Guide To Long, Slow Pizza Dough Rising: All Questions Answered

Slowing down the rise of your pizza dough is a key step to making better pizza from the taste and texture benefits of longer fermentation. It’s also useful to know how long you can store dough before it starts over fermenting, tasting sour and becoming weak.

In this article we look at the relationship between yeast and heat, and how it affects dough in a variety of ways. Included is a guide to how much yeast to use and how long to store it in different locations.

What Is Rising And Fermentation

Dough rising is all about yeast fermentation. This happens when the ingredients are mixed and the yeast feeds on the nutrients in the flour. It produces CO2 gas, alcohol and acids and changes the state of the dough. It is essentially what produces the dough to rise up – pockets of gas form in the dough which are trapped.

The terms rise, proof and ferment are all widely used to mean the same thing – the yeast activity which happens in dough. So I will use them interchangeably in this article.

Why Slow The Rise?

Alongside an increase size from rising, some side effects of fermentation are a depth of flavor and aroma from the acids and alcohol. A downside is the dough becomes weaker in structure, so it becomes more difficult to shape and handle.

Two main reasons for wanting to slow the rise would be to develop that flavor more. Think of the best breads like sourdough – they are created slowly over an extended period so that the depth of flavor is built, and this can only happen with time. If we let the dough rise with a basic dough recipe, then the dough will be too weak to work with by the end – we need to slow it down.

Secondly, perhaps we might want to prepare the dough ahead of time. This can be useful to avoid the long preparation time to make pizza. So creating it and storing it without it over proofing is a problem. Slowing down this process helps us store the dough for longer.

How To Slow The Rise

The two main things which affect how fast the dough rises is the amount of yeast used, and the temperature of the dough. As the yeast feeds, it multiplies. And it does so at a faster rate in warmer temperatures. So using a moderate amount of yeast and leaving in a warm spot will see your dough balloon in size within hours.

To slow the rise, we need to alter one or both of these factors – it is all about relativity. You can use a small amount of yeast and allow the dough to rise slowly at room temperature, or you can use more yeast and put it in the fridge. If you want to go really slow, use both a small amount of yeast and the fridge.

How long can you leave pizza dough to rise? Anything from a few hours to many days. As the lower temperatures slow yeast activity, in the fridge the yeast becomes almost inactive. A warm environment could cause the dough to over ferment in a few hours if enough yeast is present.

It’s good to keep in mind that gluten strength degrades over time so using a strong flour with more protein is required for longer rises, otherwise the dough might be too weak to use after this breakdown.

If you want to get stuck in, a good place to start is my pizza dough recipe. I have instructions you can follow for slow fermenting whether it be at room temperature or in the fridge.

My best tip for making pizza in a home oven is using a pizza “steel”. This adds intense heat from below as a brick oven would – I have this steel from Amazon which is significantly lower priced than the original brand, but works perfectly. Steel is more conductive than stone so transfers more heat, they don’t shatter, and are easier to clean. If it’s out of your price range then the 2nd best option is a pizza stone made from cordierite.

To see a round-up of the most important pizza equipment check out my essential pizza equipment list.

Where To Leave Dough Rise And What Temperature?

If you are leaving it at room temperature, then any usual place in the kitchen is adequate. Placing in a warm spot isn’t needed, and only speeds up fermentation (a slow rise makes better dough). Average room temperature is around 70F/21C.

The fridge is the preferred place for cold fermenting so that the temperature can be consistent. Fridges usually run at around 40F/4C.

How Much Yeast To Use?

To understand how much yeast we need, we need to understand bakers percentages. This allows us to compare recipes independent of the quantities. We calculate them as a percentage of the flour weight.

While these seems fairly technical, it’s easy to work out. Take your recipe’s yeast weight, divide by the flour weight, and then multiply by 100. So 2.5g yeast in 500g flour would be 0.5% yeast (2.5 / 500 then x 100).

So how much to use?

Using the following numbers as a guide is useful, but may need some experimentation in your own setting. If we are proofing at room temperature for a few hours, you can use a yeast percentage of 1%, proofing for 6 hours at room temperature will need around 0.1-0.5%. Cold fermenting in the fridge overnight you will need around 0.5% yeast, while 24-48 hours in the fridge would use around 0.1% yeast. Going longer than 48 hours you can use even less.

See my article about how much yeast to use for a more detailed view on the relation between quantities and time.

Rise As A Bulk Dough Or Individual Dough Balls?

You can let your dough ferment as a bulk piece or split into individual balls. As with a bread dough, the process usually involves a first rise, a deflation of the gas, and then another rise. This allows the dough to continue fermenting, without uneven gas pockets in the dough.

The benefits of spending more time in the ball phase is that the dough’s gluten relaxes and becomes easy to stretch or roll. This is important for pizza dough because you need to get it so thin. If its not fully relaxed then is snaps back with the gluten.

There is a balance though. Too much relaxing and the dough balls flatten out too much. I find that if you are storing the dough for longer than 36 hours (say 48 hours), then it’s best to bulk ferment the dough for 24 hours and then split into balls for the remaining 24 hours. They won’t be so flat when you come to shape them.

How To Store The Dough?

I usually let the dough rise once as a bulk for an hour to two – I usually return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover for this stage. I then ball up and place into a container that can fit in my fridge. A sheet pan with plastic wrap, individual dinner plates with wrap, or plastic boxes work well. My go to is a plastic cake container that has an airtight lid. You can of course buy a dough box on Amazon. Remember to keep it airtight otherwise a skin will form on the dough.

You can also freeze pizza dough – check out my article on that.

Can You Let Pizza Dough Rise Too Long?

Yes, pizza dough will over ferment if we leave it for too long. What does this mean? Well the gas will bubble out so much that the dough may triple in size and spill over the container. This generally happens with more yeast.

All this yeast activity breaks down the structure of the dough. It becomes weak and sticky, and no longer “pushes back” when you press your fingers into it from lack of gluten. This means it becomes extremely hard to handle and shape. A dough at the end of its lifespan will tear under its own weight when you pick it up. Stretching to a disk without breaking it becomes a difficult challenge.

Also the taste that built up over the fermentation will go too far. It becomes sour and unpleasant, and not in a way that sourdough is tasty. This leaves a bad taste in your mouth like sour milk.

How to tell if it’s over fermented?

You will notice that the dough loses strength to hold itself up. The dough balls that were once round balls are now flat. Picking them up is difficult and they might be impossible to shape for a beginner. The smell will be strong like brewed beer, and the taste sour.

Can you still cook it? The first hurdle is shaping the weak dough. The second is the sour taste. Dough reaches a point where the acids and alcohol are overpowering, making a horrible pizza. As long as the dough has no signs of making you ill from bacteria (foul odor or discoloring), then you can cook a trial pizza before knowing whether to discard the dough.

How To Tell When Pizza Dough Is Done Proofing

This is something that you build up with practice as you become more familiar with a dough recipe. We need a dough ball that has risen and also relaxed its gluten so it is ready to shape. You have a window either side of when they are in their “prime”, depending how liveley the dough is.

If you are proofing in a clear container then you can easily see the pockets of gas in the dough through the side. If you aren’t then you will need to go by the shape and feel of the dough balls.

You will notice that the dough ball has flattened slightly and increased in diameter. I find when they have increased by about 50-75% of their original diameter they are about ready.

Try poking a floury finger into the dough. If it springs back quickly and fully then it probably needs more time resting. A slight spring back and you are ready. When it has no spring back then the dough is exiting its prime stage. When the ball is double its diameter and looking flat like a pancake, then you are in the over proofing zone.

Remember about the improvements of time on dough. A dough left for 2 hours with enough yeast can be proofed and ready to bake, but the taste will be floury and simple. Much better to lower the yeast or temperature and ferment longer to add depth to the flavor.

Guide To Refrigerating Pizza Dough

Refrigerating pizza dough is a great way to slow down the rise. You can actually put the dough in the fridge at any stage. I find it best to do it after balling up, as the balls have time to relax in the ball and become easy to stretch out. Here are some instructions and tips.

Once the dough is kneaded, it’s a good idea to let the dough rise as a bulk at room temperature. This usually happens for 1-2 hours, and the dough will expand. How much depends on how much yeast was used – if little is used then the dough won’t “double in size”, but that is OK. What we are aiming for here is that the yeast gets going and kick starts some activity.

Next, deflate the dough with your hands and fold the dough in on itself a few times which improves gluten structure. Split the dough into dough balls, and ball them up into a round. At this stage is a good time to put them in the fridge. Use an airtight container, plastic wrap – anything to prevent a skin forming on the dough.

If you are going for a longer fermentation (say 48 hour or more) then it might be better to bulk ferment the dough in the fridge for 24 hours before balling for the remaining time. This allows the balls to be a bit stronger, as keeping the balls rested for days makes them very flat.

How to use refrigerated pizza dough?

To use refrigerated dough balls, allow them enough time to return to a warmer temperature. This can take 2 hours when its cooler, and an hour when its hot. If you have a probe thermometer (see Amazon), they need to be about 60F/16C – so a little less than room temperature.

To use a whole piece of dough that has been in the fridge, remove it and split into individual balls. These warm up faster than a whole piece. You will need to wait 2 hours or so until the gluten relaxes before using.

My pizza dough expanded too much in the fridge?

This usually happens when you put the dough in the fridge, but the yeast was already quite active. It can keep multiplying faster than you would expect, and might be overflowing your container when you check on it a day or two later. There is two fixes – either use less yeast to begin with, or use water that is a little cooler. By kick starting yeast with warm water and then leaving it out of the fridge for too long, you run the risk of it blowing over when you get to the fridge.

Some Common Questions

Can you let pizza dough rise overnight?

Yes. Most pizza recipes will turn out well if you mix the ingredients, leave the dough rise for an hour or two at room temperature, and then place in the fridge overnight to slow fermentation.

How to proof pizza dough for 24 hours or more?

Proofing dough for 24 hours or more requires a cold temperature and using less yeast. Reduce the yeast to 0.1-0.5% weight of the flour weight. Allow to rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, degass, then ball and place in the fridge.

How long can you leave dough at room temperature?

Dough can balloon in size rapidly at room temperature. Depending on the amount of yeast used and the temperature, most recipes can typically be left for 3-6 hours before it gets over fermented. If using tiny amounts of yeast (< 0.1% bakers ratio) then you can hold it overnight and longer.

Can you refrigerate pizza dough after it rises?

You can refrigerate dough after the first “bulk” rise or after the balls have risen. It can slow down fermentation at any stage, and can be useful to preserve your dough balls another day if you’ve left them at room temperature and don’t want to discard them.

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