Over-Proofed Sourdough – What To Do

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Almost every new or even experienced baker has had over-proofed sourdough to work with. It is the rite of passage for becoming a great baker – and is also a great opportunity to learn how to fix it!

Some people may just discard over-proofed sourdough, deeming it to be unfit for consumption. This is not the case! 

Almost every type of over-proofed dough can be salvaged and used in lots of ways. 

What is over-proofed sourdough? Over-proofing happens when you leave the dough to expand or proof for longer than intended. This causes the yeast in the dough to use up all the “fuel” in the dough which results in a structurally compromised loaf that may not bake as well as a typical dough.

Read below to learn more about what you can do with over-proofed sourdough, some tips on how to prevent this from happening, and how to salvage it properly.

What Is Proofing?

Proofing is just nature at work. 

When you talk about dough and bread making, you are actually discussing chemistry!

Proofing is a baking technique where you add yeast, a living single-celled organism, to a mixture of flour, sugar, and other ingredients, which react with it and produce gas. 

In other words, the yeast literally eats the carbs and sugars in the dough and releases carbon dioxide gas which expands or leavens the dough. 

Under normal circumstances, the yeast does its job extremely efficiently, once the dough has been properly kneaded.

It can double the size of dough within a few hours and once you degas it, the dough will spend one final hour to expand or proof before it is baked and turned into a golden-brown, delicious loaf of bread.

Let’s dive into the microscopic world to understand how over-proofing happens in the first place. 

Think of the ingredients that you add to the dough as both food for humans and organisms. 

Yeast is an organism that is sold in an inactive state. It is available in powder form and is used as a leavening agent.

This organism feeds on carbs and sugars (much like ourselves) except, yeast produces carbon dioxide gas in the process. 

You can think of this as the organism’s burps – disgusting, but a very practical way of understanding chemistry!

This eating frenzy and production of gas is also defined as the process of fermentation. Proofing is just allowing the bread to double in size, showing that the yeast in the dough is active and healthy.

Consequences And Fixes For Over-Proofed Sourdough 

The thing about yeast is that it will continue to release gas so long as there is fuel in the dough. 

Meaning, that the process of fermentation will continue until the yeast has consumed all or a significant portion of the carbs and sugars in the dough.

Under normal circumstances, you are only to proof the dough for a few hours, or in some cases, overnight if the recipe calls for it. 

There are a few key indications that you can use to judge when the dough has adequately proofed. We will discuss that in a bit. 

For now, let’s understand the consequences of over-proofed sourdough.

As the yeast consumes the starch and sugars, there will come a point when the bread becomes fully saturated. This means that it will reach a point where it won’t be able to expand further – and this is where trouble arises. 

When this happens, the dough will expand to its fullest and then slowly come to a halt. It may even degas during this period. 

Inside the dough, the gluten strains, which are complex matrices of proteins that give bread their shape, soften and break down, and since there is no additional gas to help the dough maintain its structure, the dough will start to loosen up.

This loosening is the primary cause of concern when using over-proofed sourdough.

Keep in mind, over-proofing does not mean that the bread has gone bad. It just means that it will not bake as fully or rather it won’t look or taste as good as a properly proofed dough.

While this may not seem like a big deal to you, when you compare the two, you will almost always choose the properly proofed dough as it provides an airier, softer, and an arguably tastier loaf of bread. 

Over-proofed dough becomes so structurally compromised that you won’t even be able to place the iconic cut mark across the dough without completely unraveling it. The reason for this is again the loosening of the gluten strains within the dough. 

Furthermore, when comparing over-proofed and typically proofed dough side by side, you will notice that the over-proofed loaf will be denser, smaller in size, and will not have an airier side-section when you cut the bread in half compared to the typical loaf. 

Here is a summary of the difference between the two:

CharacteristicsOver-Proofed SourdoughRegularly Proofed Sourdough
TimeOccurs when the dough proofs for more than 15-18 hoursOccurs when the dough proofs within 12-14 hours
RiseDoesn’t expand well while bakingAdequately rises while baking
DensityMay be denserMore aerated when baked
ShapeIs prone to spreading outMaintains its structure throughout
ScoringMay flatten when sliced or markedCan be marked or sliced in any way before baking
FlavorMay taste a bit too sourAppropriate flavor

How To Fix Over-Proofed Sourdough

So now that you know what over-proofed sourdough is and how it happens, it is time for us to see how to fix it!

First of all, if you do end up with an over-proofed sourdough, just know that it has happened to the best of us and is part of every baker’s journey. 

Sometimes even professionals can forget about proofing doughs – but the important thing is that there are steps and a few clever techniques that you can use to remedy this issue. 

Before we begin, let’s list down the indications of over-proofed and typically-proofed sourdoughs. 

Over-proofed doughs may visually look the same, especially when they are within containers but there are a few tests that you can perform to definitively confirm whether the dough has indeed been over-proofed or not.

The Indentation Test

This test is the easiest and the most basic way of figuring out if the dough has over-proofed. 

While the dough is in the container, press down on the surface using your finger for two seconds. Now remove your finger and see if the dough springs back to shape or remains indented. 

If the dough can regain its shape, then this means that the yeast is still doing its job and that the dough will bake regularly. 

An indentation, on the other hand, may mean that the sourdough has over-proofed! Perform this test at different parts of the dough to confirm. 

The Spread Test

Over-proofed sourdough will spread more than typically proofed dough. A great way to tell if your dough has gone over would be to gently remove it from the container by flipping it over a clean counter.

If the dough immediately starts to spread, even slightly, then this will indicate that the dough has over-proofed. As mentioned, this happens as the gluten strains lose their elasticity and the dough is unable to hold its structure.

Typical bread will be plump and will easily maintain any shape you store it in!

The De-Gas Test

Another way to quickly determine over-proofed sourdough is to de-gas it. If the dough has adequately proofed, you will be able to either see gas bubbles or bumps on the surface, or the dough will deflate as soon as you give it a gentle tap or “slap”.

An over-proofed dough will be firm and you will not be able to de-gas it since there will be no additional gas to escape from the dough. This means that you will likely end up with an indentation wherever you tap the sourdough!

The Slice Test

While you should be able to get a definitive answer regarding over-proofed vs. adequately proofed dough from the tests above, if you are unable to ascertain the state of the dough then a great way to test it would be to slice it from the top. 

Be careful though! This test may ruin the texture of the dough completely! It would be much better if you cut a small part of the dough (horizontally) and then test that individual part for over-proofing. 

Using a knife or blade, place a superficial cut across the dough. If the sourdough opens up like a book, then this would mean that the dough has over-proofed. 

Since it is customary for sourdoughs to have a cut across the top, you might end up ruining the dough instead when placing a continuous slice on it! 

Don’t worry, though. It’s time we look at how to fix this mess!

Easy Fixes For Over-Proofed Sourdough

While these fixes won’t guarantee the fresh quality of typically proofed dough, it will still be a great way to avoid wastage. 

Here are a few things that you can do with over-proofed sourdough:

Re-Knead It

This is the easiest way to salvage the sourdough. When you knead the sourdough again, you will encourage the creation of new gluten matrices. Of course, this won’t result in a fault-free bread, but you might still be able to structurally strengthen the dough.

Gently fold the dough in on itself and then knead for 2-3 minutes and then re-shape it. Once done, we recommend that you quickly bake it rather than letting it proof again. 

This is the foremost method of salvaging an over-proofed dough and may even help you get away with it – if the dough isn’t too over-proofed! 

Using A Baking Tin

The other way to salvage the sourdough would be to use a compact baking tin to help the dough maintain its shape. 

Don’t forget to lightly grease the tin before adding the sourdough! The grease will prevent the dough from sticking and burning while being pressed up against the walls of the container. 

Remember, the dough will probably spread out even more when heated so it is better to have it contained within a mold to prevent that from happening. The resulting bread may be a bit denser but it will still taste great and you will be able to use it like any other sourdough bread!

Tactical Slicing

Never place a continuous slice mark across an over-proofed dough as it may cause it to completely deflate and lose its structure. 

The best way to salvage the dough would be to simply place multiple, smaller cuts across the surface of the dough. 

This will prevent the exterior of the dough from spreading further and will also add a beautiful texture that will look even more amazing when the bread has fully baked. 

Browse through Instagram and search for sourdough surface patterns – it is truly therapeutic and a clever way of using over-proofed dough!

Tips and Tricks

There are many things that you can do to prevent the dough from over-proofing. Here are a few great tips to keep in mind:

  • Always set multiple reminders when proofing dough. This is especially important if you are proofing more than just one sourdough per session. Time each dough individually! Remember, sourdough can take anywhere from 4-12 hours to proof!
  • Sourdoughs are proofed best at temperatures of 75°F to 82°F. This is when the yeast is fully active and efficient. If you want even more control over quality then we also recommend storing the dough in an area with a humidity level of 60-80%. 
  • Never add more flour or raw ingredients to the over-proofed dough. Your best bet is to just bake it normally or to knead it again and then bake the dough as soon as possible to prevent any further textural or flavor loss.
  • Always follow the instructions on the recipe card for the best results. 

Usually, different sourdough recipes will dictate the type of sourdough starter and ingredients required to proof the dough for a specific amount of time.

Using different ingredients or yeast may mess up the timing and result in either under proofing or over-proofing! 

Related Questions

Over-proofed dough isn’t doomed! You can easily salvage it using simple techniques. 

While the bread may not be as good as typically proofed sourdough, it will still make for an excellent sourdough and may not even matter, especially to people who don’t know the difference between the two.

Will yeast expand an over-proofed sourdough while baking?

No. Some people have an erroneous notion that over-proofed sourdough will “correct” itself while baking as the yeast leavens the bread as it bakes.

This is not true as the yeast will be killed off within a few minutes of being in the oven at high temperatures. 

The over-proofed dough may, however, expand sideways instead of rising which is why you should always try to bake it in a baking tin, depending on how over-proofed the dough is. 

Can you mix over-proofed dough with adequately proofed dough? 

Yes, you can mix the two to create bread with varying textures. While this can be a viable method for salvaging over-proofed sourdough, you will end up with just one highly middling bread rather than two gorgeous and delicious loaves of sourdough. 

It would be much better if you just bake the two separately. This will also help you understand the difference between properly proofed and over-proofed bread and will also be a great learning experience!

Does over-proofed dough smell bad or taste differently? 

Over-proofed dough may have a slightly sourer aroma and flavor but it will never taste or smell bad. In some cases, you might not even be able to tell the difference between the slightly over-proofed and properly-proofed dough. 

Always check the dough for signs of rot or spoilage before baking it.

Remember, recently over-proofed sourdough will always be safe to eat, it will just look and taste a bit different after baking – but if it has any slime or unwanted growth then you should just discard it entirely!

Up Next: Can Sourdough Starter Go Bad?

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