Sourdough is one of those types of bread that are delicious to eat but intimidating to make. This naturally leavened bread doesn’t quite behave the same as other yeasted bread. Proofing times are longer compared to other bread and generally require a little bit more TLC.
One of the biggest struggles in life is knowing when your sourdough has proved properly. Okay, that’s an overreaction but it’s definitely not the easiest thing to determine, especially if you are new to sourdough making.
The best way to tell if your sourdough bread has proved properly is the poke test sourdough! The poke test is something that I speak about quite a lot as it’s really the best and simplest way to figure out what’s going on inside your dough. It’s a really simple method, needing only your finger and your eyes.
I am here to share with you the exact science of what’s going on with your dough, and why the finger poke test can tell you a little bit about what stage your dough is in.
What Is The Finger Poke Test Sourdough?
The finger poke test for sourdough is a simple test that, unsurprisingly, involves poking your finger into your bread dough.
While your bread dough is resting and proofing in a nice warm place, more and more gas will build up within the dough. This is perfectly normal and is all part of the rising process.
As the gas builds up within the dough, the tension across the surface of the dough gets higher and higher. It might help to think of it like this – if you placed a ball on a sheet of elastic, the elastic would stretch a little bit. If you switched the ball out for a heavier one, though, the elastic would stretch more.
This is the same thing that’s happening in your bread dough – the ball is the gas, which gets heavier as more and more gas is made within the dough. The elastic is the individual strands of gluten within the bread, which stretch out across the surface of the dough, making a surface that has a springiness to it and trapping the gas.
To do the finger poke test, you poke your finger into the surface of your dough slightly. Make an indentation that’s around two or three centimeters deep, and then keep an eye on how the dough reacts.
How To Interpret a Poke Test
There will be three possible outcomes from a finger poke test: the dough will immediately spring back to the shape it was in before you poked it, it will spring back about halfway over the course of a few seconds, or it won’t spring back at all.
If the dough springs back immediately, then it’s likely under-proofed. The dough itself will feel quite dense as you press into it and you won’t feel much air underneath.
If the dough springs back slowly, then it’s perfectly proofed. It should feel quite airy as you press into the dough and your finger intent should refill itself slowly within a couple of seconds. At that point, you’ve managed to achieve a great balance between the elasticity of the dough and the amount of gas that’s in there.
If the dough doesn’t spring back at all when you press into it, then it’s over-proofed. It will feel like there is too much air in the dough as you press into it. This has happened because the dough is too relaxed and has lost its structure and strength. The gas will begin to leave the bread dough, leading to a dough that won’t rise in the oven.
Here is a great video on how to use the sourdough poke test.
How To Manage Each Poke Test Result
The results of each different poke test can be exciting or frustrating, depending on which one you are met with. Thankfully, any result is easy to manage.
If your dough is under proofed, in that the dough springs back straight away, then it needs more proofing time. You can simply leave it to one side in the kitchen, and it will continue to proof. You can keep checking it every so often by using the poke test sourdough you have just learned.
If your dough is perfectly proofed, then it’s time to bake! Ideally, the dough should already have been shaped and placed into the pan you’re using to bake it, but you can transfer it now. If you are feeling fancy, make a slice across the top of the sourdough with a lame or cut little patterns and begin to bake.
Finally, if the dough is over-proofed, you’re a little out of luck. Sourdough naturally ferments in a slower, more deliberate way than store-bought yeast does. This means that you’re out of options.
With store-bought yeast, you can beat the dough back to remove excess air, and then allow it to proof a second time. The yeast should have worked quickly enough the first time that it has plenty of carbohydrates left to eat in order to make more carbon dioxide.
With sourdough yeast, though, it works more slowly, eating all of the carbohydrates in the bread in the first proof. This means that you cannot beat the dough back and allow for a second proof, it simply won’t work.
But all is not lost. Bake With Jack says that you can save your over-proofed sourdough. Instead of making one big score down the side of the loaf, Jack suggests you make smaller incisions to help the loaf expand. Take a look at the video below to see what I’m talking about.
There is another way to save your sourdough and that’s by incorporating the over-proofed dough into your next bulk fermentation. This is common practice in the restaurant industry, where protecting profit margins and reducing waste is vitally important.
To do this, simply make the bread dough that you would ordinarily make, and then add the dough to it. Knead as you would ordinarily, but separate the final dough out into two loaves. The living sourdough that you add for bulk fermentation should allow you to ensure both loaves rise well.
How to Tell When is Sourdough Ready to Bake
Sourdough is ready to bake when the gluten in the dough has relaxed, while still being under a little tension. It’s quite a delicate balancing act, but it’s one that we can interpret with the finger-poke test.
The gluten must be relaxed, as overdeveloped gluten will lead to a chewy, unpleasant bread. The gluten must also be under tension, as that will allow it to trap carbon dioxide, leading to a well-risen loaf of bread.
To find the mid-point of this balancing act, the finger poke test has you deliberately remove some gas from the dough (by poking it) and wait to see how other gas fills the gap you just made.
Ideally, you want some small amount of gas to come and fill the little hole you poked into the bread, bringing it nearly back to how it was, still being a little sunken into the dough.
If the small divot doesn’t pop back to normal immediately, then you’re all set – the gluten has relaxed, maintaining the shape you press into it rather than springing back out.
Is It Possible to Misunderstand a Poke Test?
The poke test is so simple that it does well on this front, with very little in the way of problems. The main problem would be performing the dough on a bad spot in the bread.
Ideally, you need to perform the test on a thicker part of the dough. The reason for this is that a thin part of the dough might stick to itself, internally. This would lead to you always interpreting the poke test as being over proofed, which may simply not be the case.
Aside from that, as long as you interpret the finger test correctly, it’s pretty foolproof. Give your dough a few pokes in a few different spots, and find an ‘average’ across those spots – that’s how well-proofed your dough is.
I hope that this article has helped to clear a few things up about the finger poke test with your sourdough. It’s not too tricky, and it can save you a lot of heartaches! Simply depress the dough by a centimeter or two, and then see how quickly it springs back out. If the dough springs out slowly, then it’s ready to bake!