Using your fridge to retard dough
Think about your fridge cooling rate, not just the temp.
Bakers don’t often seem to talk about cooling rate when cold proving, we hear about the fridge temp and we talk about time, but for me the rate that the fridge cools is really important. Maybe as important as the final temperature of the fridge.
If we’re loading the fridge full of dough, that can be well over 300kg of stuff if you take into account the racks and trays we use. Cooling all that stuff down to somewhere between 2 and 4 degrees takes time. If you’re putting two loaves into your domestic fridge, it doesn’t take as long, in fact probably a lot less time. This “cooling time” for dough is the most important thing to consider.
Once the dough gets to a low enough temperature, most fermentation will reduce to a significantly low level. What a baker is doing when putting dough into a fridge/retarder set between 2 and 4 degrees is using the cooling time, what ever that may be say a couple of hours, to prove the dough to the right level, then once it reaches a low enough temp, holding that dough until they wish to bake it. So if something is cold proved for 18 hours, it will be the first couple of hours that is most important in that proving process. We can load our fridge with dough, and successfully baked it anywhere between 7 and 20 hours later, I’ve in the past left dough for over 40 hours and it’s baked OK.
Knowing your fridge and your dough means you can control proving much better, so in summer we mix dough 2 degrees cooler, as when the dough hits the fridge it will still take the same cooling time. In winter, when the room temp is much colder and the fridge has an easier time of cooling, we mix the dough at 28 degrees and may even leave the dough out to prove for 30 mins to an hour once shaped before fridging it.
What this means for a home baker is that your fridge, because you’re only putting a relatively small amount of dough into it, may cool too quickly in which case some time proving before going into the fridge may be necessary. Or even proving after is comes out of the fridge.
Think of the fridge as how quickly it cools dough, not just the temp the dough will get to. Also, practice a lot, bake lots of bread all the time, its still the best way to get better results.