Why You Should Proof Bread in the Refrigerator

Dough proofing in the refrigerator.

Most bread recipes have five steps: mixing, bulk fermentation, shaping, proofing and finally baking. Bulk fermentation is the first rise of the dough. The second rise, or “proofing” is what I will address in this post. And there’s a secret . . .

levain loaf

Proofing takes place after the dough has been shaped. I use either a canvas lined bowl or a wooden banneton to hold my dough during proofing. While the bulk fermentation takes place at room temperature, I almost always proof my bread in the refrigerator. Why?

  • Proofing bread in the fridge slows down the fermentation. Most of my breads are made with a sourdough starter (levain is a better word). A long proofing stage allows the acid producing bacteria in the levain to create a more developed tangy flavor than you would get if the bread just proofed for a few hours at room temperature.
  • Slowing down fermentation in the fridge gives you much more flexibility as to when you can bake your bread. You have to go to work, right? Who has time for a seven hour recipe? Mix the dough when you get home from work. Let the bulk fermentation happen while you watch Netflix. Shape, put the loaf in the fridge and bake the bread when you get home from work the next day. Fresh baked bread for dinner!
  • A long slow proofing may give the beneficial culture in a sourdough culture more time to pre-digest the flour. Researchers are looking at the possibility that sourdough cultures and long fermentation times may alleviate wheat allergies. There’s no solid proof of this but it makes intuitive sense to me.
  • Loaves proofed in the fridge hold their shape better when baked.

Proofing in the fridge slows down but does not entirely stop fermentation. With the breads I make I’ve found that between 12 and 24 hours in the fridge is about right. Longer and you risk over-fermentation and having dough stick to the proofing basket/banneton.

And note that you don’t have to let dough proofed in the fridge come to room temperature. My dough goes straight from the refrigerator into the oven.

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  1. I like to proof my sourdough pizza dough in the fridge, interestingly I like to proof the whole bowl (2#) at room temperature for a few hours and then put it in the fridge for at least 12 hours or as much as 24 hours, then I take it out, portion them into 8 oz dough balls and let them proof for a couple of more hours covered on a floured tray at room temperature, the dough is hand stretched and pizzas are devoured! (Cooked in a wood fired oven of course!)

  2. I am quite new to successful whole wheat sourdough—which means I don’t entirely understand why it is working, or what I can do to improve it.

    Andrew Whitely first turned me on to how sourdough bread can often be eaten by people with gluten sensitivity—which was recently supported: Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods – Health – CBC News

    So, I was proofing in the fridge for better sourdough activity, but then I had a good loaf that I made all in one day. Since then I have not been refrigerating, though I would like to work it back in.

    Critical for me was finding good wheat. I now have a 10 kilo sack of local Red Fife wheat to grind fresh as I need it.

    I think I didn’t understand the importance of proper timing on the starter. Tartine Bread stresses proper timing, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. After all, the yeast bugs are in the starter whether it is fresh or old. But, using starter that has proofed at room temperature for a few hours or overnight may be part of the recent improvement.

    And then I started really trying to work on developing a gluten sheath for the last hour of my rising. Maybe that is important? I don’t know how to tell what is enough or how to develop the sheath better.

    So, any teachings on the starter or the gluten sheath would be very appreciated.

    Also, the internet seems roughly divided on whether you should treat high-hydration dough roughly or gently. Thoughts?

    And lastly, I bought this stainless straight razor on eBay for three bucks. I keep forgetting to take the blade out of my razor before I dump the dough in the hot pan.

    • Hey Ruben,
      That’s a nice looking whole wheat loaf! The timing that’s worked best for me is to feed my starter (which is always kept at room temperature unless I’m on vacation) around 8 to 12 hours before I use it. I also feed my starter everyday which is important.

      As to gluten sheath (thanks for the new vocabulary!), it’s something I struggle with. Still working on my technique.

      I believe in treating all doughs gently. You do have to be confident in your handling–something else I’m working on. Working with practice dough can help–mix up some stale flour and water and practice.

      And the razor–good tip. By the way, some bakeries send their loaves through a metal detector for this very reason. Agreed on finding good wheat too–I don’t think most people realize that there is more to flour than what you find in the supermarket.

    • The first minute of this video shows roughly what I do for the gluten sheath.

      ▶ Tartine Shaping – YouTube

      I fold my dough five or six times–every 30 minutes. Then I do this thing in the video, folding the edges into the middle, in kind of a pinwheel around the ball. Unlike him, I turn the dough back over, and let it sit on the board, covered with a cloth. 30 minutes later, I turn it back over and repeat, and sometimes I repeat it again. Then I put it top side down into a floured cloth in a bowl and let it rise.

      About two minutes into the video he talks about the need for lots of surface tension, and shows how he does it. I have seen that technique in other videos and I should give it a try.

    • Breadtopia is an awesome site with videos. Don’t be afraid of bread making! It’s so much fun and really easier than you’re probably thinking. And what’s the worst you can do except make an unsuccessful loaf? It’s just bread; flour, water and time. You learn from your mistakes and improve on the second loaf and so on and so on :) Good luck!

  3. I have only baked bread a few times but have enjoyed it and am interested in learning more. Would this work with a dough not started from a sourdough starter?

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  6. I have either a non celiac gluten sensitivity or have Celiac Diesease (haven’t done the biopsy) , none of these are allergies. Sourdough is the only bread I can eat, if bulk proofed and proofed for at least 24 hours total. I am not the only one who benefits from long proofed sourdough who have a severe gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease.
    It’s the Lactobacillus that feeds on the gluten, leaving very small, more digestible pieces behind. Sourdough bread made from a starter of flour and water, can contain less than 2% gluten in one loaf, if bulk proofed and proofed long enough. The 2% figure is found on true sourdough breads sold in box stores, whether the 2% is true or not, I
    KNOW I can digest sourdough bread, and damn, if I didn’t have this condition, I wouldn’t have learned about Sourdough bread. I’m in heaven!

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