Dough Doctor: Why Proof

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Q: I am new to the pizza industry and I have read about “proofing” dough. Would you explain what this is and why it’s done.

A: Proofing, or rising, is done primarily to allow the dough to achieve a greater height, or lightness than it would if it were taken directly to the oven without the benefit of proofing. Only doughs containing yeast are proofed. During the proofing time the yeast generates gas, which imparts a level of aeration (leavening) to the dough just prior to the baking stage.

Typically, only thick crust and pan pizza doughs are proofed prior to baking, but we have seen some instances where even thin crust doughs were proofed before baking. The result was a finished crust with a somewhat thicker dimension and a more open, “airy” internal crumb structure with a more tender, eating characteristic. When making thick crust or pan pizzas, proofing is an important part of the quality equation as it allows you to achieve the desired finished crust thickness without excessive dough weight. This results in a much lighter, more tender finished crust with excellent bake-out properties.

We typically have three options when it comes to proofing the dough. We can cover the pans of dough and allow them to set at room temperature to rise, we can place the pans of dough on or near a heat source such as our oven(s) to allow the dough to rise, or we can use a temperature-humidity controlled cabinet (proofer) designed specifically for this task. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each;

1) Proofing at ambient room temperature is nothing more than covering the pans of dough to prevent drying, and placing them on a rack, which might have a plastic rack cover over it to help control temperature and humidity within the rack’s environment. This can be an acceptable method of proofing if the room temperature and humidity is constant and provides you with properly proofed dough within a reasonable time expectation. The negative side to proofing at room temperature is the potential for room temperature fluctuation as the outside air, or shop temperature, changes. When this happens you might find yourself in a situation where you have customers and orders, but the dough still isn’t ready. If you are lucky to have an environment that doesn’t experience much change, proofing at ambient might work quite well for you.

2) Since heat accelerates the rate of fermentation, it is only natural to want to proof our dough near a source of heat. A lot of times we find pans of dough being placed on an oven to proof. This can be acceptable if only a few pans need to be proofed, but if a number of pans are to be proofed it’s common practice to stack the pans on top of the oven. When this happens, the bottom pan receives plenty of heat, but it also acts as an insulator for the other pans, so they will get none of the heat; hence, the bottom pan rises quickly, but the other pans don’t rise nearly as fast, if at all.

We can also put the pans of dough on a wheeled rack and move them to a warm spot in the shop such as near the oven(s) or a warm air vent from the furnace. The problem here is that now we have pans on only one side of the rack getting the heat while the pans on the other side get little of the heat, so they end up proofing slower. Sure, you can make the argument that the rack will be turned every 10 minutes to minimize this inconsistency in temperature exposure, but the reality of it is that it just doesn’t happen.

3) Our other option for proofing the dough is to use a temperature-humidity controlled cabinet, also known as a “proofer”. If you’re really serious about making a lot of deep dish-pizzas and want to maintain as short a turn around time on your orders as possible, this might be your best option. Because both the temperature and humidity within the proofer are set by you, there is a high degree of control over the proofing of the dough. You can have it proof faster (higher temperature) or slower (lower temperature) with a relative humidity level that will prevent crusting of the dough (75 percent). More importantly, the temperature and humidity within the proofer are constant throughout the day.

By using a proofer, you can also manage your proofed dough by allowing it to rise to a specified point (height) in the pan, and then taking it to the cooler for chilling. While in the cooler, the dough will continue to rise for a period of time. The trick is to take the dough to the cooler at just the point where the dough will rise to the desired height, and then significantly slow or stop rising, allowing the dough to be held in the cooler, for several hours or a day, at a condition where it is ready for dressing and baking at a moment’s notice.

Tom Lehmann is a former director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas and Pizza Today’s resident dough expert.