Double trouble

Plaited dough

Baking bread is both simple and complex. The ingredients for a basic loaf are the simple part, as you need only flour, water, yeast, and salt. The complexity arises in the treatment of these basic building blocks. One of the first obstacles a beginning baker faces is determining if the risen dough is properly proofed, or ready for the next recipe stage. Most recipes, even ones with otherwise detailed instructions, will say something like “place dough in a bowl and let rest, covered, until dough has doubled in size.”

But what does doubled mean? If you use a mixing bowl to proof the dough, the edges of the bowl flare out, making it difficult to determine when the dough has doubled. You can’t judge doubling by the height of the dough alone because the dough is also expanding sideways. That’s why instructions like those given today at Epicurious about using tape to mark the doubling point are confounding. How do you know where to put the mark?

The Weekend Bakery tackles the math behind dough doubling in an effort to make it more understandable. According to the site: “If we simplify the shape of a dough boule to the geometrical shape of a halved sphere we can calculate the volume of the boule.” This formula is volume = 2/3 * pi * radius┬│. That is more math than most bakers (myself included) want to include in their routine. But it’s important to note that using this formula and starting with a boule 10cm in diameter, “you only need an increase of 2.5cm in height to get a doubling of the volume…The increase of 2.5cm is hard to notice and you will not perceive this as the dough having ‘doubled in size’.”

So if it’s hard to tell by looking, what other options do we have? There is another way to gauge the readiness of the dough–poke it. The Weekend Bakery advises us to poke the dough with a finger and note the results: “If the hole disappears completely: under-proofed. If the hole dent pops half way back out: proofing is just right. If the hole stays entirely dented in: over-proofed.”

Other websites also advocate the poke test. Another method that works well is using a straight-sided cylinder or square container where the dough extends to the edge of the container. The dough is constrained on all sides except the top, so you can judge when the dough has doubled by measuring only its height. Remember that the key to proper proofing is not just allowing the dough to expand, but also stopping the expansion before the dough collapses. “When the gluten can not hold the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, the little gluten balloons explode and your bread will deflate before your eyes.”

Once you bake several loaves you will get a feel for when the dough is ready, but until then the poke test will suffice. What is your preferred method of judging the readiness of proofed dough: by looking, poking, or another method?

Photo of How to plait bread from indexed blog Great British Chefs

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  • Cubangirl  on  August 15, 2014

    I use a cylindrical bucket from KAF and push the dough down to fill the bottom, then mark it with a dry erase marker, measure, double and put mark second measure. Since there are no corners or flares, it is pretty straight forward. The shape also allows me to put it in microwave (off) with the Pyrex cup of hot water to proof. I have this container in 2 sizes.

  • Robinwaban  on  August 15, 2014

    Cubangirl- I do the same thing. Love KAF! They are always spot on.

  • JanetElsie  on  August 15, 2014

    I use the 'Poke' method but a well know Baker/Author suggests not over proofing but a more conservative proof – so as to get good 'oven spring'. I have been baking for some years now and still haven't decided/confirmed an exact point that says "put me in the oven now".

    I think there are (frustratingly) many, many variables with baking bread. An example is bread with a high grain content as apposed to straight white – needs quite different management.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  August 20, 2014

    Another vote for the poke method, and I agree with JanetElsie that I'd like a better understanding of how to get a good oven spring for all sorts of breads.

    In addition, I would like a better understanding of over-proofing. Does the problem arise because the yeast has exhausted the local supply of food? Or does it have more to do with the structural properties of the dough, and that it gets too weak to support the loaf as it bakes (I hate it when a loaf falls)? Can you just deflate and let it rise again?

    I tend to live a highly interrupted life, and would like to know my options when my poke test gives the big hole.

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