Proofing -- also known as rising -- is the step where a lot of homemade bread recipes go wrong. Without enough rise, the finished loaf will be too dense. With too much rise, bread may fall during baking. Fortunately, with a few simple tools and techniques, you can make sure your bread rises properly.
Prepare your dough. In your large bowl, combine your dough ingredients according to your recipe's instructions. Before proofing, make sure all ingredients are thoroughly integrated and there are no streaks of flour in your dough.
Prepare your rising environment. Bread rises best in a warm, moist environment. You can create one even if your kitchen is chilly. To do this, fill your mug two-thirds full with tap water and place in your microwave. Run the microwave on high for 90 seconds or until the water is steaming hot but not boiling. While the water heats, spray the inside of your large straight-sided container with non-stick spray.
Turn your dough into your large, straight-sided container, using your spatula to scrape down any dough that sticks to the sides. Shake the container to level the top of the dough. Stretch a rubber band around the outside of the container so that it marks the top of the dough. This makes it easy to see when your bread has risen.
Let your dough rise. Open your microwave, push the coffee cup into a corner, place your container in the microwave and shut the door. Let the dough rise until it is doubled in volume; the rubber-band marker makes this easy to see. Bread is perfectly risen when you can poke it and the impression made by your finger will not fill in.
Punch down and form your loaves. Take your container out of the microwave and gently press down on the dough to deflate it. Though this is called "punching down," you really don't need to use very much force. Then, turn your bread out onto your work surface and form into loaves according to your recipe's instructions. Spray loaf pans with non-stick spray before transferring bread into them.
Bench proof and bake. Bench proofing means allowing your bread to rise a second time after you've formed it into loaves. Reheat your water in the microwave. Put your loaf pans in and allow to rise until almost doubled in volume. While bread rises, preheat your oven according to your recipe's instructions. Once bread has risen, bake according to your recipe's instructions.
You can tell your bread is properly risen by poking it halfway between the centre and the edge of the dough. If the impression left by your finger does not fill in, the bread is ready.
Some recipes instruct you to slash the top of your bread before baking. Don't ignore this step or the crust will form too quickly and keep bread from expanding properly in the oven. You'll end up with dense, hard bread.