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The Art of the Rise
More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About
Raising Dough

After questions about starters, the most popular topic for emails from visitors to the site relate to rise. And there are lots of questions about rising dough. How many times have you seen instructions that tell you to let the dough rise until doubled? Many cookbooks and web pages will give you a bit more of a hint, such as "Allow to rise until doubled, about 2 hours." However, we try not to do that. Why? Is it because we're cruel? I wish it were that easy. Let's talk about rising a bit.

Dough might be best thought of as being somewhat like a sponge. If you dip a sponge in water, it will absorb water. And when you pull the sponge out of the water, water will drain off. You could use a sponge to move water. Dip, lift, move, and squeeze. However, if you want to move water, there are better options than sponges - sponges just drip too much. As the riser in a dough produces gas to raise the dough, the dough will trap some of the gas, and that gas will raise the dough. However, some of the gas will leak out of the dough, like water out of a sponge, or helium from a cheap balloon.  Dough is porous, and the gas will escape.

As the dough rises, it will reach a point where the push of the riser and the leakage of the gas from the dough are at pretty much the same level. At that point, the dough has risen to its peak. After a while at it's peak state, the riser will lose energy and will begin producing less gas. As the riser loses force, the dough will begin to collapse. How long the dough will maintain its peak is called the tolerance of the dough. This is very important to commercial bakers, as sometimes the dough might have to wait for time in the oven. When the dough is at its peak, it is usually quite fragile, especially if you started with a wet dough.

The tolerance of the dough depends on a number of things, such as how liquid or firm the dough is, how much riser was used, the strength of the flour, the temperature of the dough and rising area. A firmer dough is more resilient than a softer dough and has greater tolerance. Less riser makes things happen more slowly, so the dough has more tolerance. Also, doughs made with all-purpose or bread flours will have more tolerance than doughs made with whole grain wheat or rye flours. The tolerance of most white doughs is around an hour. Rye dough tolerance can be as short as six minutes (the message here is, when the rye dough has risen, bake it.)

In that life cycle of rise, peak and fall, there are many interesting points along the way. Bakers will often tell you to bake the dough when it has doubled in size, increased to 1 1/2 times its original size, or has tripled in size. This has a number of implications.

If you are rising your dough in a pan or basket, you need to leave enough room in it to increase by the amount the recipe says the dough will rise. Many beginners fill a bread pan until it is almost full and then bake the dough as soon as it shows any sign of rising. This means the bread will be too heavy, and that it will also mean the dough will be short changed on its flavor development.

If dough is in a pan or basket, it's pretty clear when the dough has doubled in size. However, it isn't as clear when you are rising a free form loaf. Dough spreads out in three directions, and if you wait until it has risen to twice it's height, it will be as much as 8 times it's starting volume.

So, how can you tell when a free form dough has risen to twice its size? Once you know what you're looking for, it's not that hard, but you need a trick to learn how to gauge that. I like to put 1/4 cup of dough in a glass measuring cup. When the dough reaches the 3/8 cup mark, it has risen to 1 1/2 times its original size. When it reaches the 1/2 cup point, it has doubled. At 3/4 cup, it has tripled. When it goes to the 1 cup point, it has quadrupled. You can look at the free-form dough and learn what to look for.

Some people don't specify, check, or even think about, how much the dough has risen. They feel the dough and when it feels or looks right, they bake it. Some people gently poke the dough with a finger to leave a shallow impression. If the dough springs back, it should rise a bit longer. However, if the dough is very fragile, even a gentle poke will collapse the dough. Other people prefer to rest their hand on the dough and feel the dough's tension. This is safer. Other people just look at the dough, see how the surface has stretched, and then decide when to bake the dough. Getting this sort of experience is a good thing, but you need to pay attention to your dough and your results to get there.

How long does it take for dough to rise? And why don't I give people hints about this? That's because it all depends. It's easier with yeast than with sourdough starter. Commercial bakers yeast is very consistent in its actions, and if you know the recipe and the temperature, you should be able to know how long the dough will take to rise within a narrow window of time.

However, sourdough is another matter altogether. Different starters act differently. The same starter will behave differently depending on how it is handled. And sourdough is never quite as fast as yeast. The folks at the Boudin bakery in San Francisco let their dough rise for 18 hours at around 68F.

So, how long does it take a sourdough to rise? It takes as long as it takes. The second rise, if you use one, usually takes about 1/2 the time of the first rise. Using the Friends of Carl starter or Sourdoughs International's Russian starter can give you rise times on a par with commercial bakers yeast. Other starters can be faster or slower. And how you treat the starter can change things also. Some people use starter straight from the fridge and wonder why their results are inconsistent. If you follow my instructions, your results should be consistent, but they may not be the same as mine. Which gets back to why I don't talk about how long it takes dough to rise.

There are other considerations. It can take a lot longer if your dough dries out, so remember to oil and/or cover your dough. A layer of dried out dough will act like a girdle and keep the dough from rising very effectively. Some people have heard about slow rises in refrigerators. However, most refrigerators run around 34F to 38F, which is far too cold for dough to rise effectively. If you want to rise dough at lower temperatures, I suggest raising the temperature to the 48F to 55F range. You may want to get a second refrigerator to do this as these temperatures are not safe temperatures at which to store perishables. I usually suggest that people shoot for a dough temperature of around 78F when the dough leaves the mixer (whether you or a machine are the mixer.) More information about that is covered in the discussion of the rule of 240. You may want to allow sourdough to rise at higher, or lower, temperatures, but starting with a dough temperature near 78F is a good place to start.