My Bread Dough?
So, you may be asking yourself where you should ideally proof your bread dough. Well, that depends on a few things; namely temperature and humidity. Proofing at room temperature which is between 68 – 72°F (20–22°C), is ideal.
Ensuring the dough is covered, whether with plastic, a lid, or a simple tea towel, prevents a crust from forming on the bread dough. Note that plastic, or a lid, helps prevent any moisture from the dough to evaporate, which leads to a more flawless baked crust.
If you live in a more humid climate, covering with a tea towel or cloth is sufficient. If you live in a drier climate, covering with plastic or proofing in a plastic container, is better at ensuring moisture isn’t evaporated.
Remember: the warmer the temperature, the faster the dough will rise and keep in mind that you don’t want it to rise so fast that the gluten structure doesn’t organize itself in cohesion with the fermentation of the yeast.
In the summer, the kitchen counter or table works just fine. Winter is a little trickier, finding a warm spot like the top of your fridge, can help. Otherwise, retarding the proofing process by placing the dough in a cold spot, with a temperature of about 50°F (10°C) like your fridge, or the kitchen counter in the winter, slows down the fermentation process and aids in flavor development.
All that being said, the ultimate place to proof your dough is a proofing box. This excellent tool enables you to control environmental conditions. It does not allow drafts anywhere near you dough and maintains a constant temperature. If you live in a particularly cold or hot/ humid area, it will do wonders for your dough. To read more about this wonderful tool I have written a great article that explains all the benefits of using a proofing box. Check it out here. you’ll thank me later…
How Long Do I Let the Bread Dough Rise?
How long depends on a few things. Remember, a slower rise means better flavor and texture. Slow is good here, especially for the bulk rise. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the yeast only has so much food supply and you don’t want the sugars exhausted. Let it rise too long and the dough could fall flat and you risk losing out on a beautifully caramelized crust.
If you want to bulk proof for longer than one to two hours than consider letting it rise in a known cold spot in your kitchen, or even better the refrigerator. Sticking it in the fridge between 12 and 24 hours slows the yeast down, allowing the flavors of the bread to develop. Any Longer than that jeopardizes the flavor and texture.
How Big Should the Dough Get?
Size kind of matters here folks. Rule of thumb is that bread dough should double in volume during the first proof. Once it’s twice as big as when you started, the dough has to be punched down to prevent over fermentation. Letting it get any bigger, also means the gluten is approaching the point of collapse, and will not be able to hold the carbon dioxide bubbles that maintain the structure of the loaf. Making sure it doesn’t get any bigger than double prevents the dough from falling and means you avoid eating dense bread.
The Poke Test
You’ve bulk proofed, you’re reaching what you believe is the end of your final proof – looks doubled, enough time has passed, but is it ready? The dough should feel soft and supple, poking it can help. There is one more thing you can do to see if your bread dough is ready to go in the oven, and that’s the poke test. The poke test, also known as the “Ripe Test,” is just taking your finger or knuckle and gently poking the proofed dough. The reaction of the dough to the poke will give you an indication of where the dough stands. Whether the indentation, remains, bounces back or, is neither here nor there will let you know where the in the final proofing stage the bread dough is.
Poke Test – Apply a little oil or water to your finger, and gently poke the dough (like you’re trying to get its attention)
|Over Proofed||Under Proofed||Ready for the Oven|
|Bread dough doesn’t spring back, and the indentation remains.||More time to proof is indicated by the dough springing back and a lack of indentation remaining.||The bread dough slowly springs back indicates the dough is proofed and ready to go in the oven.|
Ultimately, keeping an eye on the time, the volume of the bread dough during the first proof, and how it reacts to a poke during the final post lets you know if your bread is ready for the oven.
- Time – Try to keep it within 1-2 hours at room temperature, and up to 3 hours if you’re slowing down the proof in the fridge or cold spot.
- Volume Size – Avoid allowing the bread dough to bulk beyond double, particularly in the first proof.
- Poke Test – Poke it, if it slowly bounces back to mid-way, then in the oven it should go.
Knowing the above basics will guide you along on your bread baking quest in attaining an amazing final product.