Proofing bread at home is a skill, an art and a challenge. Although it is possible to proof bread on the countertop, for reasons we’ll cover in this article, it’s often not the best way to do it. So what can we use at home to create the ideal proofing environment? How can you make a DIY proofer? And, how to proof bread in the oven? Well, in this post I’ll break down all of these proofing bread without a proofer questions, so you know your options, as well as why you should get a home proofer. And, why you shouldn’t.
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! The way bread rises is complicated but in a nutshell:
Yeast cells feed on sugars that are derived from the flour. As the sugars are consumed, carbon dioxide gas is produced which fills air pockets in the dough. As they expand the dough rises. Alongside this, other organic compounds and acids are produced through fermentation which adds flavour and maturity to the dough.
To prove bread an environment that is humid, free from draughts and consistently warm is favourable. Yeast prefers to operate at a temperature of 36-43C (97-110F), however, bread is best when proofed between 25-38C (77-100F). A dry or windy environment draws moisture from the edges of a raw dough which leads to it drying out and hardening. If this happens, the dough is unable to rise any further.
There are many other variables involved when proofing bread, such as the amount of yeast in the recipe, the available sugars in the flour, the enzymatic activity of the flour (required to break down starches into sugar), and more. Temperature is a key variable as it impacts the rate at which yeast operates. If the proofing environment is too cool the dough will be slow to rise. If we have the ability to control temperature we are able to time our dough rise with much more accuracy which makes it easier to produce great bread.
The other factor is humidity. Whereas a commercial bakery will control humidity to a degree of accuracy, it’s not possible to have this level of control at home. You may have seen other bakers cover a rising loaf with a bag or damp tea towel, or perhaps you’ve tried these or similar techniques before. Their goal is to create humidity to stop the dough from drying out. These methods work, but we’ll discuss other (better) options to provide moisture as we review the home proofing methods in a moment.
The increase in air pressure from the extra water molecules in the air increases the activity of the water in the dough. This means that yeast ferments faster, making it more effective bread proofing environment.
The bread proofing temperature changes the rate of yeast activity. This not only increases the rate of the rise, but other characteristics of the bread will change too. The gluten structure will continue to develop after kneading, albeit at a slower rate. This means bakers who use long fermentation periods won’t need to knead their dough for long. Many artisan bakers like a cool proofing temperature of 25-28C (77-82). This means that more flavour is produced by yeast fermentation. Fast-moving commercial bakers are more likely to set their proofers at 38C (100F) for a more energetic rise and a softer crumb texture.
See do I have to knead bread for more insight into kneading bread dough.
By using a proofer you remove two key variables in the process, temperature and humidity. This means that each time you follow the same recipe with the same ingredients your bread should take the same amount of time to rise. This 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 bake!
This is crucial for professional bakeries who use conveyor-belt systems leading to the ovens. And especially important for smaller batch producers who want to be able to time their multiple doughs so they are not all ready for the oven at the same time!
At home, it’s not essential to have a proofer, but having one, or at least using some of the DIY proofing methods shown below will help you to:
Some proofers are “walk in’s” where one, or several racks fit. Others are countertop units that are the same size as a fridge. There are also home proofers that can sit on top of a worktop. Here are a few examples of professional proofers:
It is also worth considering using a dehydrator in a semi-professional bakery like this UK one by Buffalo. But for home bakers, there are other solutions… Although, not quite as accurate at controlling temperature and humidity as the commercial products, they are better than leaving dough on the worktop and hoping!
Making your own proofing cabinet is pretty easy! I was actually surprised! You only need a few bits of equipment to do this which are listed with Amazon links below:
Your DIY proofer should be built in a sealed container with good heat insulation. A polystyrene box is great for this, I’ve got these when ordering chilled food before. But you can also order them online. As I’ve thrown all my polystyrene boxes away, I’m using a cool bag!
*The bigger the box, the longer it will take to heat up.
A heat mat designed for hydroponic use is my preferred and chosen route. The power capacity of the heat source must match the size of the box. The 20-watt one I have is perfect for a cool bag or small box. But a larger box would require more power (or two heat mats).
You could also use an office light if your box is big enough. You’ll need to cut a hole in the lid to feed the lamp through.
A thermostat means you can set your desired temperature on the dial and not have to worry! It’s not essential to use a thermostat, you’ll most likely wish you had one if you don’t get one. The one I recommend uses a temperature probe that’s placed in the proofer. The heat source is then connected to the thermostat with an ordinary plug socket. Once the desired temperature is reached, the thermostat cuts the power to the heater, and when the temperature drops, it turns back on again.
If you are not using a thermostat, the proofing box can become too warm. So you might want to poke holes through the box, or leave the lid slightly ajar to let some heat escape. You won’t be able to fine-tune your proofing temperature without a thermostat.
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, they just pump moisture out continually. As an alternative, you can fill a mug with hot water to release steam. It’s not as accurate as it cools down and needs replacing every 30-45 minutes, but is a popular choice.
You can also decorate the outside with pictures of your favourite baker or whatever you fancy!
You’ll want to have a layer between the mat and the proofing dough. Without this, you might find that the base of your dough over proofs or begins to bake! The most professional solution is a raised cooling rack. But a layer of cardboard or a couple of tea towels works fine. If you are making a large DIY proofer, a shelved cooling rack could be handy for proofing multiple doughs.
All you have to do is:
1) Put the heating mat at 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 into 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!
The heating time depends on the temperature of the room at the start, the size of the DIY proofer and the power of the heat source used. I find that it takes 2-3 minutes to increase one-degree Celsius.
The Brod & Taylor home proofer came out a few years ago, and it’s currently leading the way for home bakers to proof bread at home. You are able to control the temperature for optimum proofing control! There’s also a perfectly placed bowl to hold warm water so that it can self-steam to create humidity. So if you don’t want the faff of making your own, head over to the Brod & Taylor website or Amazon.
Tip: If you can’t set your oven temperature below 40C don’t heat up the oven. Instead, just turn the light on. This will produce an extra 5-7 degrees extra warmth to speed up your proofing.
Ovens make excellent home-proofers. Its walls are thermally insulated to retain heat and moisture, just like a proofer! Some ovens have a “proof” setting which is pretty handy, but you can use any domestic oven. All you have to do is:
A challenge of this method is when it’s time to turn the oven on to bake your loaf! To resolve this, proof the dough in the oven until it’s ¾ proofed and leave it to fully proof on the counter whilst the oven warms up. If you are worried about over-proofing, you can pop the dough in the fridge to slow the rise.
You can also use the heat mat method in your oven for more accuracy. Just don’t forget to remove it from the oven after you finish with it!
Using the microwave to proof bread is another great method that you can use to proof bread dough or keep a sourdough starter. It’s simple to follow:
One of my favourite baking hacks recently is to use a yoghurt maker to warm a sourdough starter. This one I found in a charity shop for £12.50. It has a digital control to set the temperature, just like the Brod & Taylor. I can set the temperature, the lid prevents moisture from escaping, and it was a bargain! I love it! The only constraint is it is small so I can only fit sourdough starters or a small banneton inside. You may be able to pick up a larger one if you purse this option.
A bowl of boiling water in a small box will increase humidity, alongside temperature. The issue lies where the water heats the area up quickly and 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 bit of water for moisture. But, you can buy one of these:
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 the flavour of sourdough is very temperature-driven, it’s great to experiment with different fermentation temperatures to develop different types of acids! By making a DIY proofing box, instead of buying one, you’ll be able to make one big enough for your needs, and maybe even save some money.
So what do you think about making a DIY proofing box? Is this something you want to have a go at? 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! Let me know what you think in the comments below.