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I baked some French bread today. The result was extremely dense, and based on the grain structure, I believe it was under proofed. (When cut, the cross section showed that it was denser at the bottom, which I believe implies under-proofing.)

My process was as follows:

  • mix the ingredients together to create the dough; knead until smooth (~10 minutes)
  • grease bowl with butter, form dough into ball, place dough in bowl; cover bowl loosely with dish towel, leave in 75F (23.9C) room until dough ball has doubled in size (~1 hr)
  • punch down dough; split in two; cover; let rest ~5 min
  • grease hands with butter and form each dough ball into thin baguette shape; place each tube of dough into greased (butter) baguette pan; make slices ~1/4 inch (0.635 cm) deep every ~1.25 (2.54 cm) inches
  • cover with dish towel; let rest in 75F (23.9C) room until doubled in size (~1 hr)
  • bake

The result, as mentioned, looks and tastes like it should, but is super dense, especially at the bottom of the loaf.

I believe my process is correct but the result is under-proofed; how do I know when the dough is sufficiently proofed? I've been going off of a combination of time and size -- eg. my goal is that the dough has doubled in size and I know that this usually takes about an hour, so that's when I start checking, though I wait until it reaches the desired size. And yet, this is clearly not sufficient.

How do I know when my dough is sufficiently proofed? Is there a way or is it best-guess?


Some caveats and plot twists:

  • I'm baking at altitude (5280 ft/1609 m); the recipe is specifically adapted for this altitude
  • I don't have a proofing drawer or an oven with a "proofing" setting; the lowest it can go is 180F/82C, which I believe is too warm for proofing. Regardless I can't use the oven to proof the second round because it's preheating to 425F/218C during that time. The room I'm using to proof is consistently 75-77F (24-26C) which should be sufficient for proofing, if a bit on the low side.
  • Other than the denseness, everything else was perfect (taste, chewiness, crust, etc)
  • That under-proofing is the issue is a guess, but it's based on the evidence collected. If you think I've misdiagnosed the issue please feel free to correct me. :)
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  • 75°F is plenty warm for proofing per a lot of resources. Warmer goes faster, (until it kills the yeast somewhere around 120°F or so) but does not taste as good, is the typical claim, at least by people not selling proofers. Commercial bakeries sometimes need to use ice water in mixing to keep the dough temperature down. Accurately judging doubled can be tricky depending on the shape of the pan.
    – Ecnerwal
    Jan 14 at 4:35

3 Answers 3

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Most bakers will tell you the best proof test is to make a modest indentation in the dough with your finger and see how fast it springs back. If it never comes back it's over-proofed; if it comes back literally immediately it's under-proofed. Between that is a HUGE range which gives you a lot of room for style and personal preference.

I make a ton of French baguettes and I will say that bulk fermentation time, dough hydration, and most importantly baking steam are the key factors in getting a perfect final product. I don't put proofing time on that list. I actually like to slightly under-proof my baguettes (about 40 minutes tops at 68F or so) as this results in more oven spring and a more pronounced "burst" from the scoring. Basically once the surface is nice and smooth and the all the bumps, seams, etc. from the shaping have worked themselves out, that's when I transfer, score, and bake. I'd say it has a marshmallow-like consistency at that point. It's grown by MAYBE 25%. Note I use a small amount of yeast (1/2tsp per 500g flour), so my bulk fermentation takes 3-4 hours at 80F (closed oven with the light on does the trick for me). If I've done everything right they grow 2-3x during baking.

So I very much doubt you're under-proofing. In fact, assuming your steam is plentiful (this is really critical, but not part of your question so I won't harp on it), it's possible you might actually be over-proofing, which can indeed result in a dense final product. The gluten network is always weakening over time; too much proofing will cost the dough too much internal strength and it won't rise, and could even collapse (think of a souffle). An hour at 75F is on the high side, and doubling in size is definitely too much IMO; a 25%-50% max increase is more typical for baguettes in my experience. You want it to balloon in the oven, not on your counter.

Also I've never seen or heard of anyone scoring before proofing. I can't speak for 100% of bakers and I can't say whether this would account for the density, but I've only ever done or seen scoring right before baking so you might try that instead.

Finally it's possible your mixing/kneading technique is affecting the density negatively. If you're using an electric mixer, 10 minutes is likely much too much (it's virtually impossible to over-knead by hand though). My baguettes, and most of the "artisan" recipes I see, forego kneading and do a simple hand mix followed by strength building folds every 30-45 minutes. (You'd also want to use less yeast here). This imparts as much strength as kneading but can yield a more open crumb, i.e., less dense texture. I've heard people say handle baguette dough as little as you have to.

I've given you a lot to think about here, but I should emphasize that you ought to only change one thing at a time as you try different things, otherwise you'll never know what was responsible for the changed result. Keep changes that get you closer to what you want and scrap the ones that don't, and needless to say, take notes! It'll take a lot of batches before you find what you like best, but it'll be worth it.

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Proofing is the time you give to the yeast to multiply and produce bubbles of CO2. A few other things happen during that time too (especially some changes to the gluten), but they are secondary, and can be compensated otherwise.

So, given that the point of proofing is to have gas production, the perfect marker of proofing is the volume increase. That's why most recipes specify to proof "until the dough has doubled in volume". As Peter Moore mentions, the actual range of proofed dough is wider than that, you can work with dough that has reached less than double or more than double the volume, but it's a very good average measure to aim for.

Since you followed this rule, your dough was correctly proofed. Whatever caused your problem with density, you should look for it elsewhere.

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I do score the dough before loaf rising and the width of the expansion on the scoring gives me my rise time .As for density issues it’s hydration I find is the biggest factor . I try not to add flour past the “ sticky” stage and use the flour on the work surface to make the dough easier to handle.. Next would be oven steam , as not enough steam/humidity allows the crust to form early stopping oven “ spring” .

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  • See my comment under your other answer, please. Plus you may rethink your writing style: Note that we have an international audience and for many users English is not their first (and often not even the second) language. So a more detailed, clear explanation will help them implement your advice and in the end, get you more appreciation from the community in the form of upvotes.
    – Stephie
    Jan 31 at 17:33

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