If you’ve made a batch of bread dough and don’t feel like baking it today (or all of it), you might consider storing it in the fridge until you’re ready. But is chilling bread a good idea, and does dough go bad in the fridge? Let’s find out!
Dough can be kept in the fridge before baking for up to 7 days. After a couple of days the dough will begin to deteriorate in quality, so use it within 3-5 days for best results. To store dough in the fridge, all you need to do is put it in an airtight container or bowl covered with plastic wrap to reduce airflow.
If you plan to store your dough in the fridge for more than a day, place it in the fridge at the earliest opportunity. If you’ll be using it the following day an advanced baker may want to leave it out on the counter to ferment for a couple of hours first, but if you’re relatively new to baking, be safe and put it in the refrigerator right away.
As your dough chills it will continue rising, so make sure the bowls are big enough encase it doubles in size.
In refrigeration (below 4C), yeast is pretty much inactive. This means that gas production is very much slowed. Some enzymes will continue to operate as well as the hydrolysis of the starch in the flour to create simple sugars and soften the texture of the dough. Gluten will also have more time to soak up water, unravel from its coiled existence, and re-bond in an enhanced network.
Dough that has been left in the fridge for several hours benefits from:
However, if the dough has already been well-kneaded to peak condition, extra time in the fridge can begin to deteriorate the gluten.
It takes time for the core of the dough to acclimate to the temperature of the refrigerator, 12 hours is typical. During this time expect gas to be produced and the dough to continue to rise.
As dough is left in the fridge for days, fermentation will continue, albeit at a much slower rate than if it was warm. This means that by day 3 or 4 the dough will have built up a lot of acid bacteria and ethanol. After baking your bread can smell of alcohol or be acidic, which, by days 5, 6 and 7 will intensify, potentially making these smells and tastes overpower those desired in bread.
In many cases, the dough won’t reach this point within a week, but if the dough was more mature when it goes into the fridge, overripe flavours will appear. The reason for this is where prefermented dough in the shape of a biga, poolish or sourdough are used, or the dough was left to ferment in warmer temperatures for several hours before putting it in the refrigerator.
Dough can’t stay in the fridge forever, it will deteriorate to the point where the quality of the loaf is affected, or even pushed so far that it won’t be safe to eat. So it’s best to regularly check the condition of your dough to check it’s still ok. Here’s what to look for:
Even though the yeast is cold it does continue to operate at a very low level. Gas production is especially noticeable if the dough was warm when it went into the refrigerator, but after a day or two, you’ll notice it has risen. If it’s just doubled in size the quality of the bread you can make from it will begin to drop. If the outside layer of the dough is especially thin and the dough is overly gassy throughout, you might be best using it to make a pizza or focaccia.
If the dough is weak and wants to flop around, the gluten has probably been weakened from over-fermenting. If you make sourdough bread, you might be familiar with what this looks like if you’ve ever made a loaf when your starter is not ripe.
If you’ve not covered the container tightly, or you did and the gas released by the dough blew the lid off, the dough will dry out. Moisture is carried away from the outer areas of the dough leaving it dry and hard. If it’s only slightly dry this can often be fixed by dampening the surface with a wet cloth or spray. But if the dough has been left for several days the surface can become so hard that it has to be peeled off and thrown away.
Grey spots or patches on the surface of the dough can be due to the surface of the dough being oxidised. This is where the dough is not well covered and air is drying out the surface. It’s pretty common for this to occur and it doesn’t mean you have to ditch your dough. After a gentle massage when shaping, the grey normally goes away.
To try and prevent this from happening you should use a bowl that’s not too big with a secure lid, or lightly oil the surface of the dough and lay plastic wrap on top.
If your dough contains butter it is likely to be speckly, this is normal, no need to do anything.
If mould appears in your chilled dough, just throw it away. Mould appears when fungal spores multiply through your bread, if you can see some there is likely to be plenty that you can’t! Ditch the batch and start a fresh one.
If the dough smells especially acidic or even rancid, you may be best not to eat it! If it’s rancid something in the dough has gone off so just throw it out. If it smells very acidic or alcoholic the aromas are likely to remain in the bread after baking, and might not make the nicest bread. You may want to incorporate the dough in a fresh batch of bread dough. The added maturity of the dough will enhance it, whilst diluting the aged dough with fresh flour will mellow its overpowering flavours.
Flour, water, salt and yeast won’t turn rancid if chilled for 7 days. In fact, they’ll last a lot longer than that without going off. If you add shorter-life ingredients such as eggs, your dough can go off faster. If you are making dough with short-life ingredients such as eggs, milk or fruits it is unlikely to keep all that long, even in the refrigerator. Try to use these doughs within 3 days,
Salt draws moisture and slows down the activity of bacteria and fungi. It means that yeast activity is slowed with the inclusion of salt, but so is the chance that harmful bacteria and mould will multiply. The amount of salt bakers use is typically between 1.8% and 2% of the total flour weight. So for example, 18 to 20 grams of salt where 1000 grams of flour is used.
Poor sanitation conditions will introduce unwanted bacteria into your dough that can make your dough go off soon than you’d expect! To prevent this from happening, always clean your hands, baking area and equipment before you begin baking. Also, keep your fridge clean and sanitised on a regular basis, the rest of your food items will thank you too!
Another tip to prevent dough from going bad in the fridge is to keep the dough cool before it goes into the fridge, and not to use too much yeast. Warmth and too much yeast accelerate gas production and can lead to the dough over-fermenting and degrading in a matter of hours, not days. I experienced this problem myself only last week when I forgot to convert a recipe using fresh yeast to instant yeast and added 3 times as much as I needed and the dough exploded in the fridge! You can see typical yeast amounts and a conversion table in my best yeast guide.
Here are the three things you can do with dough that has deteriorated in the fridge:
If your dough has turned mouldy or smells rancid, just throw it away, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling it. There is no need to take the risk of making yourself ill. Go back through the points mentioned previously to understand why it went off earlier than you hoped.
Providing it hasn’t turned rancid, you can use old dough in fresh dough batches. The old dough acts as a preferment called pâte fermentée, which is essentially a bit of old dough. Add 10-20% of old dough to the flour weight of the fresh batch, so 100-200 grams of old dough can be used where 1000 grams of flour are used. It is possible to use more or less, just be careful if using more to avoid weakening the properties of the fresh batch of dough.
A dough that uses prefermented dough will be more mature and so provides superior taste and texture when baked on day one or two, however it won’t keep well in the days afterwards.
If it’s just that the gluten in the dough was weakened, you can simply place it in an oven-proof tray lined with olive oil and make focaccia with it. You might also like to tear the dough into small pieces, stretch them out and make some rustic flatbreads.
If your oven is busy, putting risen dough in the refrigerator is a great solution to prevent over-proofing as yeast slows its rate of gas production at cooler temperatures. However it will only work for an hour or two as rising is slowed, not halted so continues to rise during this time and can still over-proof.
If dough has been left in the fridge for several days despite it being healthy it might be quite gassy. In this case, it would be wrong to push out too much gas when you go to shape it, so be gentle when shaping your dough to keep the gas in. This would typically shorten the length of the final rise, but as the dough will be cool when it’s just come from the fridge, proofing time won’t be all that short.
Temperature is an important factor in making bread. Many experienced bakers think of temperature as a “secret” ingredient in their recipes. Chilling the dough means you can bake it the next day, the following day, and even the day after. And it could taste better each day, but depending on the dough, and if you leave it for longer also deteriorates. If you want to delay baking for several days you might be better off storing your dough in the freezer. Freezing dough removes the increase in acidity and the destruction of the gluten, so it’s worth considering. Let me know what you decide to do in the comments below