Is there a Difference Between Proofing and Rising Dough?

Making a decent loaf of bread might be one of the most intimidating simple things to do for an aspiring home baker. Three to four basic ingredients and a handful of steps are all it takes in its purest form. But somehow, the simplest things are never that simple. For example, “proof” and “rise” are two quite basic baking terms; yet they can be a bit mysterious. They seem to refer to the same process, but maybe not, and sometimes seem to be used interchangeably. Which begs the question, why not just pick one if they’re the same and cut the recipe time in half?  

But, are they the same? Is there a difference between proofing and rising bread? Generally speaking, the term “rise” refers to a stage during the bread making process in which dough is rested in order to allow time for it to double in size. The term “proof” generally refers to an additional and different resting stage where dough will go through a final rise after shaping and before the baking stage. Both terms are similar because they refer to the fermenting process involved in bread making, where dough literally rises and grows in size. However, they differ in their order within the bread making process, as the rise comes before the proof.

So, in short, the proof and the rise both do the same thing, and technically speaking only differ in their names and timing. HOWEVER, while these terms might have become interchangeable, the actual stages the terms represent are not interchangeable. This is why I prefer the terms first rise, second rise, and final rise. I’ll explain why in just a bit, but first let’s take a quick look at the basic steps of the bread making process which will help us later.

The 7 Basic Steps of Bread Making

Like many other trades / hobbies a large part of success in bread making comes down to learning the vocabulary of the field; most importantly the terms of each step in the bread making process and how they work together. Thankfully there are only a handful of terms needed to start cranking out some great bread. Let’s look at each term in the order you’d use them in a recipe.

  1. Mixing: Flour, yeast, and salt are mixed together with water to create a soft and sticky dough. Salt is actually not just for flavor, it is an important part of the process, so try to be as accurate as possible with the recipe you are using. Also, it is best not to combine the salt and yeast together before this step because salt can ruin the yeast before it has been activated. Some recipes call for additional ingredients such as milk, sugar, oil, or eggs.
  2. Kneading: This can be done in a mixer or by hand (we prefer by hand), but essentially the dough is stretched, then folded back on itself, then flattened. That series is repeated until the dough has changed from a soft sticky mess to a smoother and more elastic lump. This typically takes 5 to 10 minutes or more. The point of this step is to really get everything inside the dough up close and personal with the yeast. We want to get that yeast in contact with all the things it loves to eat inside that dough to get good rise, flavor, and structure.
  3. Rising (First Rise): Dough is placed in a lightly oiled bowl, covered, and left alone until it has doubled in size. This is where the real beauty of bread happens, because the flavors and a large part of what the final structure will be like happens during this time. This step takes quite some time to complete, and many recipes and methods have been developed to speed this process along. However, if a rise is too fast it will result in a less desirable flavor and texture. Leaving dough to rise at room temperature is very common protocol as it is a good middle ground for a quicker rise without negative flavor effects.
  4. Punching (Knocking): Dough is gently but quickly pressed down in the center using a fist, which is where the “punching” term comes from.  After a single “punch”, dough is folded in on itself several times just to remove all of the air from the dough. This step is not as vigorous as the kneading stage and not as long. Again, we’re just getting the air out so the yeast can be close to the stuff it loves to eat again. It also makes the dough a little easier to work with for the next step. Depending on the recipe, you may repeat steps 3 and 4 or just move on to step 5.
  5. Shaping: There are hundreds of folding shapes and techniques; a simple round is likely the easiest to accomplish. We are just laying the foundation for good structure. Essentially, you’re establishing what the final baked bread will look like.
  6. Proofing (Second Rise or Final Rise): This is when the dough enters its final rise. The shaped dough is placed in the baking dish of choice, and covered with plastic wrap to avoid drying out and forming a skin on the surface. When it is done rising, the dough should spring back after being gently poked. If it doesn’t spring back, it has over-proofed and you can repeat step 4 through 6. Note that the dough likely will not get back to the same size as it was before you punched it down. This is okay and normal. The yeast is running out of energy/food. This final rise (some recipes do not call for it), will develop better flavors and structure for the final loaf.
  7. Baking: Following directions for temperature and time, bake the dough. Time and temp are impacted greatly by location, and the best way to tell if a loaf is done is by the color and sound of the crust. The color should be golden brown, and will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom if done. Let cool for several minutes, as the flavors and texture is still developing during this final cooling process.

The Major Differences Between Rising and Proofing Bread

Now that we have a few steps and terms down, let’s tackle the real difference between a rise and a proof. It is true that both of these stages are rising stages. Which is why so many recipes and bakers use the terms interchangeably. During both rising stages, pretty much the same processes are happening. Yeast goes to work to create all the characteristics we associate with leavened bread; most notably the flavor, chewy texture, and aroma.

To maximize the best of those bread-like qualities dough needs two or more rises. Ironically, this has to do with the fact that dough actually rises during the rise. As I stated earlier, air bubbles develop during the rise which pushes yeast away from the very things it uses to create all those bread-like traits we know and love. So, to get a quality bread, we want to punch the dough down to push the air out, and get that yeast back in contact with all those bits of dough it knows and loves. Reunited and it feels so good!  

In order to get the air back in the dough so that we don’t have a dense flat bread, we need to let it go through a final rise, the proof. We might think, why can’t we just keep punching the dough down and letting it rise again? Well, eventually the yeast will run out of food. At that point the dough won’t rise any more. That’s why two rises are pretty standard. It gives the yeast enough time to produce all the yummy flavor and texture before running out of gas.

Ultimately, as I said before, the terms themselves are not nearly as important as the stage and what the stage is for. Hopefully, by understanding what each step of bread-baking is supposed to accomplish, we’ll be baking with more confidence. And if we’re baking with more confidence, hopefully we’re baking more!

Related Questions

Do all bread recipes call for all seven steps of breadmaking?

Although the seven stages of bread making are pretty standard, don’t be surprised if you come across some recipes that don’t have them all. For example, many artisan-style bread recipes feature a wetter, stickier dough that doesn’t need to be punched down. Also, some naan breads are baked immediately after shaping. It all just depends on the type of bread and recipe.

What is the best temperature for rising dough?

Generally speaking, when talking about rising dough you have two options; cool and slow, or warm and fast. If your temperatures are too cold nothing will happen. If your temperature is too hot, you’ll actually kill the yeast. Additionally, cool temperatures produce a better flavor and structure, while warmer temperatures produce less desirable flavor. So with all that in mind, a rising temperature around 75 F is widely accepted as the best of both worlds. You’ll get a quality flavor and structure with a relatively quick rise.

How long does it take to proof dough?

The answer to this question is similar to the one above, because again, it’s a question of temperature. Dough proofed in warmer temperatures will proof more quickly (usually 1 – 2 hours). Dough proofed in colder temperatures will take longer (anywhere from 3 to 24 hours). The longer rise time is due to the fact that cooler temperatures retard yeast’s reactions. This means it takes the bread longer to reach the desired size.  

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