Wondering whether a home proofer is essential and if proofing bread in the oven is an option? Well, in this post I’ll break everything down. After reading, you’ll be able to make an informed choice on whether you want to buy a home proofer, or use a home proofing alternative.
When it comes to buying any baker equipment it’s often a tough choice. Buy cheap and it might not be of any use, yet spend more and you could feel you’ve wasted your money if you don’t get enough use out of it!
The best environment for proofing bread is a stable, warm and humid environment. This allows the bread to rise without drying out on the surface which will develop a skin. A proofer creates this perfect proofing setting for the dough. If you don’t have one, there are alternatives available such as using the oven on a low temperature. You can also make a DIY proofing box!
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What is dough proofing?
Proofing dough is the process of letting the dough rise until it is ready to be baked. It gets its name from having to “prove” that it’s ready to go into the oven by rising until it is fully proofed!
The doughs fermentation process is quite complicated, but in a nutshell:
Yeast prefers to operate at a temperature of 36C to proof bread. Varying the breads proofing temperature changes the rate of yeast activity. By doing this, the characteristics of the bread change too. In general, artisan bakers like a cool proofing temperature of 24-28C. Whereas fast moving commercial bakers set their proofers at 38C.
The gluten structure will develop further over a longer rise or bulk fermentation. This means bakers who mix their bread for a long time won’t need to develop their dough as long afterwards. Artisan breads (like sourdough) have a lighter mix, and are left longer to bulk ferment.
How a dough proofer works
Proofers create the most ideal environment for proofing dough and come in many different sizes. A proofer controls the temperature and humidity of the environment. This means bakers can enjoy a constant environment to proof bread.
By using a proofer you remove two key variables in the process. This means the bread should take the same amount of time to rise which is great from a timing perspective. But also as temperature and time affect the gluten and organic acid development the bread will look and taste the same every time.
This is crucial for professional bakeries, using a conveyor-belt system at the ovens. Commercial bakeries need to control their dough proofing temperature. It’s especially important so multiple doughs are not ready for the oven at the same time. This is called bottle-necking and can lead to bread not getting baked at all!
Some proofers are “walk in’s” where one, or several racks fit. Others are counter top units that are the same size as a fridge. There are also home proofers that can sit on top of a worktop.
Why does humidity matter?
Adding moisture to the proofer protects the skin of the bread from drying out. If you’ve made bread before without a proofer you have probably covered the rising loaf with a bag or damp tea towel. This works, as you don’t want the bag to touch the dough can be impractical. This method gets even more complicated when making several loaves at once!
The pressure and moist air that’s provided in a proofer also increases the activity of the water. This means that the yeast can ferment easier, making it more effective in proofing the bread.
How can I proof bread at home?
To proof bread we ideally want an environment which is:
- Free from draughts
- A constant warm environment
- Temperature adjustable
A sealed unit that does all of these things is the best solution, and what’s great is that this now exists for home bakers! The Brod & Taylor home proofer is the best way to proof bread at home. So if you want to get the best solution to bread proofing, head over to the Brod & Taylor website or try Amazon.
But if you are just starting out, or don’t want to spend so much money, there are other solutions…
These methods don’t tick all of the four points shown above. Yet they are much better than leaving dough on the worktop and hoping!
Proofing bread in the oven
It sounds crazy but an oven makes a really good proofer as it’s got plenty of thermal insulation! All you have to do is set it to a cool temperature and create some humidity. Some ovens have a “proof” setting which is pretty handy, but not essential. To use an oven as a proofer:
- Turn the dial to 30C (you might have to guess a little here).
- Either cover the dough with a bag or add a bowl of steaming water to the oven.
- Place the dough on the centre shelf to rise.
- Take temperature checks every 5 minutes to make sure it’s not too hot.
- Adjust the temperature dial if needed.
Tip: If you can’t set your oven temperature this low, turning only the light will provide enough heat. It just takes a while longer to warm up!
The drawback of this method is when you only have one oven. You’ll need to take the dough out when you preheat it with the baking stone. In this case, remove the proofing basket from the oven before it reaches its final height. The bread can sit in the fridge where fermentation will slow down or left on the counter.
Another suggestion is to conduct bulk fermentation in the warm oven to develop the dough. The final rise can then take place in the fridge.
How long does it take to proof bread in the oven?
It depends on the amount and type of levain used. Proofing bread in the oven is a lot quicker than on the counter, especially if you live in a cool climate. Expect the bread to rise in around 1½-2 hours.
Proofing bread in the microwave
Another great alternative is to use the microwave to proof bread. To use this method:
- Place the dough inside the microwave.
- Add a cup of steamy water next to it.
- Shut the door, leaving it slightly ajar so the light stays on
- The water may need replacing every 45 minutes if it cools.
Proofing bread in a yoghurt maker
The best baking hack that I’ve found recently is a secondhand yogurt maker that I got from a charity shop for £12.50. It works the same as the Brod & Taylor and does everything I need a proofer to do. I can set the temperature, it’s humid and it was a bargain! I love it! The only constraint is it is small so I can only fit sourdough starters or bannetons inside.
Building a DIY proofing cabinet
Making your own proofing cabinet is actually pretty easy! You’ll need a few bits of equipment which you can get from Amazon (links below) and you’ll be up and running in minutes! By making it yourself you’ll be able to make it big enough for your needs. It’s especially annoying when two loaves won’t fit in the proofer! Making your own proof box solves this problem!
Here’s what you need:
– Sealed container
Try to use something that is good at heat insulation as it will be cheaper to run. A polystyrene box is great for this, I get these when I order chilled food from the supermarket sometimes. If you are not using a thermostat, the proofing box might get too warm. In this case, with a polystyrene box you can poke holes through to let some of the heat escape.
Feel free to decorate the outside with pictures of your favourite baker “wink” or whatever you fancy!
As I’ve thrown all my polystyrene boxes away, so I’m using a cool bag!
– Heat source
Ideally a heated mat that’s designed for hydroponic use, but there are other solutions. You can use an office light if your box is big enough -or you feel confident in cutting out a hole in the lid to feed it through.
Small led lights could be stuck onto the inside of the box. These tend to be energy efficient, so select carefully so you can generate enough heat!
Using a thermostat means you can set the temperature dial and not have to worry! Though not essential, you’ll most likely wish you had one if you don’t get one to start with. You’ll be able to adjust the temperature with ease!
If your heat source is going to be a light, it is possible to wire a thermostat to it too. This means it will turn off when it gets too warm.
This is optional but with one of these you won’t need to cover your bread. You can pick up a small one that’s LCD powered for a very low cost. The only issue is they are not controlled so it will keep pumping moisture out!
– Insulation layer
You’ll want to have a layer between the mat and the proofing dough. For this, the most professional solution would be a raised cooling rack. But a layer of cardboard or a couple of tea-towels will work fine! If you wanted to make a large DIY proofer you could use a shelved cooling rack to proof multiple breads.
Now to build your proofing box!
All you have to do is:
1) Put the heating mat in the bottom of the proof box. Connect it to the thermostat.
2) Stick the thermostat’s temperature probe to the inside of the container.
3) Plug the mat and the thermostat cable to the power.
4) Lay your insulation at the bottom of the proof box
5) Position your humidifier inside (if using)
6) Turn the appliances on and set the temperature.
7) Leave for ten minutes to warm and you’re ready to go!
Do I need to build a proofing cabinet for homemade bread?
The ability to control the bread proofing temperature doesn’t have to be just for professionals! Imagine being able to know what time your bread is going to be ready? Or if the dough doesn’t rise, knowing the problem is with the dough, not the temperature?
As someone who’s baked bread at home for years and only recently started to use these solutions, I’m very passionate about getting other home bakers to use a proofing box! They are so handy! Using a home proofing solution is especially tempting for sourdough bakers wanting to bring out the sourness in their bread!
Other bread proofing alternatives
Can I make my own proofing box that’s heated with a bowl of hot water?
Er, kinda. Well yes, a bowl of boiling water in a small box is going to increase humidity, alongside temperature. The issue lies where the water heats the area up quickly, and then it cools down again. This isn’t great for an even crumb structure. I’d rather use this technique in an insulated environment alongside a steady heat source such as a microwave light or oven – with a little bit of water for moisture.
You can actually buy one of these:
Can I proof bread in the oven with the light on?
Switching on just the oven light creates a great environment for proofing bread. It’s ideal for long rises as the temperature stays constant, what’s more- it’s big! I love using this trick to proof trays of rolls. They turn out amazing every time! Cover the dough or place a tray of warm water inside to prevent the dough forming a skin.
Can I proof bread in an airing cupboard?
It is possible to proof dough in an airing cupboard however it is very dry and can reach temperatures that could kill the yeast. If you want to try, make sure you cover the dough so that it doesn’t dry out and place it away from the boiler.
Can I proof bread in a metal bowl?
Yes! Metal bowls retain heat better than plastic. This means your dough will have a consistent temperature during its rise. You’ll make a better loaf! You can add a touch of cooking oil to it before adding the dough. This will stop it sticking to the edges.
Can I proof bread outside?
If it’s warm outside, putting the dough outside to proof is a great idea! Don’t forget to cover it -you wouldn’t want to find that it’s bug infested on your return! An accurate proofer is preferred, but if you don’t have one of those, yes! Put the dough outside!
Can I proof bread in an instant pot?
Providing the dough can fit in the pot, yes! To proof dough in an Instant Pot, push the YOGHURT button and check you have the LOW temperature set. Once you hear a “beep”, put your dough in to rise and cover with a lid. Due to its shape an Instant Pot is best used for bulk fermentation.
Can I proof dough in a plastic bowl?
Yes, in fact many professional bakers use plastic bowls to proof dough! The most important factor when selecting a container for dough to rise, is its size. Providing it’s big enough to hold the dough as it expands, a plastic bowl is a great choice!
How to proof dough in the winter
To proof dough in the winter, you’ll most likely need to find or create a warm space to proof your bread. Suitable conditions are an oven with a light or on a low heat, a microwave with the light on, near a radiator, in an airing cupboard, or for the best control use a home proofer.