Getting proofing right

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Showing loaf ready to bake

One of the hardest things to learn with baking, and especially sourdough baking, is to know when fermentation is complete and the dough is ready for shaping.

When I started out last month, I was happy to rely only on timings and happily assumed that the bulk rise was complete as it had been in the fridge overnight. I then relied on the 'poke test' for the second rise, making subjective judgements that the dough had bounced back a little bit but not the whole way, but frankly, I was never really sure.

As I've progressed, I've pushed both rises to their limits. Firstly, I was starting to time the bulk rise in the fridge overnight, by making sure it was in there for at least 12 hours. Then, I ditched the fridge all together and started doing the 12-hour rise at room temperature.

I've also left the second rise longer, pushing the poke test to the limit, thinking it can cope with a bit more time. This has meant the timing of my second rise has moved from an average of 1.5 hours to more like four or even five hours.

Over a dozen bakes later, I'm still not sure if the dough is ever really proofed enough but it certainly has helped to have a loaf showing classic signs of over-proofing after baking, and remembering the earlier warning signs.

On the whole, I think the most important sign for me is ensuring the loaf is able to hold its shape after the bulk rise and can sit comfortably on a worktop without any support. If it just collapses into a flat mess, then I know it's over-proofed. Equally, I need to pay attention to the visual clues, for example, bubbles on the surface of the dough, a smooth surface otherwise, and a dome shape.

For the second rise, I'm still not sure when the loaf is ready beyond completing the poke test. Not only do I need to check that the dough pokes back a little bit when poked, but also to pay attention to the speed at which it does so: if it takes a long time, it's probably nearly over-proofed and needs to get in the oven quick.

Signs that dough has finished proofing:

  1. Grown in size - but not necessarily doubled
  2. Bubbles in the dough - on the surface or around the sides
  3. Smooth, domed surface - if there are lumps, it's not ready. If it has started to go flat or has collapsed, it's over-proofed.