Is it OK to put Risen Dough in a Refrigerator?

A few years back on Thanksgiving, I overheard my wife, Carrie, and my mom in the kitchen trying to decide if they should put dinner rolls that were in danger of over-proofing in the fridge. After much discussion, and my mom’s prompting (sorry mom) they decided not to put the rolls in the fridge over concerns that the dough might sink. But it left me wanting to do some digging and get to the bottom of the debate.

So what did I find out? Can you put risen dough in a refrigerator? Yes, risen dough CAN be placed in a refrigerator. Putting risen dough in the fridge is a common practice of home and professional bakers alike. Since yeast is more active when it’s warm, putting yeasted dough in a refrigerator or chilling it slows the yeast’s activity, which causes dough to rise at a slower rate. However, it will not cause the dough to reverse the rise that has already taken place. The yeast is still alive. It’s just moving at a less rapid rate.

If you’d like a bit more info to build up your confidence that you will not be hurting the dough by putting it in the fridge, dive deeper with me on this one.

Refrigerated Dough is Often Better

Not only will refrigerated dough be safe from ruin, many bakers swear that allowing dough to proof completely in the fridge produces a superior bake. Cook’s Illustrated tested warm, room, and cold temperature proofing, and confirmed that the loaf of bread that proofed in refrigeration was superior, in nearly every way, over the warm and room temperatures. With so many recipes calling for a warm rise, it is a bit surprising to learn that the loaf proofed at a warmer temperature ended up with the least desirable results.

Some better attributes accredited to breads with refrigerated proofs include a better color crust, a chewier crumb, and a more developed flavor. Many bakers also suggest that refrigerated proofs are easier to work with. Which can be handy when trying to carve a decorative design into the dough or just for transfering to a baking dish.

The cooler temperature is said to cause the yeast to react differently than at warmer temperatures, which can actually cause a different amount of gas to be released and a different type of sugar processing to take place. That certainly plays a factor, but the biggest factor by far is extra time. More time equals more flavor and structure.

But What if you Just Need to Stop Dough From Over-Proofing?

Unfortunately, sometimes things go awry during proofing. Perhaps the rise time was much shorter than we thought it would be, and we need to run out of the house for a bit. Or maybe the Thanksgiving turkey is taking longer to roast than we planned for (the scenario that prompted this post). The rolls are ready to bake, and there’s no room in the oven. Whatever the situation, sometimes we just can’t get our dough in the oven at the optimal time and we have to try to save our dough from over-proofing. I mean, we likely spent hours babying this thing, the last thing we want to do is crash and burn at the last second.

As I said, when it looks like you’re not going to get the dough in the oven in time, the fridge will do no harm and will certainly slow things down. BUT, here’s the thing to keep in mind; it might not actually keep it from over-proofing (this is the “possibly” I mentioned earlier). The temperature of the dough, the amount of dough, the amount of time it has already been proofing, and the amount of time you wait to bake it are all factors that determine whether the yeast will slow down its work quickly enough to prevent over-proofing. For example, dough that is warm and/or large in volume will take longer to chill. So it will continue to rise at the same rate for a longer amount of time. Also, dough that has been proofing for a while and is then left in the fridge for several hours could over-proof. Remember that chilling the dough doesn’t stop the rising process; it just slows it down.

For your best chance of avoiding over-proofing in such an event, get your dough in the fridge as soon as you think there might be a delay in bake time, and you should be just fine. And, if you find yourself in a proofing emergency, go ahead and put your practically-over-proofed dough in the fridge. It won’t hurt it, and at the very least, you’ll minimize how over-proofed it is.

Next time around, just plan for the fridge from the beginning especially for those special events in which oven space is hard to come by, or if you have a set time for dinner. Use less yeast and go ahead and cold-proof your dough allowing for at least 8 hours of fridge time. You can go upwards of 18 hours if all goes to plan before ever being concerned about over proofing. That way you can leave it in the fridge until the oven is free. If it looks as though the dough isn’t going to be fully proofed when you need it, you can always put it in a warm place to speed this final rise up. It will take longer this way, but you’ll have a much larger window in which to bake the bread before it’s over-proofed. However, if all goes according to plan, just bake the dough straight from the fridge, no need to bring to room temp.

But What if my Dough is ALREADY Overproofed?

Unfortunately, if your dough is already over-proofed before you can get it in the oven, putting it in the fridge won’t do much good. Again, chilling dough doesn’t reverse the rising process. So if your dough has gone beyond over-proofed, another tip is to punch it down and re-shape. Then let it proof a final time before baking. It’s your best option for rescuing it.

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