How to Refrigerate Bread Dough: A Guide

Published Categorized as Food
A ball of bread dough in a bowlYAYImages /Depositphotos

Perfect dough, baked your way. Why the trick to airy, fragrant, and delicious loaves of bread is in your fridge.

I’ve been baking for as long as I can remember. My great-grandmother, who cooked on a wood-fired stove made out of cast iron, taught me long ago.

But it wasn’t until I learned a few years ago that if you put the dough in the refrigerator overnight, the yeast has more time to do its work and the bread rises better, that I took my baking skills to a whole new level!

After much trial and error—and countless loaves of home-baked bread—I finally feel confident enough in the technique to share it with you.

You can refrigerate bread dough overnight. The cold will slow the fermentation down but not stop it, giving the yeast more time to bring out the natural aromas and enrich the flavors in the dough. The next day, usually within 8-12 hours, the dough will have risen and be ready for baking.

This technique, which bakers refer to as “cold fermentation,” actually does miracles to your bread. A slow-risen, cold-fermented dough is more aromatic, more flavorsome, and more workable than any dough that’s risen quickly at room temperature.

Don’t keep bread dough uncovered in the refrigerator. Even in the fridge, a relatively humid place, the surface of the dough dries out and becomes crusty, which isn’t good. Instead, wrap the proofing vessel, be it a bowl or a sheet pan, tightly with plastic wrap before placing it in the fridge.

In most recipes that prescribe this, no exact time is given. Instead, they simply say, “Cover the bowl and let the dough rest in the refrigerator overnight.” If you plan to bake the dough the next day or even the day after, you don’t need to worry too much about timing.

That said, don’t wait too long. If you keep the dough in the refrigerator for longer than 2-3 days, you can easily overproof it. You know that’s the case when the dough won’t spring back if you poke it with your index finger.

When to Refrigerate Bread Dough

Binge on the episodes of any baking show or read through any baking cookbook, and you will notice that most bread doughs are fermented in two steps: There’s the bulk fermentation, also called the “first rise.” And then, there’s the proofing, also known as the “second” or “final rise.”

Bulk fermentation happens immediately after you’ve mixed the dough, and it adds strength and flexibility to it. Proofing happens after you’ve cut up the dough and divided it into mozzarella-sized balls in a proofing vessel, and it adds aroma, flavor, and volume.

Bulk fermentation:

Bulk fermentation is when you rest the dough, normally at room temperature, immediately after mixing it and right before cutting and shaping it. Bulk fermentation requires 1-3 hours at room temperature and approximately 3-4 hours in the fridge.

It’s called that way because you can make a big ball of dough and ferment it in bulk before dividing it into smaller balls for proofing. It adds strength to the dough and makes it more workable.

Bulk fermentation doesn’t make a big difference if you’re making a loaf or two of bread at home in the first place, but it does matter in a commercial bakery, where a single mass of dough can yield well over a couple of dozen loaves.

Proofing:

Proofing is when you rest the dough a second time after dividing and shaping it, and right before baking it. Proofing takes another 1-3 hours at room temperature, and can take as long as 8-12 hours in the fridge.

As a golden rule, the lower the temperature during proofing, the slower the fermentation—and the more time the dough needs to rise. This time has merits, as it allows the yeast cells to make your bread more aromatic, flavorful, and airy.

When to refrigerate:

You can keep the dough in the refrigerator either during the bulk fermentation or the proofing. For best results, make sure that one of these fermentations takes place at room temperature and the other in the fridge.

When I bake bread, I bulk-ferment at room temperature and proof in the fridge. By doing things in this order, I can plan my time better than the other way around.

The sequence:

For your convenience, here’s what your options look like, step by step:

  • Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a bowl;
  • Add water and mix until they turn into a uniform mass;
  • Knead the dough on a working surface;
  • Bulk-ferment the dough:
    • Rest at room temperature for 1-3 hours here;
    • Freezer here for long-term storage of up to 3-4 months.
  • Cut up the dough into pieces and shape it into balls;
  • Proof the dough:
    • Rest in the fridge for 8-12 hours here;
    • Thaw here, and potentially leave for 12-24 hours to ferment slowly.
  • Preheat the oven;
  • Bake the bread.

When to Freeze Bread Dough

Suppose you kneaded more dough than you should have, and you don’t plan to bake it all during the week. It is only natural to ask yourself, can you freeze it?

Bread dough freezes well and keeps its best quality for 3-4 months in your freezer. The best time to freeze dough is immediately after the bulk fermentation. Divide it up into small balls for easy thawing, separate the balls into freezer bags, and place them wherever there’s space in the freezer.

To defrost the dough, transfer as much as you need from your freezer to your fridge, and leave it there overnight (preferably, for 12-18 hours). It should be ready to bake on the following day. If need be, leave it in the fridge for a day longer to make it rise.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.