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Proofing 101: Yeasted Breads

Have you ever tried to make a loaf of bread from scratch, only to find yourself confused and frustrated mid-process? Or maybe you made it through a recipe, but simply didn't like the result. Perhaps your bread turned out dense like a brick, or chewy like gum. If frustration has deterred you from making your own bread, look no further than today's blog post!

Proofing- what does that mean?

Proofing, fermenting, rising, doubling in size... all of these terms are generally synonymous with each other and can be used interchangeably.

"Proofing" could be defined as activating yeast by the addition of liquid.

But, that is a bit of an oversimplification, in my opinion. Yes, it is best practice to activate your yeast before incorporating it into a recipe. Also, when you allow your dough to rise, you are technically re-activating your yeast by feeding those cultures with the liquids, sugars, and proteins in the flour that your recipe calls for.

That said, it's a little misleading to offer a simple, one-line explanation when yeasted types of bread will essentially always require two proofing periods (or sometimes three, as with sourdough). So yes, while proofing is simply the process of activating the yeast, it is a process that must be utilized more than once in most bread recipes, such as loaves of bread, croissants, and cinnamon rolls. Let's deconstruct this just a little further.

When you initially mix your dough and the flour is still absorbing moisture, the gluten hasn't had an opportunity to develop, and the yeast cultures will just be getting started on finding their food. Your newly formed dough lacks structure and elasticity at this stage. Even if the starter cultures could become active instantly, the dough would not be able to stretch in all the dimensions it needs or have enough stability to hold itself up. Given some time and handling, it will spring beautifully.

We've mentioned yeast several times now, and it's important to note that there are multiple types of yeast to choose from. More details on how to use and swap the different types later, but for now, the three types of yeast broken down in this article will be:

Active Dry Yeast

Instant Yeast

Sourdough Starter

Okay, now that we've clarified the concept of what proofing is, let's move on to explaining the different types of yeast.

Active Dry Yeast

This is the most common type of yeast you will see referenced in bread recipes. This isn't to say you can't substitute it with something like instant yeast or sourdough starter, although when doing so, you will want to adjust the proportion of yeast accordingly. We'll expand on that soon.

Essentially, active dry yeast is a lab-produced yeast culture and leavening agent, created in a controlled environment for quality assurance and purity purposes. It's incredibly reliable if handled properly, and tends to last quite a while when stored properly. Refrigerated in an airtight container, you can safely assume that it will last at least three months.

If you're curious to learn more than this page offers, scroll to the bottom and check out our reference links. Remember, we do LOTS of research and cite our sources so you don't have to sift through Google search results!

The first step in making a yeasted type of bread will usually be activating your yeast. The exception to the rule is when you're using instant yeast. Hey, what a great segue!

Instant Yeast

Similar to active dry yeast, instant yeast is produced in a lab, under a controlled environment. There are a few distinctions, but the most important to note is that

this yeast doesn't require you to "bloom" or activate it before incorporating it into a recipe. There are plenty of recipes that call for this type of yeast, but it's completely your call whether you wish to stock your kitchen with it or opt for whatever yeast you have available.

Another distinction with instant yeast is the level of hydration and living cells. During the drying process, yeast cells die off, more so with active dry yeast than with instant yeast. Finally, instant yeast is composed of smaller granules than active dry yeast. For these reasons, instant yeast will dissolve and "come to life" more quickly. What does all this mean?

If you're substituting with instant yeast (for a recipe that calls for active dry), you might consider reducing the amount needed by roughly 25%. If you're substituting with active dry yeast (for a recipe that calls for instant), increase the amount by 25%. If you forget, no biggie, but your dough will rise a bit more quickly or slowly, depending on which you're substituting with.

So now we know that active dry yeast requires "blooming," and instant dry can be used straight away. What's the deal with sourdough starter?

Sourdough Starter

From here forward, I'll simply refer to this as starter.

Starter is similar to dry yeast, in the sense that it uses live cultures to leaven dough, but otherwise, it has quite unique properties. Most notably, starter isn't dry like its otherwise-cultured counterparts. It also requires more maintenance than simply leaving it in the fridge until the next time you bake.

For a thorough walk-through on the properties and uses for starter, check out my previous post, Sourdough, for Starters.

Starter needs to be "fed" at least once per week, although it can survive for a while longer than that in the fridge. Feeding your starter will keep it active, reducing proofing time and keeping it from turning too sour (unless you specifically want that flavor). You feed starter by mixing in equal portions (by weight) of flour and water to a small amount, then letting it ferment on the counter for several hours. After it has doubled in size (similar to "blooming" your active dry yeast), go ahead and either refrigerate it or use it in your recipe! Using starter requires some planning-ahead since it requires extra time, but it does yield some truly delicious, not to mention fancy-looking results!

Working with Yeast

Okay, so we've talked about three different yeast sources (we won't get into fresh yeast today, but someday I may get brave and look for some to experiment with,) but how do we use it?

Well, we probably have to "wake it up" first, unless you've opted for instant yeast.

This will mean either: a) feeding your starter, or

b) blooming your yeast with water and sugar

Feeding your starter

You can feed your starter as early as several days previous to making your bread (refrigerated), or as late as 6-8 hours before mixing your dough. The longer your "fed" starter rests in the fridge, the sourer it will smell and the more tangy your bread will be. The more active it is when you use it, the faster your dough will rise. There's more to it than that, but again, I would redirect you to my previous blog post: Sourdough, for starters.

Similar to active dry yeast, your starter is ready to use once it has doubled in volume, after being fed. Make sure you feed it enough! If your recipe calls for 90 grams of starter, feed it 45 grams each of water and flour.

Blooming/Activating your active dry yeast

To bloom your yeast, warm about 1/4-cup of filtered water to 85-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Take care not to get it any hotter, or it will simply kill all those precious cultures rather than wake them up. Next, add around a teaspoon of sugar to your water, give a quick stir, and then add however much yeast your recipe calls for. Give it a few minutes (5-10 is plenty), and you should see lots of foamy bubbles rise up. Voila, you've got a green light to go ahead and incorporate it into your dough!

Remember to omit 1/4 cup of water from the recipe you're using, since you've added that to your yeast already!

On a side note: Adding sugar isn't 100% necessary, but it may help to think of it as your yeast's morning coffee. I don't need coffee to function in the morning (perhaps that's up for debate), but it sure does help!! I'm an impatient little baker, so I never skip the sugar. Also, it's possible your yeast simply won't activate without sugar. I've seen it go both ways.

...Is this really necessary?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: This will be your "first proof," offering insurance that your bread dough will, in fact, rise after you've gone to the trouble of mixing your dough. If your yeast is dead, guess what? Your bread won't rise. If your starter dies, guess what? Yep, your bread won't rise. How can you tell if your yeast is alive and well? If you guessed "activate it" or "feed it," you're right!

So while you can skip this step and likely get away with it, there is always some potential that there will be disappointing consequences.

Now that we've covered what our common yeast agents are and how to use them, let's dive into the main point of this post: proofing.

Proofing Your Dough

You made it to the final section, so let's dive in! Pick whatever bread recipe you wish to follow, check that you have everything you need, and get your leavening culture ready!

Depending on which recipe you're following and which type of yeast cultures you're using, the proofing steps will vary. Today, I'll be offering guidance in the way of proofing bread made with yeast or starter. The rules will generally be the same from recipe to recipe in regards to proofing, just follow the point outlined for whichever leavening agent you're using.

Proofing bread with dry yeast

First, bloom your active dry yeast, or simply portion your instant yeast in with your flour.

Mix your dough as per the instructions from the recipe you're using. Typically, this involves kneading your dough either by hand or in a stand mixer, fitted with a dough hook attachment. The general idea is to mix your dough until it's smooth, elastic, and pulls away from the sides of your bowl cleanly. Typically, this takes me about 8-12 minutes in a stand mixer.

If your dough isn't pulling together after a few minutes, add some more flour, as it's probably too wet (see an example to the left). I always weigh my ingredients and almost always have to add more flour, no matter how exact I am. It's easier to add more flour than to incorporate more water or milk-- something to keep in mind!

Butter the inside of the bowl you'll be proofing in, to ensure your dough doesn't stick when you turn it out onto the counter to prepare for the bread pan. This isn't absolutely essential, but it's pretty nice.

Proof your dough (twice)

Shape your kneaded dough into a ball and plop it right into the buttered bowl. Cover with some plastic wrap, a damp towel, or whatever you prefer to use (to keep it from drying out and forming an outer shell), and let it sit, undisturbed, for a good hour or so. Ideally, the space in which it's proofing should be close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A few degrees in either direction is fine, but it may slow down or accelerate your proofing time, so be mindful of that! I've found many creative ways to manipulate an area of my house to be perfect for proofing dough-- I'll outline them after wrapping this up. Guess what? You're proofing your dough! This is considered the bulk fermentation, or the first proof of your completely mixed dough.

The warmer your proofing spot it, the faster your dough will proof.

The cooler the spot is, the slower your dough will proof.

Achievement Unlocked:

The Proof is in the Pudding

(I know, terrible joke.)

So, how do I know when it's done proofing?

Keep an eye on your dough after the first 45 minutes, and consider snapping a photograph before you initially walk away to let it proof. I still take pictures of my dough occasionally before walking away, even after years of making bread. You'll know your bread has proofed enough when it has nearly doubled in volume. It will look somewhat inflated and will be a bit taller, but it's difficult to see the difference if you don't yet have a trained eye for it.

When I make sandwich bread at home, I typically walk away and set an alarm (because I have debilitating ADHD and tend to dive into various rabbit holes and forget the rest of the world exists). After 60-90 minutes have passed, I check that the dough is a bit taller, a bit closer to the plastic wrap covering the bowl, then turn it out onto a lightly floured counter to roll out and shape. I press all of the extra gas out, shape it, place it in my bread pan, to go on to the final proof. (see my sandwich bread recipe for more)

The Final Proof

Now that your dough is nice and active, freshly shaped, and nested in your bread pan, give it another round of proofing (covered, like last time). This time around, cut the proofing time in half. This has worked well for me, so long as my dough was fully proofed when I moved on to shaping and the final proof. If you believe you moved on too quickly, you didn't hear/feel any gas escaping the dough as you pressed it, or the dough wasn't as pliable as it should have been, you may need to extend the final proofing time.

This fine-tuned perfection of timing will come with practice, but for now, focus on observing and know that nobody gets it just right on their first try, especially without someone physically present to guide them.

When your dough has nearly doubled in size again, it's ready to bake. For me, (with my recipe, in my bread pan,) this means the tallest part (the center) of my dough will have risen just above the rim of the pan. I use this time to preheat my oven to guarantee it is completely preheated so it can provide a good "oven spring" in my bread.

Before we move on to sourdough proofing, here are a couple of photos of my bread dough before and after bulk fermentation:

Bread dough before proofing

Bread dough after the bulk fermentation

Now that we've explored proofing in the world of dry yeast, let's move on to wild yeast (or starter, as we've been calling it)

Proofing Bread with Starter

First, feed your starter and give it about 8 hours to ferment, or however long it takes to double in volume.

While using starter is more time-consuming (at least when it comes to idle time,) there's actually less hands-on work involved! This is just one reason I love making sourdough bread so much. It's simple, cheap to make, straightforward, and delicious.

Next, combine all the ingredients for your sourdough bread. For me, this is just water, starter, salt, and flour. If you'd like to give my recipe a spin, visit my recipe page for Classic Sourdough. Your dough will look shaggy (see image below), which is fine, so long as all the ingredients are incorporated evenly. You can choose to stretch your dough (highly recommended) or not, it will be wonderful in the end either way.

Bulk Fermentation

Without rambling on for too long, you'll essentially be doing the same thing as you did with your yeasted dough: cover your bowl and walk away. The main distinction here is that instead of waiting 1-2 hours, you'll give this dough 8-12 hours to proof. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen and the activity level of your starter, fermentation time will vary, but generally, 12 hours is a safe number to stick with either way.

I'll tell you a secret: I almost always forget I'm proofing dough when I make sourdough. I almost always forget to check on it after 8 hours, and I almost always overdo the bulk fermentation. You know something? It's always completely fine. Just another reason I love sourdough! It's SO forgiving.

Shape your dough

When your dough has nearly doubled in size (see a theme here?), grab your proofing bowl or banneton and generously flour the parchment or liner (I prefer rice flour, which is fairly standard, but any flour will do). Next, lightly flour your work surface and turn the dough out onto the counter. Alternatively, you can shape it without ever setting it down.

Simply lift your dough from the center, with a hand scooping from either side, then lift and watch as the dough slowly stretches downward toward the bowl. When it has stretched enough, fold one "flap" under, then fold the other flap over the first (like folding a letter in thirds). If you prefer using the table, plop it down and stretch one-third over the center, then stretch the other side over that. Place your dough in your proofing container, folded sides down, and move on to the final proofing cycle.

The Final Proof

Now that you've shaped your dough, you have a couple of options. This has been a lengthy process, so depending on whether you have a life that day, you may go either direction. You can either:

a) Wrap your banneton/bowl in a grocery bag and refrigerate until you're ready to proof and bake (but try not to leave it in there for more than 24 hours); or

b) Start preheating your oven (with the clay baker/bread stone inside, if you're using one), and then just walk away. For this proofing cycle, you can expect your dough to take about an hour or so to finish proofing. Move on with the "poke test" to know if it's ready to bake

The Poke Test

After you've given your dough about an hour to proof, go ahead and poke it. Literally, poke a spot with your finger, about one knuckle deep, and see how it responds. If it has a bit of a "belly button," meaning it doesn't immediately flatten back out or resist, it's ready to go. If it springs back quickly, it's not ready, check again in 20 minutes and go from there. If the "belly button" doesn't spring back whatsoever and the dough felt gooey or like it couldn't handle any pressure without collapsing, it's probably over-proofed, and you should bake immediately! It will likely be fine.

I should note that if you've chosen path a) from above, your dough will likely take a while longer to proof, since it's coming up from <40 degrees to ~70 degrees. This is especially true if you have shortened the bulk fermentation, which isn't wrong per se, it will just lengthen the final proofing time a bit.

Here is an example of the poke test I have just described. This dough is ready to bake!

(also, it's just fun to poke dough)

It will be valuable to note, if your bread dough is under-proofed, the cultures will still be eating, the dough will still be expanding, and there won't be enough gas build-up for your bread to spring or expand appropriately in the oven. It's like a rubber band that has never been stretched, it will resist. This will result in a dense loaf of bread that is burnt on the outside, and raw on the inside. This was a huge issue in the croissant kitchen I worked for. My coworkers would laminate the dough before it was through its bulk fermentation, and the rolled croissants would take upwards of six hours to proof (we expected no more than 2-3 hours). Here is an example of what I mean:

The photo on the left is an example of dough that was not given a complete bulk fermentation, then it was also not given a long enough final proof to compensate for it. The photo on the right shows croissants that also did not receive a complete bulk fermentation, but I knew to give them extra time in the proofing cabinet. When they aren't given a chance to fully proof, the water content in the dough has no way to escape, so it stays in the bread, causing dense, heavy, chewy croissants that will be either burnt on the outside or raw inside (or both). In time, you will learn to identify the signs to avoid this mistake! Croissants are especially tricky when it comes to timing your proofing periods, but the core concept remains the same.

Bake Away!

Now, assuming your oven has been given plenty of time to preheat, go ahead and bake!

Most bread I've made takes approximately 30 minutes, for a single loaf.

It's best to leave the oven door shut for the first 15-20 minutes, unless you absolutely need to check inside the oven or have lost track of time. Once your bread has had its "oven spring," it's all fair game. One way to check that your bread is finished baking is to check the color of the crust. A bright yet rich, golden brown is typically what we aim for, or a deeper brown for whole-wheat and rye varieties. It's a matter of personal preference, so play around with baking times and dial in your own perfect routine.

Hopefully, this article has shed plenty of light on the subject of proofing at every stage of the game! If you have any questions at all or would like help troubleshooting, please comment below or send me a message (visit my contact page or post in the forum). I would LOVE to hear from you and to see your wonderful creations!

Let's give credit where it's due! Check out these sites to learn more about yeast or the proofing process:

Masterclass, as always, is one of my favorite sources for in-depth explanations of just about anything! This link will bring you to an article about active dry yeast, but there is so much more you can discover with them.

Kitchn is a blog loaded with information on the subject as well, and they do a great job of explaining the distinction between active dry yeast and instant yeast, as well as offering a fun history lesson!

Epicurious is a wonderful site for exploring recipes and baking concepts. This was the first site I explored in search of substitution rules with yeast types. I was prompted to research this while I worked in a patisserie making croissants (hundreds every week, which eventually lost its novelty, but I'll cover it here one of these days!).

King Arthur is typically a staple in baking research for me, and while I didn't use their site for this post, I have used them enough in other bread-related posts to feel justified in adding them here.

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