What Exactly Is Bread Proofing?
Whether you’re an experienced baker or a mere dabbler in the art of gluten, you’re probably somewhat familiar with “proofing,” a process in which dough seemingly magically rises and develops its signature yeasty flavors. But what exactly is proofing, and why is it necessary to the baking process?
Proofing is a period of fermentation during which bread dough rises to its final shape through a process called respiration. This occurs when yeast—a kind of fungus used in many fermentation processes—eats sugar and releases carbon dioxide as a result, distributing air bubbles throughout the dough that cause it to rise. This sugar develops when the starches in flour interact with water and release a number of simple sugars, like sucrose and glucose.
The yeast also creates alcohol as sugar is consumed, which results in the warm, toasty flavors we associate with bread; therefore, as a rule, the more fermentation the dough undergoes, the better and more complex the bread’s flavor will be.
The proofing process is an extremely patient and time consuming one, but is ultimately worth it for the carby greatness that is attained in the end. The entire fermentation cycle takes place in a number of rounds of rest, referred to as “first proof” (or “bulk fermentation”), folding and a “second proof,” and “final proof” (or “shaped proof”).
First Proof, or Bulk Fermentation
This crucial step is key to the bread making operation, and is particularly important when multiple loaves of bread are being made out of one batch of dough. Bulk fermentation occurs when the baker allows the dough to ferment as one larger mass, developing a consistent flavor and rise before being split and shaped into individual loaves. This is the period when the majority of fermentation takes place and the dough develops much of its flavor and texture.
This process will generally take 1.5-2.5 hours at room temperature, depending on the exact temperatures of the dough (warmer rises faster than colder) and the environment, as well as the ingredient quantities in the dough.
After bulk fermentation takes place dough should always be folded, no matter if you’re making one loaf or 100. When you “fold” the dough, stretching and re-layering it, you’re allowing the gluten structure to develop, which increases the bread’s ability to retain air and moisture.
To properly fold your bread, wet your hands and a spatula with water and scrape the dough from the side of the bowl, maneuvering carefully to not leave too much dough behind on the sides. Then, gently tug one side of the dough upwards and over in a folding motion, repeating once on each side and allowing the dough to stretch and redistribute the yeast. For the best end result, this process should be done twice, with a half hour of covered rest between foldings.
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After folding and dividing the dough into individual loaves and shaping it to your liking, another pivotal step is to allow your bread to rise one last time. In a process known as “retarding,” place your dough into a bowl or bread pan, cover it with a towel, and place it in the refrigerator for about an hour. When the dough emerges, it will be about twice its original size and have developed rich, yeasty flavors.
A longer proofing period will result in a better flavor, crust, crumb, and overall appearance, however it’s also important to make sure overproofing doesn’t occur. If fermented dough is rested for too long, the surplus of carbon dioxide in the bread will lead to air bubbles so large they have popped and deflated.
So, how do you guarantee your bread gets just the right amount of proofing? Throughout the rising process, occasionally poke the dough to see how the resulting indent responds. If the dough rises back into place slowly or remains in place, the bread has been fully proofed. However, if the indent immediately rebounds back into place, the bread still needs more time to rise.
How to Proof Your Bread at Home
While most professional bakers use designated proofing tools like a proof box, banneton, dough proofer, or retarder—which help to create a stable atmosphere for the bread—less serious bread makers can easily complete the proofing process in their own kitchens.
Turn your oven into a perfectly capable proof box by placing a cake pan filled with 3 cups of boiling water at the bottom of the oven and your dough on the middle rack. Close the door and allow the residual heat from the boiling water to create a warm, consistent environment for your dough to rise. Note that the oven shouldn’t be turned on or heated up during this process.
Smaller loaves can also be proofed in the microwave using a similar technique. Just close a steaming cup of water in with your dough and allow the fermentation magic to happen.