Proofer Oven Buyers' Guide
Bread often needs to rise several times before it is baked. The final rise, also called proofing or final fermentation, is done before it is baked but after the bread has been worked into its final shape. This proofing must take place within a specific temperature and humidity range to allow the yeast in the bread to ferment properly. A proofer oven is one way to control the environment the bread is in to ensure it rises properly while keeping it conveniently close to the oven that it will be transferred to.
A proofing oven is actually two pieces of equipment. The top portion is an oven and the bottom portion a proofing cabinet. Proofer units are available by themselves, built for adding a convection oven on top. These are only compatible with certain ovens, so be sure to check the specifications if you purchase these pieces separately.
Even with all proofer ovens being full-size, meaning they're designed to accommodate full-size baking pans, the interior capacity can vary widely between models. You should be aware of the interior cubic feet of both the proofer and the oven and of how many racks are in each. The number of racks and the rack position options will determine how many items you can bake at once. The number of racks will often differ between the proofer and oven sections, so be aware of how you plan to use your equipment.
Heat and Humidity
Proofer ovens are powered by electricity or gas. No matter which heating method is used, most proofers will keep the temperature between 75 and 85 degrees F, the optimal range for proofing. The oven itself may be a standard or convection model. Standard ovens require the pans to be rotated partway through the baking process in order to achieve an even bake. A convection oven cycles heated air through the cavity with a fan to keep the heat evenly distributed, which eliminates the need to rotate the pans. Some of the ovens also have a hold method that the unit can switch to after it is done baking, keeping the food warm until you are ready to serve it.
When proofing bread, humidity is just as important as heat. A proofer must keep the atmosphere around 85 percent humidity. To accomplish this, proofers will use either a water pan or a steam injection system. Water pans will need to be manually filled, while steam injection systems will require a water line. While all proofers will have a source of humidity, some of the ovens offer this feature as well, which slows the formation of the bread's crust and allows it to rise to its full potential.
Some proofing ovens have special features that make them easier to use. Many models have glass doors and some also offer lighted interiors so that you can easily see your baked goods as they rise or bake. This can help with inventory maintenance and quality control.
Another feature that can simplify operation of a proofing oven is a programmable menu. These can be set with a certain number of recipes so the oven will alert you when the bread needs to be moved from the proofer to the oven; ovens that have a cook-and-hold feature can switch automatically to holding after baking is done. This makes operation easy for kitchen staff without much training.
Split doors are another feature to consider on your proofing oven. These are ideal in kitchens with limited space or narrow walkways, as the doors do not have to swing open as far as a one-piece door would need to.