The term proofing bread came from the idea that the dough “proves” that it’s risen enough to bake. The dough continues to develop as it did in the bulk fermentation stage.
The final rise focuses on raising the bread, whereas, bulk fermentation matures the dough.
What happens when proofing bread
Proofing is the process of yeast respiration created in the dough fermentation process. This is where yeast feeds on the starch (sugar) in flour to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide gas. A gluten network is formed to capture the gas created.
During the final rise, gas fills the air pockets, stretching the gluten to expand. The bread rises due to the gas forcing the bread upwards.
The first proof
The bulk fermentation stage is also called the first proof or first rise. It is not for rising the dough (although this does happen). Instead, the first rise uses time and temperature to mature the dough and develop gluten.
During bulk fermentation, lactic, acetic and organic acids multiply. These are essential for the bread as they retain gas, develop flavour and improve the texture.
Many modern bakeries use dough improvers to remove this stage. But for home and artisan bakers, it’s common to include a first rise to make the bread taste and look good.
The final rise
The final rise focuses on filling the structure with air so the bread rises. The process of fermentation is the same so the dough will continue to mature as it rises. But the development of the doughs structure should be complete before the final rise raises the bread.
Once the bread has risen, the bread goes into the oven.
How long should the final rise last?
The final proof typically lasts between 1½ to 4 hours, but can be longer in cold proofing temperatures.
What is the best temperature to proof bread?
Yeast is most active at 35C (95F), though it’s not the bread proofing temperature that's used industry-wide. Artisan bakers tend to use cooler temperatures. Whereas some bakers, usually in industrial bakeries prefer warm temperatures.
Using a proofer
For consistency in proofing time and quality, a proofer is used in commercial bakeries. They do go a long way in making fantastic bread, especially when baking all year round but they are not essential.
These bits of kit are extremely expensive however home bakers in Europe can pick up a small proofer suitable for home use at Amazon. Here’s the link if you are interested:
How to proof bread using a proofer
The professional proofers I used in my supermarket days were set at 38C (100F). They were perfectly tuned for the dough to enter at 28C (82F). The dough would warm throughout proofing and reach 38C (100F) at the point it was ready to bake.
This slowed down the rise at the end which made it easier for us bakers to manage timings. Proofing above 35C (95F) also adds a slight flavour note that benefits the bread.
Proofing at these temperatures is common in Chorleywood style fast baking.
How to proof bread without a proofer
Most home bakers don’t have the luxury of a proofer to maintain temperature. It’s still possible to make great bread without a proofer. It just means you have to adjust your timings as following those set in recipes won't be accurate.
Temperature makes a big difference in the speed of the rise.
Try to leave the bread to rise in a reasonably warm place 28C - 32C for faster-made bread. For more flavoursome and slower bread, use cooler temperatures.
Yeast fermentation slows right down when it’s cold. At around 0C (32F) there is pretty much zero activity, whereas fermentation peaks at 35C (95F). The cooler temperature will just take longer.
How to proof bread when it’s cold
Baking when it’s cold outside (and in) the whole process can slow down. Here are a few adjustments that will help:
- Warm the temperature of the water for the dough
- Warm the flour temperature
- Use a proofer to maintain the dough at a constant temperature.
- Allow more time to bulk ferment and proof
Alternative proofing ideas
A DIY proofer can be an oven or microwave with the light on. It’ll warm the dough up to around 32C (90F). Other ideas include above the radiator, in the airing cupboard or any spot that will be warm consistently.
Retarding the dough
Dough can be final proofed in the fridge overnight and baked the following day. This process is called “Retarding the dough”. The fridge will slow the rate of alcoholic fermentation and means it can be ready to bake straight away the following morning. You can use a fridge proof with the beginner's bread recipe if you wish.
Do you need to let the dough warm up before baking?
Generally, I advise against final proofing large bread in the fridge. Especially when you intend to bake without letting them warm up beforehand.
The core of the bread takes longer to acclimatise. This can lower the amount of oven spring, make a dense bread or holey crumb.
I prefer to bulk ferment in the fridge overnight and in the morning I’ll warm the dough for an hour before final shaping. This method works around my daily routine nicely.
Warming a cold dough in the banneton doesn’t work great as the outside begins to ferment whilst the core remains dormant.
Bread best suited for fridge rising
Small breads such as baguettes don't have an issue with baking directly from the fridge. Their small diameter heats through quickly. Small bread dough sizes of under 650 grams usually work when baked straight from the fridge. Anything bigger than this is best baked at room temperature.
Brioche is usually bulk fermented in the fridge before shaping as cool dough is easier to shape.
There will be more dough development during a fridge final rise. It is not recommended that long bulk fermentation is followed by a long final rise. This can cause the bread to be over fermented.
How to get the proofing time right
Gauging when bread is ready to bake by timing it is risky. There are many variables that affect the rate of dough fermentation outside of time.
- The activity of the levain
- The amount of levain
- Flour flora - organic bacteria
- Mixing time/effectiveness
- The mineral activity of the water
In order for bread to take the same time to rise, we must have all these factors the same every time. Although recipe precision is virtually impossible, we can control the ideal dough temperature, use the same settings on ovens, proofers and mixers and bake with the same ingredients every day to help the timing accuracy.
We often refer to the final proof in a period of time but we should be looking for the point where the dough proves to use that it is ready to go in the oven.
When is bread ready for the oven?
The final proof ends when the yeast runs out of starch and cannot continue to raise the dough.
To achieve killer bread you should learn when bread is ready for the oven. Though experience is helpful, there’s a test called the poke test which we can use to help us.
What is the poke test?
To find out if the yeast has run out of food, use the finger poke test:
- With your finger, poke the surface of the dough 3-4 mm and pull away.
- After removing your finger an indent will be visible. If the indent remains after 3 seconds the dough is ready to bake.
- If the dough pops straight back up or almost straight up, it needs more time.
This is a tried and tested method used in bakeries across the world, here are a few tips if you’re trying it out for the first time.
Tips for using the poke test
Gauge how close the dough is to being ready by how long it takes for the indent to spring back. If it stays down for 1-2 seconds it’s nearly ready and if it pops straight back up, it’s way off.
Sometimes we want to bake slightly underdeveloped to get a larger oven spring. In this case, wait for the indent to spring back in around 2 seconds instead of 3.
The indent can remain after baking so don’t poke too deep, if you think it’s over proofed, just bake, don’t poke. Craters left from pokes remain in over proofed bread.
The way professional bakers know when the bread is ready
The best way to tell if dough is ready to bake is to use the same recipe, proofing tin/basket, mixer timings etc. every time. Whilst controlling the dough temperature so that it is also the same. This also creates consistency in the quality of the bread, which is vital when producing loaves to sell.
Using the same process each day allows the baker to determine when the bread is ready to bake by looking at the height of the dough in the tin. It’ll be the same every time.
How high should the bread rise before it’s baked
For baking with a standard 2lb loaf tin, make 950g of dough. Once the dough has risen so it touches the rim of the tin it’s ready to bake.
If using a lid for sandwich or Pullman bread, the bread should be proofed less. When making these loaves, the highest point of the bread should almost be as high as the top of the tin.
Dealing with over proofed bread
Bread is over proofed when the majority of the dough can no longer produce gas. Though there will still be pockets of dough that still ferment and cause random air bubbles. These can be seen dotted around the crumb of over proofed bread.
Lactic acid levels increase over time which also causes the gluten to weaken.
These issues lead to over proofed bread. Here, the dough becomes too heavy to hold its weight whilst the gluten becomes weaker. This ends up in the bread collapsing during the proofing or baking.
How to tell when bread is over proofed?
If dough is a little over proofed, after the finger poke test the bread will stay down for over three seconds. Providing bread at this stage is baked quickly, the bread is usually passable.
Sometimes you can see that the crust area is thinner and bubbles of air coming through. This is dough that is seriously over proofed and should go into the oven straight away. AND HOPE!
It is better to under proof rather than over proof. In the worst case, under proofed bread will be slightly poorer, over proof, and you might have to start again.
When to under proof bread?
Loaves like a sandwich or farmhouse loaves have a short bulk fermentation period and enter the oven when they are slightly under proofed. But why would we do this?
Bread that is under proofed will rise further in the oven. Providing the bread is cut correctly, the oven spring will open up the cuts nicely.
Recipes that have high quantities of water find a softer, dense crumb is achieved. Combine this with a large oven spring and the crumb will be airy and light, whilst making a crunchy crust. This method makes the perfect light-tasting loaf for sandwich fillings to shine.
To get an ear on bread you’ll need to under proof your bread. I explain my top tips on making an ear on bread in another post.
Proofing wholemeal bread
Wholemeal flour contains proteins and sugars that are more complex than those found in white flour. This means they take longer to break down and take longer to ferment.
This means the oven spring is more organised than a white loaf. By organised I also mean slower as the complex (whole) grains cannot ferment the yeast quickly and slows the process.
The complexity of the whole grains means there is no need to cut wholemeal before baking. Cutting allows gas to escape which lowers the oven spring and so cutting wholemeal bread could lower its volume.
Underdeveloped wholemeal dough can also be a problem. This leads to erratic holes in the crumb, a dense crumb and sometimes both. A correctly developed wholemeal loaf is harder to achieve than white bread as it’s so much less forgiving if over or under proofed.
Wholemeal bread has a darker coloured crust when the dough has been well fermented. Longer fermentation will bread down the complex starches into sugars. These speed up the Maillard reaction and create a darker coloured crust. This process also makes bread taste sweeter and intensifies the bread like flavours.
For lighter loaves, the bulk fermentation time can be shortened.