All the Boring Science-y Bits

Most people are familiar with the concept of bread rising, although not as many people actually know what’s happening or what purpose it serves. Rising is also sometimes known as proofing.

When you add yeast and some form of sugar to bread dough, it performs a process called respiration, where the yeast basically eats the sugar and farts out carbon dioxide (a lot like my college roommate did). That carbon dioxide gets caught up in the network of gluten molecules, forming bubbles. This is what causes the dough to get bigger, or rise, and provides the sponge-like texture of the finished bread

Why Bother?

A couple reasons! First, as mentioned before, the rising process is what makes bread spongy and airy. If you’ve ever had a flat, dense loaf of bread, odds are good something was wrong with the yeast. Yeast is a living organism, and can go bad if not stored correctly.

Second is fermentation. The respiration process also produces a form of alcohol, which lends the bread a lot of its flavor. Generally speaking, the longer the rise time, the better the flavor (to an extent).

What’s the Finger Dent Test?

Most recipes give a ballpark rise time, as well as a volume goal (e.g., “until doubled in size”), but there’s another way to gauge if your dough is ready to be shaped.

Poke a finger or two into your dough and watch what happens:

  • If it springs back completely and fully, and you can’t really see a mark, it’s not ready yet. Let it keep rising.
  • If it doesn’t spring back at all, it’s overproofed. It’s not hopeless, you can try to deflate it then let it rise again. Your final product might be a little more dense or flat than it could have been, but it should be fine.
  • If it springs back slowly and incompletely, leaving a small dent in the surface, it’s ready to bake.

What About “Punching Down” the Dough?

Most yeasted breads will have two or more rise periods. As mentioned before, longer rise equals more flavor. Unfortunately, too much rising can risk what’s called “overproofing.” When the yeast makes too much carbon dioxide, those bubbles can get too big and pop, which causes the gluten network to fall apart, leading to a dense, flat loaf of bread.

Luckily, there’s deflating! It’s more commonly called “punching down,” but that term implies a bit more violence than is necessary. Basically, after your first rise, you can gently press some (not all!) of the carbon dioxide out of the dough, with some light kneading. Too much force and you can tear the gluten network, and knock too much of the gas out of the dough. It’s not the end of the world, but your loaves won’t be as fluffy. This process also redistributes the yeast, giving it a bit more food to eat.

After you’ve done that, you can let it rise again to develop more flavor, confident that it won’t overproof.

Okay, I Understand the Boring Science-y Bits Now, but How Do I Put it into Practice?

Step 1: Let your dough rise to the prescribed amount (often it’s until doubled in size). Use the Finger Dent Test.

Your first rise can usually be in any old mixing bowl, just make sure it’s large enough that if your dough doubles in volume, it won’t overflow. Grease the bowl with some oil, drop your dough in, turn it over once to coat the whole thing. Cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel (I use a damp towel because the Earth is dying) to minimize air circulation and prevent dough from drying out.

Step 2: Deflate your dough, divide it (if necessary), and shape it into its final form.

Step 3: Let it rise again (usually a shorter time for the second rise)

You want to minimize handling of the dough after its final rise to prevent deflating it, so your second/final rise should either be on the baking sheet or in a proofing basket. If you don’t have a proofing basket, a mixing bowl will work well enough, but you’ll have to flour the dough pretty heavily to keep it from sticking, and it might not release from the bowl as easily.