Proofing Bread

Proofing is the process of yeast respiration. This is where yeast feeds on the starches (sugars) found in hydrated flour to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide gas. A network designed to capture the gas forms forms the flours protein. When moist, the protein unravels and transforms into strands of gluten. Given time and/or kneading, the gluten develops into a close-knit network of air pockets able to retain gas.

As proofing continues, the gas fills up the air pockets, stretching the gluten as it expands. This is how bread rises and the action of the dough fermentation process is essential to making leavened bread.

There are 15 stages of bread making and fermentation concerns many of them including; kneading, bulk fermentation, final proof and the baking stage.

How long to proof bread

The dough proofing temperature affects the rate of fermentation, as does the activity and amount of the levain in both the first and second rise. 

The first rise

The bulk fermentation stage can also be called the first proof. It does not focus on rising (although this does happen), instead it uses the natural fermentation process to mature the dough and develop the gluten. 

During bulk fermentation lactic, acetic and organic acids are created in the dough. 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 vital to include a first rise to make the bread taste and look good. 

For most everyday breads the bulk fermentation should be around 2-3 hours. For artisan breads, 4-6 hours and for more advanced or no-knead bread an overnight bulk in the fridge is used.

Rising the second time

After our bread has developed it’s degassed and shaped for its final rise. During this the bread rises until it’s ready to go into the oven. 

It’s hard to give an accurate answer to “How long should bread rise the second time?” as it is reliant on the amount of levain activity in the dough. For standard bread the rise should be around 2 hours, though if it’s warmer and the yeast is active this can be as much as halved. Artisan breads often contain less yeast for the dough to endure a longer rise. 3-4 hours is typical for these types of bread. 

When is my bread ready

When the dough has been bulk fermented in the fridge it will be cooler so will take longer to rise. In this case a rise of 6 hours is possible - depending on the temperature of the room.

How to get the proofing time right

Gauging when bread is ready to bake by timing it is actually quite risky. There are many variables that affect the rate of dough fermentation other than time. These include:

  • Temperature

  • Activity of the levain

  • Amount of levain

  • Flour flora - organic bacteria

  • Mixing time/effectiveness

  • Mineral activity of the water

  • Humidity

In order for bread to take the same time to rise we must try to have all these factors the same every time. Although 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 accuracy of our timing.

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?

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:

  1. With your finger, poke the surface of the dough 3-4 mm and pull away.

  2. After removing your finger an indent will be visible. If the indent remains after 3 seconds the dough is ready to bake.

  3. 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 the poke are likely to remain in over proofed bread.

The way professional bakers use to test if 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 be baked just by looking at the height that the dough has risen to in the tin. It’ll be the same every time.

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 causing 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 two issues lead to over proofed bread with an uneven structure with a high likelihood of the gluten structure collapsing and deflating the bread. 

How to tell when bread is over proofed

If it’s a little over proofed, when using the finger poke test the bread stays down for just 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 THEN 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 a crust that is usually crunchy. This makes the perfect 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.

How to proof a wholemeal loaf 

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. 

Proofing wholemeal bread

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 which slows down 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 therefore 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 accelerate 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.

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.

How to proof bread when it’s cold

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). Baking when it’s cold outside (and in) the whole process can slow down. Here’s a few adjustments that will help:

  1. Warm the temperature of the water for the dough

  2. Warm the flour temperature

  3. Use a proofer to maintain the dough at a constant temperature.

  4. Allow more time to bulk ferment and proof

Do you need a proofer to proof bread?

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:

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