I can remember being very concerned with over-proofing dough in the early days of our baking adventures. I can also remember having the feeling that everything would be lost if we let our dough proof too long, especially after shaping. That somehow if we let it go 10-20 minutes too long the whole batch was ruined beyond repair. But thankfully, we’ve come to realize that isn’t the case at all.
Over-proofed dough can be fixed by simply knocking it down, reshaping it, and letting it rise again. Yeasted dough can actually be knocked down and left to rise several times without seeing negative results.
We put this theory to the test and did an experiment a while ago to see just how many times we could knock down and rise a loaf of bread. We’ll just say it was way more than anyone would ever reasonably need. You can see that post here.
But you should feel confident that you’re not going to harm your loaf if you need to give it a third rise, or even a fourth, or fifth, or… you get the point.
The major problem you’ll deal with, actually, is the time it takes to rise again…and again (if needed). For most typical bread recipes using baker’s yeast (rustic, sandwich, rolls, etc), you’re likely looking at another rise taking about the same amount of time to rise as the first and second rise.
Sourdough is the outlier here, as it runs out of energy much sooner than baker’s yeast. With sourdough, it’s such a long process to begin with, you do not want to let it overproof. Getting an extra rise out of it could take a very long time, and will likely result in a dense finished loaf.
This explains why so many warn about not over-proofing as most people do not want to add another hour or two to an already long recipe. That or they are only warning against baking with over-proofed dough. That warning is absolutely warranted, as the only sure way to ruin over-proofed dough is to bake it without knocking down and reshaping.
Is it Really as Simple as Knocking Down and Rising?
Yes, if working with baker’s yeast, fixing over-proofed dough is incredibly simple. You do not need to do anything different from your previous step. Just knock the dough down, reshape it, and let it rise again. This time, catch it before it goes too long. Unless you just really like baking bread at midnight. 🙂
What if I Bake Over-proofed Dough Instead of Reshaping it?
If your dough is only slightly over-proofed (a little bigger/puffier than normal) you could take a chance with baking. It likely will turn out just fine. But, the real problems crop up when dough has expanded far too much during the proofing period.
Over-proofing dough too much is a problem because the fibers (gluten) present in it have limits to how much they can expand before they will no longer be able to keep gas/air from escaping. This is the reason why, if dough is left to rise for too long, it will actually deflate itself without the baker knocking it down.
If we bake with a batch of dough that is well over-proofed, even though it has yet to deflate, the end result will be a batch of bread that deflated during baking, or struggled to keep it’s peak rise. This is the case because dough that has over-proofed doesn’t have much room to expand before gas escapes. Since Baking causes a rapid expansion, dough that was over-proofed will rise to the point of deflation before a crust and crumb can form to support the loaf. And that is the real concern here, a firm crust and crumb must form to help bread maintain its upright shape before it deflates itself. It’s a balancing act of sorts, which is why avoiding an under-proofed batch of dough is equally important because a crust will form before the bread fully rises in that scenario. Two opposite ends of the same finished dense bread.
This is why, if you’ve ever looked up why your dough is flat, you’ve likely heard that it could have been caused by under or over-proofed dough.
But why does dough deflate anyway?
People often use a balloon comparison to express what is happening with over-proofed dough. But, dough doesn’t pop quite like a balloon because it isn’t like latex. It is more like mittens that have fibers that have been woven together. Only, the fibers in dough are microscopic and very sticky so they do a good job at trapping gas in. Once they expand, gas is able to pass through gaps that form between the fibers. It’s a slow process, but eventually, those fibers will expand so much that large gaps form. When that happens, gas escapes too fast to keep the dough upright.
What Does “Too Over-proofed to Bake” Mean?
We fully understand that knowing when dough is done proofing is one of the biggest question marks for new bakers. But the good news is that good proofing is on a sliding scale. This means dough that is a little under or a little over-proofed will turn out just fine.
The easiest way to know if your dough is too over-proofed for baking is to compare the size of your dough to the last bake and/or to the recipe’s pictures. If you’ve made the recipe before with success, and the dough is much bigger and puffier this time around, then you’re likely looking at having dough that is too far gone to bake without needing to deflate it and let it rise again.
Also, if you are using the same size pan that your recipe calls for, but the pan seems too small after proofing, then you might be pushing your proof too far.
But what if you’ve never made the recipe before?
Another way is to test to see how resilient your dough is when it wiggles from being nudged gently. It should jiggle a bit and hold its shape. If it deflates slightly when you lightly nudge it, you’re likely nearing it being too over-proofed to bake. If it deflates significantly, then obviously it’s too far gone.
But, our favorite way for beginner bakers is the poke test. If you poke your dough (explained in our post here) and the indentation doesn’t fill back in, you’re likely pushing too far for your proof to bake.
The good news here is that it doesn’t take many batches of bread before you have a really good feel for dough that is over-proofed and the amount of time it takes for your dough to rise at various temperatures.
Getting the perfect proof is probably a lifelong process, one we’d cheer you on in chasing out. But, thankfully, there is a range that most bakers can nail after several bakes, and that range turns out amazing homemade bread.