Proofing bread is such a huge part of the process of making sourdough so you definitely want to get it right. The problem is that it takes so long!
When you’ve got a super short attention span like me, you can end up forgetting about the science experiment in your mixing bowl, and coming back to dough that’s… dubious, to say the least. An overproofed sourdough is never good.
Thankfully, with a little bit of knowledge about what’s going on when you’re proofing bread, and a little trick called the poke test, you can nail-proofing every single time! So, with all that said, let’s chat about bread!
What Happens When Proofing Sourdough?
When you’re proofing sourdough, there are a few very interesting things happening to your bread as it rests and proves.
Essentially, your sourdough is made up of billions and billions of individual yeast particles. All they do is sit in the proofing basket that you keep them in (or in your mixing bowl) eating the carbohydrates in flour and digesting it into carbon dioxide.
The sticky gluten that’s naturally in the dough that you’ve made hangs on to these little bubbles of carbon dioxide, and the dough slowly gets more and more full of carbon dioxide.
Ideally, you want to stop the process before all of the carbohydrates have been eaten. You want that because when the dough is transferred to the oven, the warmth will boost the activity of the yeast, meaning that they’ll digest your carbohydrates much more quickly, giving you a good rise in the oven.
When you get the timing exactly right and transfer the bread dough to the oven while there are still plenty of carbohydrates in the bread, and the yeast is alive and kicking, then you’ve perfectly proofed your sourdough!
Keep on reading to discover what we really mean when we talk about underproofed or overproofed sourdough.
Underproofed sourdough is, perhaps, the easiest baking problem to solve, because all you have to do is wait a little longer until it has been proofed completely.
The reason that it’s underproofed is that the yeast simply hasn’t had as much of the carbs in your flour as it could have done. Therefore, it hasn’t produced as much carbon dioxide as it could have done, and your bread isn’t quite risen enough.
This can happen because you’ve left it for too short a time for total proofing to occur, or it could be that you’re proofing bread in a cold spot. Cold temperatures slow down the way that yeast functions. That can be used to deliberately proof bread slowly, though that’s down to the individual baker.
Typically, you’ll be able to see what an underproofed sourdough looks like because it will be too small for the amount of time you’ve left it for. Typically, the tension across the surface of the dough will be tight, but not as tight as a well proofed dough.
To check whether your dough is undeproofed, press on it gently. If it feels dense and your finger indentation springs back immediately, it needs more time to proof.
What Does Overproofed Sourdough Look Like?
Overproofed sourdough has typically been left on the counter for too long. Inside the dough, all of the individual yeast cells will have eaten as much as they possibly could, only to find that they’ve now run out of food.
Without food, they would then typically start to die. The problem with having dead yeast is that you won’t be able to get any rise from the bread when it bakes in the oven.
Over-proofing sourdough bread uses up all of the carbohydrates and sugars in the bread too quickly. This means that you will end up with a final loaf of bread that hasn’t got enough gas in it to rise properly.
To check if you have an overproofed sourdough, press into it. If you can feel a lot of air underneath and your fingerprint stays there, then it’s definitely overproofed.
What To Do With Overproofed Sourdough?
This is a bit of a frustrating question to answer since the answer itself is disappointing: you can’t really do anything with overproofed sourdough.
If you were to make bread with commercial yeast, some bakers would suggest you gently press any gas out of the bread dough that you’ve made, and then set the dough aside for a second proof.
Commercial yeast proofs very quickly, so you can have several attempts at proofing: there are some carbohydrates left over in the bread even after you’ve overproofed the dough.
With sourdough, however, the proofing process is a lot slower. This means that by the time you’ve overproofed your sourdough, you’ve essentially used up all the carbohydrates.
But, all is not lost! Bake with Jack suggests you do a ‘tactical slash’. To find out more, check the video below!
What Is The Poke Test?
The poke test is an easy way to tell how proofed your dough is rather than simply looking at the dough and applying a little guesswork. The process is easy: poke your dough, and look at the results.
Poke your finger into the dough a few centimeters, and then pull it back out. If you were doing this will play-doh, you’d expect a small well to form, and that’s really what we’re expecting here to some degree.
An underproofed dough will spring back up immediately. It does this because there’s a lot of pressure and elasticity in the dough putting some tension on the dough molecules.
A perfectly proofed dough will spring out a little, though not all the way. It should slowly rise to a level somewhere between the surface of the dough and where you pushed it to, because while there’s still a little tension, the gluten has relaxed, allowing the dough to be at rest a little more.
An overproofed dough will simply stay indented, with the dough making no effort to spring back into shape whatsoever. This will typically happen because there’s little to no gas inside the dough, so there’s no tension that would make it spring back like an elastic band.
Take a look at this very helpful video on how to use the poke test!
Applying The Poke Test to Your Baking
The poke test is a great way to see if your bakes are under or overproofed without having to sit and do math about how rapidly your yeast is metabolizing. The problem is that, from time to time, it can trick you a little bit.
The main way that you can be tricked by the poke test is down to the stickiness of gluten. Gluten is an extremely sticky substance, and during the kneading and resting process, you will develop quite a lot of it, in strands, shapes, and sizes that are quite long.
If you do the poke test on a piece of bread that’s too thin, then the gluten can cause the surface of the dough to stick to the base of the dough. For this reason, I would always recommend doing the poke test on your dough in several different locations.
Using your best judgment, I would take whichever poke test functions as the average of the tests you do. If you do three tests, and one comes back as underproofed, while the other two come back as perfect, then you’ve probably perfectly proved your sourdough bread.