How do you know when your sourdough is proofed (proved) and ready to bake? What is underproofed? What does overproofed look like?
This post will explain what this step in the bread making process is, the differences in stages of proofing, the signs of a proofed loaf, and a helpful test.
Getting the “just right” proof on your dough will give you a soft, airy bake. So if you want to avoid a dense bread or one that is misshapen, read on.
*Note: I will be using the spelling “proofing” in this post since that is the spelling typically used in the U.S. and the one I use in my classes. The spelling “proving” is typically used in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world.
What is proofing
The fermentation of sourdough (and conventional yeast bread as well) is divided into two parts of fermentation: bulk fermentation (some call this the first rise) and proofing (also called second or final rise).
After the bulk ferment is finished, the dough is shaped into a boule, baguette, loaf, or a parshape like a dough ball that will be shaped into pizza after the rest.
In this shape, the dough is put into a loaf pan, flaxcloth couche for baguettes, proofing basket or bannetton, a baking sheet, or other container specified in the recipe.
It rests in this shaped form in order for the fermentation to continue. As it continues fermenting during the proof, it rises to 1 1/2 to 2 times its volume.
This rise is caused by the wild yeast continuing to “eat” the starches and sugars in the dough and create carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
The carbon dioxide is held in by the strong, elastic dough created by the formation of the gluten protein bonds.
Quick tip on proof timing
In many recipes, the time allotted for proofing is one third to half as long as the bulk ferment.
And the timing will be subject to the air temperature in your proofing area (e.g., kitchen) so err on the longer side of a range in cold weather and the shorter side of the range in warmer weather.
Why Does Proofing Matter?
Proofing is critical for getting the right texture and volume on your bread. Here are four reasons why it matters:
- It will create a lovely shape that will be beautiful on the table.
- Good oven spring. This is how the dough rises and expands during baking.
- A soft, airy interior (the texture depends on the recipe, but should never be dense, gummy, or overly chewy)
- Even crumb when the bread is sliced. This refers to “the holes” you see once the bread is cut. There shouldn’t be any parts with big holes and others that look squished. It should have the same openness across the slice.
- Best flavor. Fermentation not only affects the volume of the bread, it affects the final flavor. I think we can all agree that this is really important!
- Baking time can be affected by under or overproofing.
The right proof also affects the bake since the matter of the dough needs to be spaced apart from a good proof versus all bunched together if it is underproofed.
What is underproofed?
Underproofed dough is dense and has not increased in volume.
This will result in a dense bread with a very tight crumb (holes are very close together) that doesn’t have the pillowy texture when you take a bite.
The flavor will also be underdeveloped.
If you don’t see the signs mentioned below, you’ll want to let your dough rest longer for an optimal proof.
What is overproofed?
Overproofed is when the dough has rested too long and the yeast has continued making carbon dioxide while the strength of the dough (gluten bonds) have begun to wear out.
The dough will look very puffy, but when you touch it or move it you may notice it deflate or sag.
Below is an example of a severely overproofed sandwich loaf.
The fix is to bake it or try to reshape and proof again. For my family, I always choose to bake the bread. Especially since it won’t be long before they finish it and I’m baking the next batch!
Cold vs. Room Temperature (Ambient) Proof
The dough can be proofed at room temperature or in the fridge for a cold proof, or a combination of the two.
The room temperature proof will be the shortest timeline. Due to variation in room temperature and weather, this can vary the timing.
Cold proofing will be a longer timeframe. This also creates a more complex flavor and produces a bread that is even more digestible than typical sourdough bread.
You can also use a combination by proofing your dough at room temperature then putting the dough into the fridge (well covered) for a few hours to overnight.
It will continue to proof in the cold environment, so I recommend using the shorter end of the room temperature proofing range before transferring the dough to the fridge.
For consistent proofing, no matter the season, there are some tools you can use:
- Electric proofing box: This is for serious bakers who want to make an investment for the best automated proofing
- Overturned large plastic bin with the dough underneath and a bowl of steamy just boiled water underneath the box and next to the dough to create a warm environment with some humidity
- OFF Microwave: The microwave creates a well insulated environment for proofing. You would just want to make sure no one turns on the microwave which would end poorly.
- OFF Oven: with the light on for an insulated environment with a gentle amount of heat coming from the light
I really loved some of the ideas shared in this post by Taste of Home, if you are looking for a few more ideas to get the best proof, even in winter. I loved the idea of a dish of boiled water in the oven.
Quick Proofing Tip for great scoring
Before you score and bake and after your dough is proofed, put the covered dough into the fridge for 30-60 minutes. The chilled dough will score much more cleanly and easily.
Add a light dusting of flour and smooth over the top of the loaf and use a new razor blade in your bread lame to have the absolute best results.
How to proof sourdough
- After the bulk ferment, shape your dough according to the directions.
- Cover your dough (with kitchen towel or plastic wrap, depending on recipe)
- Let rest in a warm environment (see notes above for variations) for the given proofing time in the recipe
- Check the proof of your dough at the short end of the time range to determine whether it is just right and ready to bake or is underproofed and needs more time.
- Preheat the oven
4 signs your dough is proofed and ready to bake
- Dough that has reached is optimal proof should be 1.5 to 2 times larger in volume
- The dough should feel full and airy, but should not sag or collapse (overproofed)
- If the proper sized loaf pan or proofing basket was used, dough should rise nearly to the top or slightly over (for most loaf pans)
- When a finger tip is lightly dampened and presses about 1/2-inch into the dough, the dough should slightly rise back about halfway and leave an impression where it was poked. This is called the “poke test”
The poke test to test proofing
Below is a video of the “poke test” in action. You can see the indentations I made remaining in the dough.
If the dough was overproofed it would show very little movement and would possibly deflate a little.
Underproofed dough would bounce back and wouldn’t show much evidence of indentation.
Surprising tip for good oven spring
For a really great oven spring, you can try finding that sweet spot by getting right up to the optimal proofing stage when it is just slightly underproofed.
Preheat the oven and then bake. The dough will be almost completely proofed by the time the oven is preheated, but just a tiny bit underproofed which will cause the bread to bake up very showy with a showy ear or burst if you
The right proof
Now you have the signs to look for and a test to feel confident in getting the just right proof for your next sourdough bake.
The wait is worth it!
If you are new to sourdough altogether, you can check out my learn to bake sourdough page or get my free Sourdough Quick Start Guide.
Start Learning Today
My online Intro. to Sourdough course will walk you through all the steps of making sourdough bread and beginning your sourdough journey with a solid foundation.
It also includes a bonus video lesson for how to shape and bake sandwich loaves–our family favorite bread.
Living Bread Baker posts mentioned
How to make sourdough step by step: My Classic Sourdough Country Loaf
When is my bulk ferment finished
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