How to Proof Bread Dough (Even When It’s Cold Outside)
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Follow along as we break down how to proof bread from scratch—along with answering your burning bread proofing questions.
Baking easy yeast bread recipes is one of my favorite activities, especially when the temps start to drop and I’m craving all of my favorite comfort foods. To get yeasted bread’s nice and fluffy rise, you’ll need to learn the basics of proofing bread dough.
In short, proofing dough is the last rise before throwing it into the oven to bake. Do keep in mind that proofing yeast and proofing bread dough are two separate steps. Proofing yeast is when you mix warm water, yeast and a touch of sugar to start the fermentation process. Whereas proofing bread dough, also known as the final fermentation, is when you let the dough rise between 75 and 80ºF. This process can be done in either a glass bowl at room temperature, the oven, a slow cooker or a proofing box.
4 Ways to Proof Bread Dough
Here are four tried-and-true ways to proof bread in cold and warm kitchens alike. Once your bread is proved, follow these steps to make yeast bread.
1) Proof at Room Temperature
The traditional way to proof bread is in a glass bowl at room temp. (You can also use a proofing basket, or a bread tin if you want to create a specific shape.) This route is perfect for nice and toasty kitchens, especially during the warmer months.
To proof, cover the bowl with a damp paper towel or cloth. If your bowl is deep enough, use cling wrap. If working with a particularly sticky dough, rub the tiniest amount of oil onto some cling wrap to help prevent the dough from sticking (a spritz of cooking spray works, too).
Test Kitchen tip: Mark the outside of the glass bowl when you place the dough inside, so you won’t have to eyeball whether or not it doubled in size.
2) Proof Bread in the Oven
You may be wondering, can I really use my oven to proof bread? The answer is yes! Our go-to method for proofing bread when it’s a bit cold inside is to pop the dough in the oven. And nope—you won’t be turning it on!
To proof bread in the oven, place a glass baking dish on the bottom rack of the oven and fill it with boiling water. Stash your dough on the middle or top rack and shut the door. The steam and heat from the boiling water will create a warm and steamy environment for the dough—exactly what you want for a good rise.
If your bread requires a longer proof, like this chocolate babka, I recommend refreshing the hot water every 30 to 45 minutes to keep things working.
3) Proof Bread with a Slow Cooker
Think you couldn’t love your slow cooker more? Well, it turns out you can use this appliance to proof bread dough. Fill your slow cooker halfway with water and set to the low setting (which will heat the water to about 200ºF). Put the lid on upside down, lay a dishtowel on top, then set your bowl of dough on top. The radiant heat from the hot water will help the bread rise.
4) Use a Proofing Box
If you’re a serious bread baker, you might want to skip the homemade shortcuts and invest in a bread-making tool that helps you proof. A proofing box will maintain a consistent temperature and humidity inside, allowing you to get a perfect rise every single time. With a perfect yeast-friendly environment, this proofing box can help you proof bread a bit quicker than room temp, too. That’s a big win for serious bakers! That means more loaves of the good stuff in less time.
A Few More Nontraditional Proofing Methods
While we swear by the oven and boiling water method, you can still try a few other ways to proof bread even when it’s a touch too cold inside.
You can set a heating pad on low, layer a dishtowel on top and then set down your bowl or pan of dough. This will give your bread some extra warmth. We recommend covering your dough with a tea towel or reusable wrap to keep the outside from drying out. If you have a rice-filled heating pad (the kind you heat in the microwave), you can use that as well.
If you’re a serious gardener, you can pull out a seed germination mat and use that as well. Set the temperature to around 80ºF for a nice rise.
Of course, you can also take a reading of your oven’s internal temperature with the oven light on. Some oven lights radiate enough heat to turn the oven into a proofing box. Use an oven thermometer and check the temperature after about 30 minutes. If your light manages to heat the oven to 75ºF or above, you’re in baking business!
Common Bread Proofing Questions
Not sure what to do with your flat, underproofed loaf? Or maybe you need to step away from the kitchen and want to slow down the proofing process while you’re away? Allow us to answer your troubling bread proofing questions so you can achieve that beautiful rise in no time.
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How do you know when bread is done proofing?
Bread dough that’s done proofing will have a full, puffed appearance. Your loaf should have expanded to roughly twice its size. To test if your dough has proofed long enough, gently poke it. It should feel soft and supple, and your finger should leave an indent in the dough. Find out exactly how long it takes for dough to rise.
If your bread doesn’t see enough proofing time, it won’t rise properly. You’ll wind up with a flat, dense doorstop rather than a lovely, fluffy loaf.
On the flip side, bread can rise for too long. If you overproof, your dough will wind up collapsing. If you have a problem with overproofing, try letting the dough rise for a shorter period of time or at a cooler temperature.
What should you do if your dough is underproofed?
If your bread dough isn’t rising, the yeast might be past its prime or your water may have been the wrong temperature (too hot and the yeast will die; too cold and the yeast won’t grow). Always use fresh yeast and invest in a thermometer to help your yeast get the job done. You’ll be on your way to a perfect loaf of homemade bread in no time.
Test Kitchen tip: Place your bread on an oven rack (while off) and place a pan of hot water underneath the rack. The warm steam will wake up the yeast and help it along, especially if your kitchen is cold.
How do you fix overproofed dough?
You can fix overproofed dough by kneading and pushing the air out of the dough. Then, reshape and place your bread back into your desired proofing container. Allow it to proof as normal and bake.
How do I stop my bread from proofing?
You can stop bread from proofing by putting the dough in a cold place, like your refrigerator. Colder temperatures will slow down the proofing process.
Do you score bread before or after proofing?
Always score bread after proofing. Otherwise, your bread will explode where your scored cuts are.