Proofing sourdough in the fridge is a little-known secret that can make your sourdough baking easier and more successful. Learn what proofing is, why you should proof in the fridge, and how long to proof sourdough in the fridge.
You’ve probably heard that proofing your sourdough in the fridge is one of the best ways to make a loaf with an incredible flavor and texture.
But what does that mean, exactly? And how do you go about doing it?
I'm here to answer all of those questions and some you didn't even know you had!
Let’s get started!
What Is Proofing?
In both regular (yeasted) bread making and sourdough baking, proofing refers to the rise after shaping. During yeasted baking it's often called the final rise.
During the proofing process, the shaped dough is allowed to rest and rise, usually until it doubles in size. This allows the yeast to do its job and create carbon dioxide gas, stretching the gluten in the dough, and trapping the gas in bubbles within the bread.
This step is critically important for all bread or leavened goods, to give them a light, airy texture, not to mention the flavor! Without proofing, our bread would be flat, dense, and taste bland.
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Why Proof Sourdough In The Fridge
In most of my sourdough recipes, I give the option to proof at room temperature for 1-3 hours or place in the fridge for a cold ferment. Whenever I have the option of choosing room temperature or proofing in the fridge, I always choose the fridge!
Proofing sourdough at cold temperatures is often called a cold retard, because it slows down the final rise process.
So why proof sourdough in the fridge?
1. Better Flavor:
Dough that has been proofed in the fridge has a more complex, sourer flavor than room temperature proofed dough. When the bread is proofing at room temperature, the dough develops faster than the flavor, by slowing it down and proofing in the fridge, we are allowing the flavor to develop in time with the dough.
This is a direct result of the temperature slowing down the yeast's fermentation activity, but the bacteria in the starter are less dependent on the temperature and they are able to continue breaking down starches into lactic and acetic acids, giving us that sour tang we can't get enough of!
2. Easier To Handle:
Cold dough is much much easier to handle. It's easier to flip out of your banneton, it's easier to score, it's just easier to work with.
Warm dough tends to flatten once turned out of its banneton, giving you less time to flip it, score it, and transfer it to a dutch oven. The lame also tends to stick to the warm dough.
Cold dough is less urgent, it resists spreading for longer, it's by far easier to score, and because it's more sturdy, it's easier to get into your dutch oven!
3. Adds Flexibility:
Sourdough is a process, a process I've come to truly enjoy, but it still takes a while.
Allowing your sourdough to cold retard in the fridge puts you back in the driver's seat when it comes to baking sourdough.
Proofing in the fridge extends your proofing window from 1-3 hours to days!
You can bake that bread on your schedule, not the dough's!
4. Better Crust + Crumb:
This one might be splitting hairs a little bit, but a cold fermented dough usually has a superior crust and crumb to a sourdough proofed at room temperature.
Baking cold sourdough tends to give that delicious, blistered crust that's somehow crispy but also delicate at the same time. It's 12/10 perfect.
The crumb is better because it takes time for gluten development in the dough especially with recipes that don't incorporate kneading to speed it up. But this process is not temperature dependant.
Allowing the sourdough to proof in the fridge slows the yeast down, allowing gluten development to catch up to the gasses released making for better-leavened bread and crumb.
How To Proof Sourdough In The Fridge
This is the easy part!
- Follow the recipe as written until you get to the final shaping stage.
- Shape the dough as desired, in a boule or batard. Place the shaped loaf into a banneton or banneton alternative.
- Cover the banneton with a plastic shower cap, or slide into a plastic bag.
- Place the covered banneton into the fridge for your desired length of time.
- When ready to bake, simply preheat oven and dutch oven. Once the oven is preheated, you can bake the sourdough straight from the fridge.
How Long To Proof Sourdough In The Fridge
While there is a wide range of times that your sourdough can be proofed in the fridge and there is no right or wrong answer, keep your cold retard time frame within reason.
While a short 2-hour cold ferment will do nothing for the flavor, it can help if you have to pick up the kids from school while you should be baking!
A super long 84-hour cold retard is probably too long and will result in over-proofed bread that lacks energy for decent oven spring.
I find the sweet spot for me and my starter is 24-48 hours.
This might take some trial and error to nail it down to your liking, but I'd start with 18-24 hours!
My Preferences For Proofing In The Fridge
For this post, I made 2 identical batches of sourdough using my small loaf sourdough recipe at the same time, everything was done exactly the same, except the proofing time.
My findings may surprise you, but my favourite fridge proofing time, for my starter, is 48 hours. The loaf with the large air pockets was proofed for 24 hours in the fridge and the loaf with the smaller pockets was proofed 48 hours - its crumb was a lot more open than the photos show, it was likely just cut in the worst spot!
In the photo below, the crumb is actually slightly underdeveloped in the loaf with the large air pockets. This was apparent in the texture as well. The longer fermented bread was lighter and airier, in addition to having a more pleasing mildly sour taste, while the 24-hour cold fermented loaf lacked depth and complexity in the flavor.
The 48-hour bread also had a better oven spring and bloomed more at the score, this is apparent in the overhead photos below.
Heck yes! Sourdough is a super adaptable recipe, and I made it for over a year without a banneton. Here's a list of banneton alternatives.
You're totally able to proof at room temperature, it just occurs quickly, between 1 and 3 hours, usually, so be prepared to bake shortly after the final shaping.
A cold retard is simply the act of proofing your sourdough bread at cold temperatures (around 34f). Because the low temperature slows the yeast activity in the dough, it is called retarding. Cold fermenting and cold retarding are two different names for the same process.
The slowed fermentation rate is why I recommend storing your sourdough starter in the fridge if you're an infrequent baker!
Absolutely! Please cover your dough. Use a dedicated shower cap or even a recycled bread bag! The fridge can be a very drying place, due to the forced air inside to keep the temperature constant, this will dry out your bread and affect its oven spring and potentially ruin that irresistible crust!
As soon as you've finished shaping the dough and placing it into its banneton or rising bowl, cover it up, and chuck it in the fridge! The longer the dough is left at room temperature, the longer the yeast has to consume the flour and the more likely that the dough will over-proof.
So pop it into the fridge as soon as the final shape is done!
It will not!
But don't be fooled, that doesn't mean that it won't puff up during baking. The cold temperature of the fridge slows down the yeast so the bacteria in the bread have time to work and create sour flavors while the gluten develops. Your bread will still rise beautifully and have a great oven spring because the yeast hasn't consumed all the available food, they'll reactivate during the baking process.
What Are You Waiting For?!
If you haven't been proofing your sourdough in the fridge, I hope this has empowered you to try it!
And if you have, I'd love to hear your timing sweet spot in the comments below!