The Overnight Ferment Method

Week Twenty-Six: Same Dough, Different Method


Today’s method variation involves a long, slow, cold ferment of the dough.  Maybe you think that sounds like we’re doing something ugly to the dough, turning it into dough sauerkraut, or something; but the term “ferment” is one of the 12 basic steps in yeast bread making (explained here).  In layman’s terms, it’s the first rise, or the resting period after you knead  the dough and before you shape it.

Technically speaking, fermentation is the process of carbohydrates converting to alcohol and/or acid, by the action of a microorganism.  In bread dough, the yeast is the initiator of this activity, and acts on the flour and any sugar present, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide (and a few important acids too, for good measure).  And since we’re getting technical here, the processes going on in the dough at this point are the same as when you make yogurt, kimchi, beer, wine, cheese, and yes, sauerkraut.  So the idea of “dough sauerkraut” isn’t actually that outlandish (except that the two foods are completely different)!  Interesting side note: the study of fermentation is called zymurgy, and there is a beer homebrewing magazine called Zymurgy.  Neat!

But in breadmaking, other important things occur during fermentation.  For one, the gluten you’ve just formed in kneading starts to relax, while at the same time continuing to form.  How does that happen – relaxing and forming?  Well, gluten is like a really uptight rubber band.  Be rough with it (i.e, knead it), and it gets all tense and persnickity, and toughens up.  But if you leave it alone, it calms down and relaxes.  Remember what’s happening right now, though: the yeast is producing gases.  The network of gluten traps those gases, and slowly gets stretched – like a rubber band.  That’s why you need gluten in your bread; without it, those gases would just escape.

Another important thing that happens during fermentation deals with those aforementioned acids that the yeast gives off, lactic and acetic acids, most importantly.  Those two are important dough conditioners, or things that make your bread taste better and keep longer.  The longer the fermentation, the more time the acids have to act on the dough.  Therefore, many experts have determined that for the best possible bread, a long and slow fermentation is best.  This often means using less yeast (which will take a longer time to rise the dough), but it can also mean lowering the temperature at which the dough is fermented (which slows the yeast activity, preventing an over-risen dough).

My experiment for today was to see what would happen to the texture and flavor of the bread when fermented overnight in the refrigerator.  It’s a trick I use fairly often; for example, when I’ve started a bread, and suddenly need to run an errand, or plans change, or any number of similar changes to the schedule.  And to the best of my knowledge, the bread has not suffered as a result; it always seems to end up okay.  But I’ve never actually done a side-by-side comparison to see if I’m just fooling myself, so now’s the time!

I did deviate from the standard straight-dough method in one other way than only the refrigerated fermentation: I used an autolyse for this bread as well.  Ideally, I guess I shouldn’t have, but somebody’s going to eat this bread, and I’d rather it taste as good as possible.  I know for a fact that an autolyse period makes a better bread; why wouldn’t I use it here?

To critique, the finished loaf looked suspiciously like the previous two loaves: a pretty golden brown crust that crackled and broke into tiny shards when cut, soft airy interior, evenly-spaced holes, blah, blah, blah.  And honestly, it tasted very much like the autolyse bread from yesterday.  I don’t know that there was a whole lot of difference between the two.  It’s still much better than the straight dough bread, I can say that much.  The complex depth of flavors from the autolyse were definitely there, and the texture was nearly identical.

So, to sum up, if you need the extra time, don’t be afraid to stick you bowl of just-kneaded dough in the fridge for any length of time, up to about a day.  As long as you let it come back to room temperature before shaping it, you should have no problems with it affecting taste or texture – and heck, it might even help, if you don’t use an autolyse period.  Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.*


The Overnight Ferment Method
Makes 1 big loaf

19 ounces (about 4 cups) unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast (see note 1 below)
1 1/2 cups hot water (115º to 130º F)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together all but a handful of the flour and all the yeast.  Add the water and mix with the dough hook at low speed until a rough dough forms, about 1 minute.  Turn the mixer off, and without removing the bowl or the hook, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap.  Let stand for at least 15 to 20 minutes, or up to 45 minutes.

2.  Remove the plastic wrap, and add the salt.  Continue kneading the dough, at medium-low speed.  Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough forms a cohesive ball that clears the sides of the bowl, and becomes elastic.  If the dough does not clear the sides of the bowl, add the reserved flour until the proper consistency is achieved.  The dough should not be stiff.

3.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few times, forming the dough into a round ball with a skin stretching over the outside.  Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, smooth side up.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for about 8 hours.

4.  Let the dough stand at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour before proceeding.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Gently deflate the dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Flatten the dough into a slight rectangle or oval shape.  Fold the two corners furthest away from you into the center of the dough, as though you were beginning to fold a paper airplane.  Starting with that point, roll the dough up into a cylinder, pressing gently to seal as you roll.  Press the final seam to seal.  Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet, seam-side down.  Tuck the ends under if desired, to make a more attractive loaf.  Cover loosely with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.  Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425º F, and place another baking sheet or oven-safe pan in the bottom of the oven.  If you have a baking stone, heat it with the oven.  If not, your baking sheet is fine.

5.  When fully risen, and using a sharp serrated knife or clean razor blade, make three decisive slashes in the top of the loaf at a 45º angle, evenly spaced.  Transfer the bread to the oven (or baking stone, if using).  Immediately throw 4 or 5 ice cubes into the hot pan on the oven floor.  Bake for 10 minutes, adding additional ice cubes as they melt.

6.  After 10 minutes, remove the ice-cube-pan from the oven, and bake the loaf for an additional 15 to 25 minutes, or until deeply golden brown.  Remove the bread to a wire rack to cool before slicing.


1.  If using active-dry yeast, your water should be a bit cooler, around 105º F to 115º F.  Instead of mixing the active-dry yeast into the flour, you should dissolve all of it in a little of the warm water, in the mixing bowl.  Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until foamy.  Add the flour and salt, and proceed as directed.


* – ‘Cause knowledge is power!

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6 Responses to The Overnight Ferment Method

  1. kimyo says:

    i followed this recipe carefully and was rewarded with the best crust, by far, of my bread-baking experience. the flavor was also quite good.

    i had to deflate the dough twice during the first four hours in the fridge, it more than doubled both times. is this expected? i’m going to try again but not leave it overnight this time.

  2. Andrea says:

    Considering these are supposed to be at least a somewhat scientific experiment on the different methods, you render it useless by not following the basic rules.

  3. Beth says:

    Andrea: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  4. Rocky says:

    Best bread I’ve ever made. The crust was perfect. Thanks!

  5. Willemina says:

    sounds to me you use to much yeast for an overnight ‘proof’…

  6. Beth says:

    Willemina: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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