Proofing dough in the fridge makes it easier to work with and gives it a deeper flavor. Here’s how to do it.
Most recipes for bread and pizza crust call for proofing the dough at room temperature. But letting the dough rest in the fridge overnight can be beneficial for both the baker’s schedule and the quality of the dough. Use this guide to understand how this method works and decide if it’s the right option for you.
Why We Proof Dough
Bread dough and pizza dough consist of just three ingredients: flour, water, and yeast. Many doughs also contain salt, sugar, and olive oil. Although there are yeast-free doughs, this article is about doughs that are yeasted, or leavened.
Leavened dough is dough that’s risen through the process of fermentation. Given the right conditions, the yeast cells feed on the sugars in the dough, converting them into alcohol and acid.
The yeast also churns out carbon dioxide as a byproduct of its feast. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the form of gas bubbles in the dough, dense enough to prevent the gas from escaping, which makes the dough rise.
In baking, we call the rising process “proofing.”
How Cold Proofing Works
Think of temperature as a control knob that lets you slow down (colder temperatures) or speed up (warmer temperatures) the fermentation process to achieve different results.
Traditionally, proofing is done at warm temperatures and in a humid environment, which facilitates the yeast’s activity and helps it produce more gas bubbles for an airy and fluffy dough. However, room-temp proofing is not the only method to achieve a well-proofed dough.
An alternative—and often underutilized—method involves slowing down the fermentation process by proofing the dough in the refrigerator.
Retarding the dough extends the fermentation time and allows for a more flexible baking schedule, since you can leave the dough in the fridge overnight and make your baked goods within the next one or two days, at a time that works for you.
Cold fermentation not only extends the proofing time but also significantly enhances the flavor profile of your bread or pizza crust. This happens through a process where the yeast and bacteria present in the dough have a prolonged period to ferment the sugars, producing a range of organic acids and other flavor compounds that contribute to a more complex, nuanced flavor.
During this cold fermentation, a variety of aromatic compounds are developed, which are the building blocks of flavor in bread.
These compounds contribute to the rich, deep flavors that are characteristic of artisan bread. The cold environment allows for a slow and steady production of these compounds, resulting in a bread with a more pronounced and well-rounded flavor compared to bread proofed at room temperature.
The gluten network also has more time to develop, resulting in a dough with a better structure. A well-developed gluten network not only makes the bread chewier but also helps form a better crust and crumb. Plus, it enhances the bread’s ability to retain moisture, resulting in a loaf that stays fresh for longer.
Here’s a photo of a Margherita pizza made from dough that’s been refrigerated for two days (get the recipe):
Notice the airiness of the dough. The raised edges, or “cornicione,” even look toothsome!
How to Proof Dough in the Fridge
Follow the steps below to proof bread dough or pizza dough in the fridge:
Mix and knead the dough.
Shape the dough into a ball and oil it lightly on the surface.
Place the dough ball in a bowl big enough to allow the dough to double in size.
Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap. Make sure the wrap is on there tight to keep moisture and warmth from escaping.
Rest on the countertop for 10-15 minutes to help the yeast get started.
Place in the refrigerator and leave there overnight. You can keep the dough in the fridge for up to 48 hours—any longer, and you risk overproofing it.
Don’t stretch the dough straight from the fridge. Remove it from the fridge 5 to 10 minutes before baking to bring it to room temp and make it more workable.
Cold proofing works best with doughs made from strong flour, meaning flour with a high gluten content. The gluten traps the gas bubbles in place, making the final product airy, and gives the dough that sought-after chewiness.
How Long to Proof Dough in the Fridge?
At room temperature, most doughs proof within a span of 1 to 4 hours. However, when proofing dough in the refrigerator, this typically takes 24 to 48 hours. So if you opt for cold proofing, a good rule of thumb is to allot enough time and plan to leave your dough in the fridge overnight, or even up to two days for best results.
A word to the wise: be wary of overproofing. In cold fermentation, there is indeed such a thing as too much time.
Leaving the dough in the fridge for several days can result in overproofed dough, characterized by excessive gas production and a weakened gluten structure. As a result, the dough can no longer hold its shape in the oven, and turns out less chewy than a dough that’s been proofed for the right amount of time.
Is It Better to Proof Dough in the Fridge or on the Counter?
Whether it’s better to proof dough in the fridge or on the counter can depend on various factors including your personal preference, the specific recipe you are following, and the amount of time you have on your hands.
Many bakers find that dough proofed in the fridge tends to be tastier and chewier compared to dough that’s been proofed on the counter. This is largely due to the temperature difference: cold temperatures in the fridge retard the yeast’s growth, allowing for a slower fermentation process. The extended fermentation not only develops a deeper flavor but also enhances the dough’s texture, giving it what is often described as a “bite.”
Moreover, cold proofing offers the advantage of flexibility in your baking schedule, as it permits a longer window of time before the dough overproofs. On the other hand, proofing on the counter is quicker, which can be a benefit if you want to get the baked goods on the family table quickly.
Cold proofing is more than just a trick employed by professional bakers; it’s a way to develop deeper, more nuanced flavors and achieve a desirable chewy texture in your homemade bread and pizza crusts.
By slowing down the yeast’s fermentation process in the cooler environment of your fridge, you allow for the development of a well-structured gluten network and a rich flavor profile that’s sure to elevate your baked goods to a professional level. Moreover, it offers the flexibility to fit baking into your schedule more conveniently, without compromising on the quality of the end result.You've voted for this post