Refrigerating your dough has some useful benefits from the cold temperature slowing the yeast activity. This improves flavor from fermentation and can also help fit into your daily schedule to bake at a convenient time. When it comes to baking the bread, you’ll be wondering if you need to bring it back to room temperature.
Can you bake cold bread dough? Yes, you can bake dough straight from the refrigerator – it does not need to come to room temperature. The dough has no problems from being baked cold and will bake evenly when baked in a very hot oven.
I’ve baked many loaves straight from the fridge with great results, and haven’t noticed any problems. This is usually how I make my best sourdough if I have the time. This method is mentioned commonly in booked and across the internet.
Refrigerating your dough actually has some great benefits – which I will cover in this article and also some tips to baking bread from the fridge.
How To Bake Dough Straight From The Fridge
The most convenient way to prepare bread dough using the fridge is to do the first rise at room temperature and then place it into the fridge for the final proof.
An example schedule could be to prepare any yeast or starter in the daytime, then mix your dough in the early evening and allow the first rise at room temperature. Late evening you can then shape the dough and place in a proofing container and transfer to the fridge overnight. The dough will be ready to bake the next morning.
Once it is fully proofed, you can bake it straight from the fridge. Make sure to get your oven hot – ideally heat it for around 30 minutes before putting the dough in. Removing the dough too early from the refrigerator will cause the yeast activity to rise and could mean you over ferment your dough if it was already ready to bake. This is why its best to bake straight from the fridge. I wouldn’t give it longer than 30 minutes if taken out.
Using a proofing basket or towel-lined bowl keeps the dough in a good shape over the long proof. And remember to cover it or place it into an airtight bag so skin doesn’t form from drying out. I’ve got some ideas for dough covers in my article how to keep dough from drying out while rising. When ready to bake, turn this out onto a floured worktop and then place it onto a baking sheet or Dutch oven.
The cold temperature of a fridge slows down fermentation drastically, so allowing 8-12 hours in the fridge is not uncommon. You can test if the dough is fully proofed by poking a floured finger in half an inch. If it springs back very quickly then you need to give it more time.
Will It Bake Evenly?
It seems counterintuitive that baking straight from the fridge would work. Most foods are best brought back up to room temperature to cook – I’m thinking steaks or whole turkeys which cook unevenly if cold. But bread just works fine – it doesn’t seem to have any downsides of having a colder center. It must be a perfect combination of oven temperature, time and distribution of heat through the dough.
The best bread books in my house (such as Tartine, and FWYS) recommend baking bread straight from the refrigerator. In fact, all of them mention that if you are cooking two loaves, then you should keep the second one in the fridge until it is ready to bake. This is likely from a risk of over proofing if brought out too early.
From my own baking and from reading forums online, pretty much everyone has the same outcome that the dough bakes evenly whether cold or at room temperature. Remember to cool the bread properly after baking so the crumb is set. Read my guide bread cooling guide for the best slice.
Don’t Bring It To Room Temperature
Remember that if you bring the dough to room temperature, then the yeast activity will rise again. If you’ve spent all the time proofing your dough perfectly then it is far along its proofing limit. If you then decide to warm it up for an hour, then you run the risk of over proofing it. This has the characteristics of a weak, gassy dough which might collapse. Too much fermentation has happened, weakening the structure and allowing pockets of gas to escape which results in a dense bread.
Therefore it’s best to bake when it is perfectly proofed and not a minute later. It is also easier to predict the dough when it is at a stable cold temperature like the fridge. And that means you can be consistent with your results next time when you bake.
Benefits Of Cold Dough
Cooling the dough to delay the fermentation and rising (also known as retarding), has some well known benefits to bread making.
Flavor and Texture
By allowing more time to ferment slowly, the bread develops better flavor from the byproducts of fermentation – acids and alcohols. This can’t happen without slowing down the fermentation from putting the dough in the refrigerator. Here are a few more tips for improving bland homemade bread.
Also, the texture mellows as the dough ferments. The gluten breaks down, and the finished bread turns out softer and with a better texture.
A “Blistered” Crust
When you proof the dough overnight in the fridge, the baked dough comes out with a unique texture of small bubbles on the crust, which can be seen in the images of this post. This blistered effect comes from the gas escaping the surface of the cold dough. It’s a characteristic of a good sourdough which has had plenty of time rising in the cold.
Easier To Score
When the dough is cold, it is firm and is easier to make deeper cuts in with ease. When it’s warmer, it can be stickier and the blade gets caught. I have found that the best way to score bread and achieve a specific design is to do so on cold dough. I think the longer time in the fridge also helps form a harder outer layer on the dough, probably from the air contact.
I really like refrigerating dough for the added flavor, especially in sourdough. Also, the skin is easier to score deeply and cleanly for getting the bread to open up nicely (and get the scoring “ears”). If you haven’t tried refrigerating dough then you must – the depth of flavor that is added is fantastic.
My main tips would be to get a really hot oven, and also a baking stone or baking steel. This ensures a nice blast of heat to the bread when baking. You can then be confident of great bread time after time.