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I've seen several recipes for various doughs that have several (usually 2) stages of proofing.

  • Start by just letting the dough to rise in a bowl.
  • Separating the dough into the desired number of pieces, set the requested form/shape, and let the dough rise again.
  • Bake.

I've even seen a recipe for pizza dough where you are supposed to just hit the dough after the first stage of rising and leave it in the same bowl. Then, after a second stage of rising, form the dough into pizza form.

What is the purpose of separating the proofing into several steps, and what would be the difference between this and just one longer rise period, where the portions are separated and shaped before or after the longer rise time?

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There are three steps in bread making commonly referred to as "Proofing" The first step is also called fermenting (or proofing the yeast, which, I believe, is not what you are asking about).

The first rise (also called proofing or bulk fermentation) is about increasing the volume. This is the primary breeding period for the yeasts once they are incorporated into the dry goods.

It's during our bulk fermentation that the yeast does the majority of its work, helping our dough gain flavor as ethanol and other byproducts are produced, and gain structure as CO2 inflates our gluten network.

The second rise, or final proof, of the dough is maturing the flavor and texture. Having risen in volume and then being shaped much of the gas created in the first raise is released, but the gluten 'matrix' is preserved. How much (or how vigorously) we 'punch down' the dough will create a bread of more fine air pockets while a dough that is barely worked will preserve some of those original air pockets and will create a bread with a more course interior. Additionally the final proof can be used to allow the loaf to take it's final form. Sometimes this is because it is in some container (loaf pan, dutch oven, etc.). It is simply easier to allow the dough to fill the pan by expanding into it. If time permits it is often beneficial to 'retard' the final rise, slowing the rate of expansion, by placing the dough in a refrigerator. This will, obviously, take more time, but the reward in flavor is (IMHO) worth it.

Proofing our loaves in the fridge (also called retarding) will slow down their final rise, giving our loaves more flavor. Also, retarding loaves during their final proof makes them easier to handle and score before baking, which will improve the crumb, crust, and appearance of our baked loaves.

There are a variety of more detailed explanations available online. This article from 'Serious Eats' is a good starting place.

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The answer to your question is fairly complex, and might be best answered by you specifying various stages in the process. However, in general, proofing, stretching, and folding is about gluten and flavor development. Gluten development is about texture and the ability to trap the carbon dioxide produced by yeast. Longer proofing times is also about flavor development. However, there is a balancing act between the amount of CO2 produce by yeast and the flavor development. Much depends on the final product you have in mind, but proofing too quickly could result in a less flavorful, and poorly shaped final product.

  • So gluten-free dough doesn't need to proof at all? – RedSonja Oct 6 '17 at 12:52
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    @RedSonja it does. But while the gluten development is not the issue, creating CO2 bubbles and - especially for long cool rises - flavor development still is. Just that the gas is in this case trapped in the dough structure sans gluten. Note that gf-recipes typically just follow a simplified mix - shape - rise once - bake routine. See here, for example. – Stephie Oct 6 '17 at 14:26

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