How to Rescue Overproofed Dough

It happens to the best of us. You wait many hours for your dough to proof so that you can bake it, and then, somehow, you forget about the dough (it’s easy to do, especially when you’re juggling meal prep during the holidays), and it overproofs. You may have even baked the overproofed dough, hoping it would magically return to life; instead, you end up with a pale, low-volume loaf that smells like stale alcohol. Overproofed dough, however, doesn’t have to meet its end in the bottom of a trash can. While working on Modernist Bread we developed a technique for saving overproofed bread.

The ultimate goal of proofing bread is to increase the volume of a shaped piece of dough through the production of carbon dioxide. Most of the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation happens in the final proofing stage. (The largest volume increase comes during baking when the dough nearly doubles in volume in the oven.) To expand, dough must be strong enough to retain the gas that it has produced. Gluten makes the dough elastic enough that it can expand around bubbles without tearing. Proofing, which begins once the dough is shaped and placed in a proofing vessel or on a flat surface, has some effect on flavor and texture, but it is key in determining the shape, volume, crust, and crumb of the bread.

When carbon dioxide exerts more pressure than a fully proofed dough can withstand, the cell membranes tear, releasing the gas and deflating the dough. An overproofed dough won’t expand much during baking, and neither will an underproofed one. Overproofed doughs collapse due to a weakened gluten structure and excessive gas production, while underproofed doughs do not yet have quite enough carbon dioxide production to expand the dough significantly.

Calling proof, knowing when the dough has reached its maximum expansion, is one of the more challenging things bakers have to learn to do. It takes practice and learning from a few mistakes. Conventional wisdom holds that overproofed doughs are irretrievably damaged and should be thrown away. Our experiments found just the opposite. In fact, we were able to resuscitate the same batch of dough up to 10 times before it suffered any serious loss in quality.

Our method for saving overproofed dough works for many kinds of dough, including French lean doughs, high-hydration doughs (you may see a slight decrease in volume as well as in crumb size for these), and country-style doughs. The method also works for farmers’ bread and most rye breads that contain a proportion of bread flour, such as landbrot; brioche and enriched doughs, including sandwich breads; and pizza doughs, though they may have a pale crust once the dough is baked.

Sourdoughs are more problematic; you should attempt to revive a sourdough only if it was made and proofed within a few hours. Sourdoughs that are cold-proofed overnight or longer acidify because of the presence of lactic acid bacteria. This acidification makes the dough very tough; as a result, if you degas and reshape it, the dough is overly tense, and still tough. You’ll end up with a loaf that doesn’t expand or bake well, and that is also misshapen and very sour. While some people (including us) like that biting flavor, others may find it too sour.

Mistakes are inevitable when it comes to proofing bread, but there’s no need to throw out dough if it proofs too long. Below is our step-by-step guide to saving overproofed dough (we call technique dough CPR).

Dough CPR

Step 1: Perform the fingertip test to make sure your dough is overproofed. The test involves gently pressing your finger into the surface of the dough for 2 seconds and then seeing how quickly it springs back. The dent you make will be permanent if the dough is overproofed.

Step 2: Remove the dough from the basket or other vessel in which you’re proofing it.

Step 3: Degas the dough by pressing down firmly on it. The pressure applied is the same as when you shape the dough.

Step 4: Shape the dough, and return it to the basket or other vessel for proofing.

Good Eating in An Exoskeleton

The winter holidays are often celebrated with glorious roasts. But there’s another staple of Christmas and New Year’s fare: crustaceans. From country to country and coast to coast, it’s all about seafood.

In Australia, barbecued or steamed prawns (referred to as shrimp in the US), Australian crayfish, and marron take center stage on the table for Christmas dinner, a trend that is being echoed in the United Kingdom, where more and more families are replacing traditional turkey with large lobsters. Seafood is staple Christmas Eve fare, but most notably in Italy where the night is known as la Vigilia. Also referred to as the Eve of Seven Fishes in the United States, the night culminates around the kitchen table, which is set with course after course of dishes laden with a variety of fresh fish and crustaceans. Lobster, in particular, has become a Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve tradition (despite some cultural superstitions) for many families throughout the world and, along with crab and prawn, is a staple of Réveillon, celebrated in France, Belgium, Brazil, Portugal, Quebec, New Orleans, and other areas with French or Portuguese influence. The food at réveillons, long dinner parties preceding both Christmas and New Year’s Day, is luxurious, extravagant, and comforting—a mix that is well suited for delectable crustaceans.

Lobster Disrobed

Selecting crustaceans

Although cooking crustaceans isn’t terribly complex, picking the right ones for the pot can be a challenge. You’ll do better armed with the knowledge that when crustaceans grow, they periodically shed their exoskeletons; that is, they molt. Many cooks know to avoid crustaceans that are getting ready to molt, but you may not know when to chase after those that have already molted.

Timing is important here because prior to molting, lobsters and crabs shed a large amount of muscle mass. They literally shrink inside their shells. After the exoskeleton weakens, they break out of it, living briefly without any protective covering at all. Just after molting, they pump up, adding 50%–100% to their body weight by absorbing water. You don’t generally want to eat a crustacean that is about to molt or that has just molted and is taking on a lot of ballast. The exception is soft-shelled crab, which is cooked just after having molted.

Once their new shells begin to harden, crustaceans are perhaps at their best for the table. Many say that a lobster with a new exoskeleton is exceptionally sweet and firm. Likely, this is because the creature ate voraciously after molting to replenish its protein and energy stores in order to rebuild its protective armor.

What to look for

1. Look at shell color and firmness:

When crustaceans are at their prime for eating, their topsides will be deeply colored, and their bellies will take on a stained or dirty look. The shell should be firm to the touch. Crustaceans are primed for cooking when their shells will have become very hard.

2. Compare size to weight:

Crustaceans will feel heavy for their size because they are filled with dense muscle tissue, not tissue that is bloated with absorbed water. Crustaceans that are about to molt feel the lightest because their shells are partly empty.

3. The shell will also give you clues that tell you when it’s better to pass on a particular animal:

Recently molted crabs and lobsters have shells with a grayish-to-green cast on their topsides and a lustrous white abdomen. That’s because the pigmentation of the shell comes from the animal’s diet, and they haven’t yet eaten enough to color the shells more richly.

Sometimes you will see a pinkish tinge, commonly referred to as rust, on the bottom of the crabs, which can indicate that they are getting close to molting. Before they do, they will reabsorb calcium from the shell, softening it. A telltale sign is that the shell will begin to appear slightly green again. They will bloat with water to loosen the shell and then will shed muscle mass to become small enough to squeeze out of it. Such crabs do not make for good eating.

MEAT4_Lobster bare_IMG_3393


So pick it right, and you’ll enjoy the aroma of cooked crustaceans, which is unique. The chemistry responsible for this redolence turns out to be the Maillard reaction, which normally requires a very high cooking temperature. But because the flesh of crustaceans contains a lot of sugars and amino acids (such as glycine, which tastes sweet) to counteract the salinity of seawater, the Maillard reaction occurs at an unusually low temperature. After you’re done feasting, save your crustacean shells. Collect them in the freezer until you have enough to make Pressure-Cooked Crustacean Stock. If you don’t have any shells, use whole shrimp (with heads on), which are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.