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:
- Grown in size - but not necessarily doubled
- Bubbles in the dough - on the surface or around the sides
- 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.