Proofing Sourdough In The Fridge

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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.

Cold proofing is a powerful tool in your baker’s toolkit. This process is also known as cold retard – because it slows down the fermentation in your sourdough, this longer fermentation time allows for improved development of both crumb and taste.

Cold fermenting sourdough lends that irresistible blistered crust that sourdough aficionados love – as the moisture from the outer layer is evaporated or absorbed into the banneton.

Two plastic wrapped bannetons in a fridge.
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How To Proof Sourdough In The Fridge

  1. Follow the recipe as written until you get to the final shaping stage.
  2. Shape the dough as desired, in a boule or batard. Place the shaped loaf into a banneton or banneton alternative.
  3. Cover the proofing basket with a plastic shower cap, or slide into a plastic bag.
  4. Place the covered banneton into the fridge for your desired length of time.
  5. When ready to bake, simply preheat oven and dutch oven. Once the oven is preheated, you can bake the sourdough straight from the fridge.
Wrapped banneton with sourdough in the fridge.

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 and sourdough bakers sometimes refer to it as the second 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.

Sourdough proofing in a banneton.

Why Proof Sourdough In The Fridge

In most of my sourdough recipes, I give the option to prove the loaf 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 sourdough in the fridge, I always choose the fridge!

Proofing sourdough at cold temperatures is often called a cold retard, because it slows down fermentation process.

Two loaves of sourdough in a banneton.

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. Especially for new bakers.

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. I find my scoring lame also tends to stick to 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!

Scoring sourdough.

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.

Completing the second rise 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 cold proofing sourdough slows the yeast down, allowing gluten development to catch up to the gasses released making for better-leavened bread and crumb.

Sliced sourdough loaves.

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, a few things can determine the appropriate length of time for you.

Your Schedule

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.

But preparing 2-3 loaves and keeping them in the fridge to bake over the next 3 days is an awesome way to maximize your efforts.

Your Tastes

If you prefer a more sour loaf, stretch that bulk ferment time on the counter to the limits before placing completing a short second rise in the fridge. If you prefer a more flavorful loaf, keep the bulk ferment short and store it in the fridge for longer.

Your Recipe

The answer to this question also lies in the make up of your recipe and baking habits. Recipes with a higher quantity of starter likely need less time in the cold retard, likewise, recipes with a long bulk ferment at room temperature.

Recipes with a lower quantity of starter and a short bulk proof can be proved at cold temperatures for longer.

Blistered crust on sourdough loaf.

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.

Cross section of sourdough loaves to show crumb after proofing in fridge.

FAQ

I don’t have a banneton, can I still proof my sourdough in the fridge?

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.

Do I need to proof my sourdough in the fridge? Or can I do it at room temperature?

You’re totally able to proof at room temperature, it just occurs more quickly, so be prepared to bake within 1-3 hours after the final shaping.

What is cold retard or cold ferment? Are they the same?

A cold retard is simply the act of proofing your sourdough bread at cold temperatures (around 37f). 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!

Should I cover my dough during a cold ferment?

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!

When should I be putting my dough into the fridge for the cold retard?

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!

Will my sourdough double in size if it’s cold fermented?

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.

How long to take sourdough out of the fridge before baking?

You can bake the sourdough straight out of the fridge, and I generally do so. This keeps the dough more firm, easy to work with, and easier to score.

Sourdough loaves on a wooden board.

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.

Pin This Guide To Proofing Sourdough In The Fridge!

Why you should proof sourdough in the fridge pinterest graphic.

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41 Comments

  1. Thanks for the reminder that the shaped dough can hang out for longer in the fridge. I typically keep mine in from anywhere from 8-16 hours and it bakes up so well in the Dutch oven. I sometimes feel rushed if it’s been in the fridge for longer than that so I’m glad you did a 48 hour time frame. It’s always worth the wait. Sourdough is so much fun.

    1. It is so much fun! I’d definitely give it a try extending your cold ferment time. I often make up the dough Sunday and bake Monday/Tuesday but I’ve never saved a loaf to compare before this post, and I was really shocked by the results of the crumb when I put them side by side – the 48-hour loaf was by far the better-developed loaf. Play with it a bit, or do like I did and make 2, and have the only variable be cold ferment, it will help you nail down your starter’s best time frame.

  2. Hello, I have a question, late last night I decided to start a sourdough bread, I went as far as stretching and folding my dough, then realized I couldn’t stay up any longer so at 3 am I put the dough in the fridge, how long can I keep it in the fridge before I can resume working on my dough

    1. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, we were at the beach for the last week! In the future, if you run into a time crunch, you can always shorten your stretch and folds, or do 1 less cycle. Shape the loaf then pop it in the fridge.

      I’d avoid placing it in the fridge until shaped, as it would be very difficult to pick up where you left off with cold dough.

    2. @Italia Mirijello, so glad you asked this,as I literally just did what you did. How did your bread turn out? This is only my second loaf and I’m expecting nothing great, lol.

  3. Wrong! Do NOT cover your sourdough loaf with plastic of ANY kind before putting it into the fridge! Leave it uncovered in the banneton. Sourdough bread is a high hydration dough which will not “dry out”. Instead m it will develop a “skin” that goes into giving your loaf a beautiful, crisp crust.

    1. Hey Emma – that’s the cool thing about baking – there’s more than one method that works! I haven’t tried to leave them uncovered, but I might next time, but that said, the bags I use aren’t air-tight, and my loaves definitely develop a skin.

    2. @Emma,
      It is not wrong to cover your sourdough with plastic while in the fridge. Lots of people do it this way, and have been very successful.

  4. Hi! Can I proof shaped sourdough rye pumpernickel in a plastic bag covered banneton in the fridge?

  5. Thank you so much for this article!
    I’m having trouble with my bread not springing in the oven after I cold ferment. Some days I need extra time before I bake , and on those days- I put the shaped dough in the fridge for about 4 hours- then I let it rise on the counter for an hour or so before I put it in the oven. Each time I cold ferment- my bread always comes out super dense. Any thoughts about why? Could I be over proofing? Under proofing? Should it not sit on the counter after being in the fridge? Thanks!

    1. I would guess, and I don’t know without seeing the crumb, that it’s under-fermented. Either your starter was sluggish when you used it to make bread (guilty) or it was not proofed long enough, or a combination of both. As soon as you place that sourdough in the fridge and the dough is completely cooled, the fermentation slows considerably – that said, chilling it for 4 hours is unlikely to make a huge difference, and it probably takes at least that long for the bread to chill throughout.

      What is the process and timings you use for your bread making? Under fermentation can also be caused by too short of a bulk ferment during the stretch/fold/shape stages.

  6. Hi! Thanks for this. What I do is stretch and folds and then I let it proof for 4-6 hours in the same bowl. I find that gives it amazing sour flavor. Then I shape and let it sit for a just a bit so I can zipper seal the loaves. Then I cover and put in the fridge usually for 12-18 hours depending on my day. They come out beautifully. I once let them puff in the banneton on the counter after shaping and when I baked them they were so flat. It was so long a room temp ferment.

  7. So I just want to make sure I’m understanding this correctly, you don’t proof at room temperature at all? You proof all in the fridge after you do the stretch and folds?

    1. Yes, that’s exactly right! You can proof it at room temp then toss in the fridge or inverse it and toss it in the fridge then bring it to room temp before baking if you like? It takes a long time for the dough to fully chill and it continues to proof while warm in the fridge for a couple of hours I’m sure.

  8. My loaves are always smaller following cold retard for 24 hours, and they take longer to bake.
    Normally I bake at 490F for 15 minutes with the lid on my dutch oven and 19-22 minutes at 470F with the lid off for dough that proofs on the counter for 4-6 hours.
    Using a thermometer the the cold retard bread is never finished in this time frame, requiring 5-10 minutes longer with the lid off at 470F.
    thoughts

    1. Interesting! My baking process is slightly different, and may benefit your cold retard process – I bake at 450f covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered for 5-10 depending on crust color. This might allow a bit longer for the chilled dough to expand and add oven spring!

  9. Sooooooo, from the fridge to the oven ? You don’t let it warm up ? I have been leaving it in the fridge , but have let it warm up then I bake .

    1. I bake straight out of the fridge all the time! You can certainly leave it on the counter for a couple of hours to warm up, but I have never found that necessary

  10. Hi, I have been cold fermenting with my bannetons covered tightly with a plastic bag. When I pull them out just before baking in my outdoor wood fired oven, they are soaking wet and very sticky on the top. I have to flip them over on my peel to slide into the wood oven, and they stick to the peel and the only way I can get them off the peel mangles them and they flatten out and look like a flat blob that doesn’t rise. I’ve tried semolina powder on my peel, taking the bag off 30 – 60 minutes before baking and leaving in the fridge to dry it off. My best (so far) solution is to toss more bread flour on the loaves until they are “drier” before flipping onto the peel (and still use a ton of semolina). But often they still stick to the peel. On the rare occaisons that I bake in my electric oven using dutch ovens, I can flip the “wet” loaves onto bakers parchment and then hand lower the parchment into the dutch ovens and everything works great. Thanks for any suggestions!

    1. @Paul Maynard, I had this same problem. Turns out my dough was too wet from the start. I was using a simple recipe of 4oz starter, 12 Oz warm filtered water, 20 Oz unbleached bread flour and .875 Oz sea salt. I jacked up the flour ratio to 23 Oz and the salt to 1 Oz and my dough has been perfectly manageable and consistent every time.

    2. @Joe T, I’m glad to read your post … mine are always sweaty, too, so I’ve been baking in loaf pans. I may tinker with the ratios a bit next time!!

    3. @Paul Maynard,
      I would just do the same in the wood fired and put parchment paper on the peel and slide both onto the oven floor.

  11. I’m a total newborn at baking sourdough bread. After reading all of you advice, suggestions and knowledge, I feel confident my 4 loaf will turn out pretty good. I live at high altitude and those recipes just failed (probably me). So I went for a regular recipe, which is cold proofing now, seems to have done much better. I’ll be sure to share pics once I bake tomorrow. Again thank you for all your help.
    Always Baby Steps
    Sherry

    1. Sourdough is a total learning curve. You’re going to fail along the way- most of the failures are edible, so its not so bad- but I can totally relate. As with anything, take your time, enjoy the process, and it will come <3

  12. So I tried this method! New to the sourdough world, but for my 3rd attempt it has definitely turned out the best. The previous 2 were very dense. The only issue I found with this loaf, it did not get as brown on top and had 1(only 1) large whole(or bubble). Not sure why, but so so good. Do you think anytime frame in the refrigerator will yield the same results? 48 hours was sooo long. But definitely worth the wait!

    1. Annie, I’m curious what recipe you’re using and how the bulk fermentation looks for you. I think, if your dough is really dense, it needs more time at room temperature in between the stretch and folds, or higher bulk fermentation temperatures. The fridge adds a little airiness to you’re dough, but I find it develops more flavor than volume.

  13. Hi! I have moved into a new place and my sourdough isn’t rising in the oven like it used to at my old home. I still live in the same city, but the season is different. I’ve only been making sourdough for 6 months, so I’m still learning. It is now peak temperatures for the summer time where I live and instead of taking 3 days to make sourdough it only takes 1.5 days. I let my bread proof in the fridge overnight. Would potentially leaving it in the fridge longer help it rise better in the oven?

    1. Hey Syd, sourdough is a learning curve isn’t it! Once you think you got it figured something else changes! Ha! If your temperatures are really warm, absolutely keeping the dough colder would allow you to impart more flavor and gluten development.

      Another small step you can take is to make your bread with cooler water instead of warm. The bulk ferment can last a bit longer that way as it comes to room temp.

  14. I have tried cold fermenting my sourdough bread, but the loaves appear smaller once baked.
    Technique: Immediately after I shape the dough I place the dough in their bannetons, cover them, and put them in the fridge (37F) for 24-48 hours.
    I remove them once the oven is at 490F (the dutch ovens( lids on) are preheated in the oven) and cook them for 15 minutes then remove the dutch oven lids, lower the temperature to 470F and cook for an additional 22 minutes. should I be trying a different cooking technique?

    1. Hey Michael, it may depend on the recipe you’re using and the percentage of starter. If you want to try proving the dough in the banneton for a couple or three hours after shaping and then refrigerating that might help you get a little more rise! You can also experiment with longer cold retard times, I push it and experiment a lot. If a recipe has a low starter percentage I may even leave it in there for 5 days LOL!

  15. Thank you! Plans changed and I won’t be able to bake the bread tomorrow that I already started this evening. Thanks to your post, I now know it will be fine in the fridge until I can bake it the day after tomorrow. Whew!

    1. Love it! Baking sourdough is simultaneously so inflexible but also so flexible. haha. I appreciate using the fridge to really fine tune my baking to fit my busy schedule better, I’m sure you’ll love it too!

    1. It depends. Which is the worst answer, I know.

      It depends on the recipe you’re using – some call for a long proof in a banneton because they have low proportions of starter, others call for a shorter proof because of higher starter percentages. Some days your dough seems to develop more quickly and needs a shorter proof, other days, a longer proof is ok. It also depends a bit on how long you want to leave it in the fridge – longer room temp proof usually results in a shorter fridge proof, but I personally like a long cold retard – so I tend to shorten the room temp proof and stretch out the cold retard.

      I kind of judge my room temp proof on the dough – it’s usually 1-2 hours. I’ve done as few as 0 hours and as many as 4. I look for the dough to grow a bit and look lighter, but I don’t want it anywhere near fully prooved because the dough takes a while to fully cool down in the fridge right into the center and it will continue to prove during that time.

      All that to say, my sweet spot with most of my recipes is 1-2 hours on the counter and then 2-3 days in the fridge. Hope that helps.