Fermentation, as explained earlier, is essential to the bread making process. Without it, your bread will lack flavor, texture and proportion. Fermentation in bread is slightly different from our common understanding because the process is shorter and therefore more dependent on the baker’s skill than natural progression. The fermentation process can be divided into two stages:
Le Pointage (1st Rise / Bulk Rise)
Once the dough is kneaded and left to rest the first stage of fermentation begins. The micro-organisms (wild and / or commercial yeasts) begin to consume the sugars present in the dough. While breakdown the sugars they release carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol). Kneading stretches the wheat protein (gluten) into a network of strands which traps the carbon dioxide released by the organisms. This trapping of air causes the dough to rise.
Depending upon the gluten content of flour, ingredients, the amount of natural and / or commercial yeasts, kneading process etc. the dough might rise to almost double its original size. Gluten is essential when you want a well aerated crumb because it creates the network within which the air can be contained. It is for this reason that low gluten / gluten-free breads have a very dense and chewy texture.
The first stage of fermentation can last anywhere between one to three hours depending upon the flours used and the room temperature. There is usually no need to prolong this time if you have used natural fermentation methods. It is important to keep an eye on the dough as it rises but it is also essential to understand the forces that come into play during the fermentation so that you know how to manage them. Here is when the flavor develops and so shortening this period unnecessarily will leave you with a bland outcome.
After the first rise, the dough is divided into desired amounts and given shape. The trick, I have to come to learn, lies in giving the dough a little more time to rest between shaping. Once the dough is divided, loosely shape it into a boule / batard and leave it to rest on your work bench for fifteen to thirty minutes, covered with a damp towel. This resting period further allows the gluten to relax and retain shape in the final proofing stage. Once the resting period is over, give the dough its final shape and leave it for its final rise on parchment (baking) paper or a couche (baking cloth).
L’Apprêt (Final Proofing)
The second stage of fermentation begins after the dough has been shaped and before its ready to be baked. As with the first rise and resting period, the dough should be covered with a damp cloth and left to rise in a draft free area at room temperature. The dough will not rise as much as it did in the first / bulk rise, nevertheless it should become approximately 2/3rd the size you desire your final loaf to be.
Using a damp cloth is extremely helpful in dry climates. I live in Mumbai where there is a lot of humidity all year around and so sometimes forgetting the damp cloth hasn’t costed me much. However, I would still suggest using it as it ensures your dough doesn’t dry out from the out which will otherwise leave you with a very unpalatable crumb.
When working in very hot and humid climates, the time taken for the dough to become ready might change considerably. Secondly, if you are making several baked items at the same time, waiting for even a few extra minutes might cause your bread to over proof. Therefore, it is necessary to plan well in advance and leave a little room for adjustment to ensure all your hard work does not go to waste.