There is a time-limit on how long dough can be left to proof.
In your sourdough adventure you will probably have baked a loaf of bread that results to be dense and quite sour. This a hallmark overproved loaf and something for you to learn from.
On the other hand, you take a loaf out the oven that looks fantastic. You cut through and there a very large holes at the top of the loaf, with much smaller ones at the bottom. You taste it and you can’t work out if it’s undercooked or just hasn’t developed its full flavour. This is classically underproved dough.
SAVING YOUR DOUGH
As you know by now Motherdough and the dough we make from it is alive. It needs food.
If we leave dough to proof for too long, the starches and sugars in the dough get depleted by the organisms and they have no more “food”. This means it has no strength left to continue to ferment or grow in size. The gluten strands eventually break down, and the dough cannot hold itself up.
It is not always possible to salvage overproved dough. You can’t just mix in some extra flour and hope for the best. Ultimately it depends how over proved it is.
A little overproved, it can be saved
If: the dough has become flatter rather than domed or has started to collapse at the sides of the bowl during bulk fermentation you can save it to a point. It still won’t make your best loaf yet though.
What to do: Give the dough some stretch and folds and gently move the dough around. This will give the sourdough a chance to find new pockets of sugars and starches to consume, and also help to recoil the gluten. Shaping it and baking very shortly afterwards is recommended.
If: The dough has become loose and lazy. It doesn’t seem to hold shape particularly well. This is a heavily over proofed dough. It has lost its important structural components that make a good loaf of bread. This is the reason why. If you wait for it to double in size, then you’re far more likely to over ferment the dough, by waiting for it to double in size when in some cases, it never will.
What to do: The only thing to do is pour it into a greased loaf tin and bake it. The loaf tin will hold the shape of the loaf in absence of strength in the dough.
Underproved can always be saved
Not proving your sourdough for long enough is more forgiving than overproving. It won’t have developed a full flavour and the gluten structure will be developed to different stages. This means the bread may have a bit of an uneven crumb when it come out the oven. This is also known as “fools crumb.” – you see a lot of pictures of it. It is still great bread.
You will only learn from baking underproved loaves as you get to know both your Motherdough and the dough in your recipes. With time your baker’s instinct will kick in and you will get your dough into the oven at the right point of fermentation. You will know when it needs a bit more time.
The best way to control fermentation and be able to track some sort of timing is to control the temperature and the humidity. Unfortunately having a prover in a domestic environment is a very rare thing. A switched off oven, or microwave, with the light on and a bowl of boiling water at the bottom is a good alternative. Of course, for long slow bulk fermentation we can set our fridge to about 6 deg C and that works really well.
For more information about knowing when your dough is perfectly proved have a look at our blog post “How to know dough is properly proved.”