What you need to know about proofing bread dough:

Proofing sourdough bread is typically done in a few stages -

  1. Bulk proofing at room temperature
  2. Bulk proofing at cold temperature
  3. Bench rise
  4. Final rise

Bulk Fermentation

What “bulk” means in this context is the dough has yet to be divided: it is left in its “bulk” form.

The first bulk proofing stage at room temperature generally takes place over 8-12 hours, depending on the temperature of your water when you mix and your ambient temperature. After 8-12 hours, the dough should be almost or perhaps even completely risen. At this point, you are ready to bake whenever works for you. You can tell a dough is “risen” by the amount of air pockets and bubbles in the dough. If ready, the dough should jiggle in the bowl and you should see large bubbles on its surface. When in doubt, give the dough a little longer.

An optional phase of proofing is what we call a cold bulk fermentation. This is a fancy way of saying “threw the dough in the fridge.” A cold bulk fermentation allows us to do a few things:

  1. It buys us time if we aren’t able to bake right away
  2. It deepens the flavor of the dough in remarkable ways
  3. It makes shaping easier and leads to a better rise in the oven

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the cold bulk fermentation. You can keep a dough in the fridge anywhere from 1 hour and perhaps even as long as two full days. Generally speaking, the longer a dough is in the fridge the more sour and flavorful it will become. That being said, at a certain point the yeast and bacteria are going to start to starve and your gluten will break down to the point where the quality of the loaf is compromised. I’ve gotten away with a 48 hour cold bulk fermentation in the past, but just barely. That’s probably a good limit to stick to.

Proofing with a Bench Rise

A bench rise is a phase in which the dough has either been preshaped or fully shaped and allowed to rise on your work surface. This can be done for up to an hour or so if the dough is cold, but if the dough is fully proofed beforehand this is usually an unnecessary step.

The Final Rise

Finally, a final rise is when the dough is fully shaped and allowed to rise either at room temperature or in the refrigerator. If your dough feels a little under proofed when you shape it, this can be a great tactic for getting a better rise in the oven. Again, if your dough is adequately proofed beforehand, this is generally not a necessary step.

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