Q:What do proofing, punching and poolish mean?
A: Proofing: When you use active dry yeast, you need to "wake it up" by hydrating it. Add it to warm water (about 110 degrees F is ideal) — if it's alive, it'll start to get foamy. Add sugar to the mixture to feed the yeast, and you're proofing it.
Once a dough is formed, it needs to rest in a warm, but not a hot, spot (about 70 to 80 degrees) while the yeast works its magic. Generally, the kitchen counter is fine. If your kitchen is drafty, then inside the oven (turned off) or the microwave works as well. If it's too warm in your kitchen, find a cooler room.
Putting the dough in the fridge slows the rise, which helps develop flavor and makes the dough more manageable (like with our cinnamon buns). If you get called away for some reason when proofing a dough, refrigerate it until you get back.
Punching the dough: You punch down the dough with your hand or fist to help release the air produced by the yeast. You'll know when the dough is ready because the it will look fuller and doubled in size. If it's tight and dense, let it proof longer; if it's airy and about to collapse, then it's gone too far.
Poolish: Both poolish and sponge are pre-fermentation methods — they start the leavening process earlier, ending up with a deeper, nuttier flavor and better, more even texture.
They're both blends of flour, water and yeast, set aside to ferment in advance — overnight for a poolish, a few hours for a sponge — then mixed in with the remaining ingredients and baked as usual. We use a poolish starter for our multigrain bread because the extended fermentation helps break down the flours, making for a more tender loaf.