Proving problems

Don Spaeth

I've been baking sourdough bread successfully for three years.  For the last three weeks, however, I've been having a lot of trouble judging whether the bread is ready to bake. One week it was a brick, so clearly under proved, the next it was flat and over bubbly, so perhaps over proved. This week when I tipped it out it stuck to everything, and I had to reshape it and return it to the basket. I assume it was over proved, slice there were bubbles on top.

I suspect that part of the problem is the temperature of the house, which in the winter is around 16 degrees Celsius, a few degrees cooler than in summer. But my attempts to determine readiness by pressing the edge of the dough aren't working; it always seems slow to spring back (and also sticks to my finger). I've looked at a YouTube video on testing readiness, but am not much the wiser. My sense is that the difference between ready and not ready is a matter of fine judgement, which I haven't mastered!

Can anyone help?  Thanks.



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farinam's picture
farinam 2017 January 25

Hello Don,

A few degrees can make quite a difference to the time that things take to happen.

One guide that I have found useful is to look at the relative time that it takes for your levain (assuming that you use one) to reach its peak.  So, if in winter, you were leaving it on the bench for eight hours (say overnight) then from mixing to having the loaf ready for the oven ( at the same sort of temperature) you would be looking at eight hours (say four hours for dough development/preferment and four hours for proving the loaf before baking).  If your levain now takes only four hours then you might be looking at a total of somewhere between four and six hours to get to the same stage.  The clock is your guide but it is not absolute.  You have to make a judgement.  That is one of the 'beauties' of commercial yeasts, they are much more clockable.  Sourdoughs are much more judgemental.

A dough that was manageable and turns sticky is almost certainly overproved and can't really be resurrected in any way.  All you can do is bake it and make do with the result.  It is probably better to underprove a bit though you can get more splitting of the loaf in the oven if it is too underdone.

The 'poke' test does take a bit of 'skill' and you really need to do it regularly during the proving when you are learning it to be able to appreciate the different responses.  Otherwise, just rely on the  visual assessment of how much the dough has risen in your basket.  Pick some easily recognisable spot and when the dough hits that go for it.  Just be sure that you get it on the way up because once it starts going down there is no coming back.

Good luck with your projects.


Light_Work 2017 February 5

That first response about covers it. I look at my starter after feeding to see when it is just ready.  About 3 hours at 85 degrees. Too much time and the poolish gets over run with lactic acid and messes up the doughs texture. I proof at the same temperature. My house is about 15 degrees cooler and more than doubles the time.

It has become a feel and look thing for me. I hardly even measure anymore because most doughs need adjusting anyway. 10 cups of flour and a quart of liquid with 1 cup of starter is my usual mix. An oiled metal blade is good for really sticky dough.

My overproofed doughs get turned into pizza crust.

This is a 40% whole wheat loaf that took 8 hours from feed the starter to butter. If you think a long retard in the fridge adds flavor you can just not slice it for a day.


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