In a simple world, your dough would be ready to be proved when it:
- is noticeably bigger.
- is light and soft.
- has a couple or more large bubbles on the side or the surface.
Two of the main reasons for proving the dough is for the dough to relax and to fully develop the gluten structure. This has a substantial effect on oven spring, crumb, and texture.
Properly proved dough is the perfect meeting point between elasticity and relaxation in the dough. At the correct point, the air in the dough expands easily during baking and is held in place thanks to the gluten structure. Imagine the following scenarios putting yourself in the shoes of the air in the dough; see yourself trying to fill different items with air by blowing them up. The stages of proving would be something like this:
- Underproved – trying to blow up a car tyre.
- Correctly proved – blowing up a balloon.
- Overproved – trying to blow up a beach ball with a couple of holes in.
As you gain experience you learn to listen to the dough. A glance, a touch, a poke and you’ll just instinctively know when it’s ready. For now, there are a few things you can do to train yourself to prove to perfection.
WATCHING THE CLOCK
The first issue is time. Time is a guideline. It is quite variable because the time it takes to prove depends on ambient conditions and the amount of Motherdough in the recipe. Warmer and more motherdough means a faster prove, and vice versa. It is for this reason that if you only use time as a guideline, say “prove for 4 hours,” then you will notice that your bread results from the same recipe are different every time.
It is handy to have a rough time frame of how long your sourdough should proof for, but it is not always easy to follow a recipe and just do it like it “says on the box.”
A change of 9 deg. C in room temperature up or down will approximately halve or double, respectively, the time taken for the dough to prove.
As a very basic time frame, the very minimum that sourdough should ferment/proof for is 4 hours. Less than 4 hours simply won’t be enough time to develop enough of a gluten structure or flavour, getting the dough to that sweet spot. As you will know from our blog post on kneading, gluten also develops passively as the dough rests. So, time is both a method and an ingredient in making bread.
When it comes to proving, time is affected by the following variables:
- How much sourdough Motherdough has been used in the dough
- The temperature of the dough
- The ambient conditions, room temperature particularly.
The smaller the amount of Motherdough in the dough, and the colder the temperature, the longer the dough is able to ferment for. It is important to remember that a long slow fermentation is the goal with natural fermentation baking.
Here are some very rough guidelines of timings to help get you started. If you were to ferment your dough at room temperature, these are the broad timeframes you could expect considering standard variables of Motherdough % and room temperature.
20% at 20 – 24C 4 – 8 hours
10% at 20 – 24C 8 – 14 hours
You will see in our recipes that we usually achieve some fermentation at this temperature, then a long slow bulk rise in the fridge before or after shaping, and then a final proof. This would change the above timings in a very broad guideline as follows:
1st proof which may include intermittent folding:
20% at 20 – 24C 2-4 hours
10% at 20 – 24C 2-4 hours
Long bulk fermentation at a controlled temperature
20% at 6C 10-12 hours
10% at 6C 18-36 hours
20% at 20 – 24C 2-4 hours
10% at 20 – 24C 3-6 hours
Again, these are very rough guidelines that are handy to have when first starting out. But knowing from the feel of the dough will give you a much more accurate and predictable bread result.
It takes lots of practice, and trial & error to know when your dough is ready to bake. The you bake, the quicker you’ll develop a ‘baker’s instinct’ when it comes to knowing when to move to the next stage.
READING THE DOUGH
The dough will change considerably during the bulk fermentation period and knowing what to look for will help you determine if it is ready for shaping or not. Here are 4 signals to look for that will tell you if your dough is ready after bulk fermentation:
IT’S IN THE SIZE
When the dough is at the initial stages, it will be dense. During the fermentation, the gluten structure will begin to develop, which helps to trap air into the dough. As air bubbles start to develop, the dough will not only grow in size, but also become lighter and fluffier. It will lose its density and become more airy. If your dough is not aerated it needs more time to ferment.
In a long cold fermentation, the above changes of course will be less obvious, but you should see noticeable changes. These will become apparent fairly quickly after you have removed the dough from the fridge and you allow it rest for 30-60 minutes before shaping and proceeding with the rest of the final proof.
IT’S IN THE FEEL
When you handle the dough after its bulk fermentation, it will feel quite different to when you first handled it. You need to be very loving and gentle with the dough at this stage, you don’t want to destroy all the bubbles that have taken hours and to develop.
The dough will now be light and have a ‘bouncy’ kind of a feel to it. In fact, if you give the bowl/container some gentle movement backwards and forwards, the dough should ‘jiggle’ and be wobbly. This is the point at which it is done and ready to shape.
Does the dough seem ‘wobbly’ when you move the bowl around? It’s time to begin shaping!
There is also a test that you can perform to help you understand if the dough has developed enough strength and ‘bounce’ in it to hold itself up…
The ‘Poke’ Test
This test can be done once the dough has had some time to ferment. Poke your finger into the dough about a half inch deep. Does the dough ‘recover’ by popping back out? or does it stay where it is? If:
The dough pops back out quickly – This means its under-proofed.
The dough stays where it is – This means its over-proofed.
The dough pops back out slowly and leaves a slight indentation – Perfect, your dough is ready!
IT’S IN THE ATTITUDE
A dough that has been proofed properly will still have ‘strength’ to it when handled. It will feel alive by being a little stubborn in the shape it wants to be. It will fight back. You will find that it has developed stretchiness and elasticity.
When you first mix the dough at the beginning stages of kneading it is fairly easy to manipulate. In a less wet dough it may behave like playdough, whereas a wet dough will spread and be unable to hold much shape.
Once the dough has proofed enough, the dough will have better elasticity and resist being overly stretched. Does the dough want to ‘bounce back’ when you give it a gentle stretch? This is a sign that it is ready to be shaped.
IT’S IN THE LOOK
Once the dough has proven for enough time, it will look different. This basically takes us back to the intro of this blog post, but now you have a much better understanding of what happens to the dough to result in what you are looking at.
The dough should smooth and almost shiny at its surface, and not uneven.
The top of the dough should have a “dome”, indicating it is still growing and has strength left in it. If it becomes flat or “falls back”, this is a sign it has over fermented.
You should see bubbles in the dough. These can be seen just beneath the surface or along the sides of the bowl. In wet dough they will pop out the surface like little balloons.
A notable increase in size, but to always double; that’s why we say “almost,” almost is a very broad space.
The dough does not necessarily have to double in size. It would completely depend on the type of flour you are using, the shape of the container and even the hydration of the dough.
To be sure to proceed to shaping and final proof your should be sure that:
The dough has it definitely grown in size.
The dough shows other characteristics of being properly fermented as detailed about.
We have some pointers on overproved and underproved dough in our blog post “OVERPROVING and UNDERPROVING.”