Culinary Arts

Baking 101: What Is Proofing? Learn How to Proof Breads and Other Baked Goods

Written by MasterClass

Jun 18, 2019 • 6 min read

If you’ve ever tried your hand at baking bread, you’ve probably seen the term proofing. But what exactly does it mean, and how can you get the best rise on baked goods?

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What Is Proofing?

Proofing is a step in bread- and viennoiserie-baking that activates the yeast in the dough. During fermentation, the yeast cells in leavened doughs (such as bread dough or pasta dough) consume carbohydrates and expel the carbon dioxide gas that causes the dough to expand, or rise. The term proofing can refer to any stage of fermentation, but is especially associated with the final rise that happens after dough is shaped, just before baking.

Why Is Proofing Important?

If yeasted dough isn’t allowed to proof, the yeast can’t release carbon dioxide, and the gluten won’t stretch to hold the air bubbles. Proofing is an essential part of bread baking and other applications that rely on yeast to create air pockets, such as making croissants. What’s most important in the proofing step is to make sure the dough is neither overproofed (where it’s proofed up so much that it eventually collapses, causing the layers to separate and the butter in croissants to leak) or underproofed (which will result in a tight crumb and you won’t get those fluffy, flaky layers).

Under- or over-proofed bread won’t rise properly when baked, and when it comes to delicate pastries like croissants: if the croissant has a slightly concave bottom and uneven air pocket size inside, that means the croissant dough was under-proofed and did not develop the strength necessary to stabilize the dough that comes from proper proofing time. If you’re unsure about whether your dough is proofed long enough, it is better to give the dough a few more minutes than to pull it too early and risk working with dough that isn’t ready.

Proofing Glossary: 11 Baking Terms You Should Know

  1. Fermentation is the enzyme-controlled breakdown of an energy-containing compound, such as carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
  2. Proofing yeast (aka blooming yeast) refers to the process of dissolving active dry yeast in warm water to rehydrate.
  3. Autolyse is a period of rest after flour and water are mixed, and before yeast is added. Enzymes break down the starch in flour into the simple sugars that yeast eats. This step helps flour better absorb water and kick-starts the alignment of gluten and starch.
  4. Bulk fermentation (aka first fermentation or first rise) is the dough’s first resting period after yeast has been added, and before shaping.
  5. Proofing (aka final fermentation, final rise, second rise, or blooming) is the dough’s final rise that happens after shaping and just before baking. The entire dough fermentation process is sometimes referred to as the proofing process.
  6. Over-proofing happens when dough has proofed too long and the air bubbles have popped. You’ll know your dough is over-proofed if, when poked, it never springs back. To rescue over-proofed dough, press down on the dough to remove the gas, then reshape and reproof. (This method won’t work for sourdough bread.)
  7. Under-proofing happens when dough has not rested enough. You’ll know your dough is under-proofed if it bounces back immediately when poked.
  8. Retarding refers to chilling dough to slow down yeast activity. Professional bakers sometimes use a specialized refrigerator called a dough retarder, generally kept around 50°F. Home bakers can use a regular refrigerator to accomplish the same thing.
  9. A proofer (aka proofing oven, proofing cabinet, dough proofer, proofing drawer, or proof box) is a warm area (70-115°F) designed to maximize proofing by keeping dough warm and humid. You can DIY a proofing box by placing a loaf pan at the bottom of the oven and pouring 3 cups boiling water into the pan. Place the bread on the rack above, and keep the oven door closed. Do not turn on or heat the oven at all—the hot water will keep the closed oven warm and moist.
  10. A banneton basket (aka proofing basket) is a basket made of cane, terra-cotta, or other materials that helps bread loaves keep their shape during proofing.
  11. Yeast is a fungus used by bakers to promote fermentation. It comes in many forms including fresh yeast, active dry yeast, instant yeast, and sourdough starters (levain).

4 Stages of Fermentation During Bread Making

  1. Bulk Fermentation (aka first proof, first rise, or first fermentation) happens before shaping. It’s called bulk because even if you plan to make multiple loaves from the same batch of dough, everything is fermented together at this stage. Yeast does most of its work during this time, consuming sugars to produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles, which inflates gluten structure. Total bulk fermentation time is usually 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours at room temperature, and up to three hours in a colder environment.
  2. Folding happens during bulk fermentation. It helps develop gluten structure, redistribute the yeast and sugars, and regulate dough temperature. Folding usually starts around 30 minutes into bulk fermentation. Fold dough by gently scraping the edges of the bowl and pulling the edge of the dough that’s farthest away from you and towards yourself to fold the dough in half. Make a quarter turn with the bowl, then repeat folding on all four sides. Be gentle so as not to damage air bubbles or disrupt gluten structure. Wait half an hour, then fold a second time.
  3. Shaping happens after bulk fermentation, once dough is pillowy and slightly springy. Some bread recipes break shaping down into three steps: pre-shaping, during which dough is folded on the counter top into an approximate shape; the bench rest, 15 to 40 minutes during which the dough is left to relax into its folded shape; and the final shape, during which the dough is folded again and transferred to a proofing basket, cloth-lined bowl, or other container.
  4. Final Proofing happens once the shaped dough is in its proofing vessels. During the final proof, dough continues to rise until almost doubled in size for most breads, or even more for some other baked goods. When proofed at the proper temperature and environment, you’ll see croissant dough triple in size and become light, fluffy, and jiggly. Dough can be proofed in the fridge to retard fermentation, which adds flavor and makes dough easier to handle when transferring to bread pans or other containers. Artisan bread bakers often stress the importance of cold fermentation to develop flavors.

5 Tips for Successful Proofing

  1. Keep hands and other surfaces lightly floured and/or oiled to prevent sticking.
  2. Use proofing containers that allow dough room to rise; they should be at least two or three times the size of the dough.
  3. The ideal environment for a cold proof is around 50°F, while a room-temperature proof is considered around 75°F. If dough gets too warm during the bulk fermentation, the yeast will expand more quickly than the gluten structure. The gluten structure won’t be able to keep up with fermentation and air bubbles will collapse on themselves. Do not proof dough above 115°F. On the other hand, if yeast gets too cold (40°F), it will go dormant. Be gentle with dough when folding and shaping, so that you don’t deflate any gas bubbles.
  4. Consider retarding dough by proofing it at a colder temperature (around 50°F), which will slow down the rise and help develop flavors.
  5. Cover dough with a plastic bag or cloth during proofing to prevent the dough from drying out or forming a skin

7 Baked Goods That Need to Be Proofed

Any baked good that contains yeast should be proofed to produce the air bubbles that make leavened foods taste light and fluffy. This includes:

  1. Viennoiserie: Yeasted baked goods including French croissants and Danishes.
  2. Enriched breads: Yeasted breads enriched with sugar, fat, and sometimes eggs, such as brioche and challah.
  3. Yeasted breads: Including sourdough bread, whole-grain breads, rye bread, country-style bread, and even gluten-free yeasted breads.
  4. Italian focaccia and pizza
  5. Raised donuts
  6. Cinnamon rolls
  7. Morning buns

Learn more about the fundamentals of pastry making in James Beard Award-winning Chef Dominique Ansel’s MasterClass.