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Whether you’re looking to develop flavor, work around a tricky schedule, or realize you were supposed to pick up a friend from the airport halfway through a bread recipe, the ability to let your dough rise in the fridge is a tempting solution, and luckily happens to be quite practical, too. In lieu of a typical 1- to 3-hour rise at room temperature, you'd opt for a long (8- to 12-hour) rise in the refrigerator. This slow refrigerated rise is referred to as "cold fermentation" and has many benefits ranging from flexibility to flavor.

You can incorporate this chilly technique into just about any bread recipe. To guide you toward the best results, I reached out to Clara Krueger, a member of the King Arthur Baker’s Hotline who’s well-versed in bread baking.

When can I refrigerate my dough?  

Most bread recipes have two rises, a first rise (also called bulk fermentation), and a second or final rise. You can chill your dough during either the first or second rise. Your yeast won’t give you much love if it’s asked to do both rises in the fridge, so it’s best to do one or the other at room temperature.

Vermont Sourdough Raymond Prado
One of Clara's favorite recipes to make with a cold ferment is Vermont Sourdough.

If opting for a cold first rise ... 

For ease of storage, using the fridge for the first rise is best if you're working with large quantities of dough. Few people have room to store a giant pan of focaccia among their milk, eggs, and leftovers. Instead, it’s easier to chill the dough in a covered container and let the shaped focaccia rise on the counter.

Tips for successful first-rise refrigeration 
  • Let the dough rise for about 20 to 30 minutes on the counter before sticking it in the fridge,” says Clara. “This lets the yeast get going before we chill everything down.” This time can vary based on your recipe and environment, so use your judgment if your recipe is high in yeast or it’s a warm day — you may not need that 20- to 30-minute wait.  

  • Remember, your dough is going to grow. “Put your dough in a covered container with plenty of room. You want the unrisen dough to fill the container about 1/3 of the way so you don’t end up with a dough volcano in your fridge.” As a victim of a full-on doughy Mt. Vesuvius myself, trust me, you want to remember that one!   

  • Make sure your dough doesn’t lose its moisture. “You want the dough to be covered so it doesn’t dry out on the surface,” says Clara. A hard crust can prevent dough from rising to its full potential. “Dough Rising Buckets are great for single loaves and small batches, but my personal favorite [for double batches] is our 6-Quart Food Storage Container. ” Avoid covering your dough with breathable materials like linen. Instead, use lids or wraps that keep moisture in.

Covered bowl half full of bread dough Mark Weinberg
Give that dough plenty of room, and make sure it has an airtight cover to keep it from losing moisture.
Shaping bread loaves after first-rise refrigeration  

After a cold bulk fermentation, allow your dough to regain some warmth on the counter for 40 to 60 minutes and become slightly puffy before shaping it. You can help the process along by stretching and folding the dough. For a visual of the folding process, check out our blog post on bulk fermentation.

Rolls are a little less high-maintenance. You can start shaping the dough straight out of the fridge. The warmth of your hands and motion of shaping will heat up the smaller pieces of dough fairly quickly, so there’s no need to perform folds or wait for the dough to come to room temperature on its own.

If opting for a cold second rise ... 

For ease of handling and scheduling convenience, many bakers purposefully adjust bread recipes to have their second rise in the fridge. Clara shares: “I make a lot of crusty hearth breads and sourdoughs. These benefit from an overnight fermentation (rise) in the refrigerator to score cleanly and make the bread recipe fit around my schedule.”

Baker scores two loaves of shaped bread dough Mark Weinberg
A touch of dryness from refrigerating uncovered free-form loaves helps with scoring. 
Tips for successful second-rise refrigeration  
  • Free-form artisan loaves may be chilled without a cover. Simply drape the edges of a floured linen over the top if you’re using one. “The loaf may dry out a bit on the surface, but a touch of dryness just makes it easier to handle. Though if you find that your fridge maintains very low humidity, you may still want to cover the loaf with plastic wrap or a pot lid,” says Clara.

  • Sandwich loaves can be refrigerated too! “Shape the dough and pop it into a greased loaf pan. Use a cover that won’t touch the dough itself but will keep the surface moist. A shower cap or bowl cover is perfect. In a pinch, you can lay greased plastic wrap over the dough’s surface.”

  • Be mindful of your dough’s temperature. “If your dough is above 80°F, the fridge may not be able to cool it down before the loaf overproofs,” Clara explains. “If you're planning on refrigerating your shaped dough, aim for a dough temperature between 75°F and 80°F.” Learn more in our blog on Desired Dough Temperature

Shaping bread loaves after a second-rise refrigeration  

The beauty of chilling shaped loaves is that it makes them very easy to handle. Artisan loaves will likely be bakeable right away. Simply turn them out of their floured brotform onto or into your chosen baking vessel, score, and bake.

Whether you’ve made a free-form or a pan loaf, trust your eyes to decide whether it’s ready to bake straight from the fridge or not. Clara says: “If your loaf doesn’t seem to have risen or puffed at all in the refrigerator, it may benefit from an hour on the counter before baking. This is a judgment call, and the more familiar you are with your recipe, the better you will be at reading your dough.”

Baker using one finger to press risen bread dough loaf Mark Weinberg
Don't be afraid to leave your dough at room temperature a little longer to make sure it fully rises ahead of baking. 

Refrigerating dough: Is it for you?  

Whether you refrigerate your dough during the first or second rise, there’s one thing you can count on: a boost in flavor. Fermentation creates organic acids that aid in strengthening your dough and lend MAJOR flavor. Don’t believe me? Try making two loaves of the same bread recipe. Bake one loaf right away and the other after an overnight rise. You’ll be amazed at how much more flavor the second loaf develops!

If you’re refrigerating dough to save time, think carefully about your schedule. If you’re in a rush today but have extra time tomorrow, a first-rise refrigeration will fit the bill. If you have time to spare today but only a small window to bake the next, go with a second-rise refrigeration so your loaf can go straight into the oven.

Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments below, and I’ll see you next month with more baking insights from the King Arthur Baker’s Hotline!  

Cover photo by Mark Weinberg.

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About Annabelle Shippee

Growing up in New Hampshire and Vermont, Annabelle Shippee was always involved in her mother’s baking adventures. Though she’d never turn down a bear claw, Annabelle’s favorite things to bake are the Christmas cookies she grew up making each year with her mom.  She received her degree in b...
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