Two pizza doughs, one fermenting in the fridge and the other at room temperature

Cold vs. Room Temperature Pizza Dough Fermentation: Which Method is Best?

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Cold fermentation or room temperature fermentation – which method makes the best pizza dough? In this article, we’ll explore each method, discussing their unique characteristics and impact on flavor and texture, their advantages and disadvantages, and ultimately guide you in choosing the ideal fermentation method for your pizza-making style

What is Room Temperature Fermentation

What Does “Room Temperature” Mean?

To answer this (excellent) question simply, the term “room temperature” refers to an abstract concept that encompasses the standard temperature range typically found indoors, which spans from 15C/60F to 30C/86F. When we refer to fermentation at “room temperature,” we are specifically talking about dough fermentation that occurs within this broad temperature range, or more specifically – any fermentation that takes place outside of refrigeration.

Room Temperature Fermentation: Key Concepts and Considerations

Room temperature fermentation is the oldest method of fermentation, which is logical, considering that in the past there were no refrigerators or ways to maintain dough at a consistently low temperature. Even today, many artisan bakeries conduct long fermentations of 6 hours or more at room temperature. In the context of pizza, the majority (and by “majority”, I mean over 90%) of pizzerias in Naples, considered by many as the world capital of pizza, ferment their dough at room temperature for a period of 8-24 hours.

In general, dough can ferment at room temperature as long as the temperature does not exceed 32°C/90°F, and yes – this includes long fermentation durations of 6-24 hours. Once the temperature reaches 32°C/90°F or higher, the gluten-forming proteins in the dough (flour) begin to degrade and lose their ability to form gluten bonds. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid exposing the dough or flour to temperatures higher than this.

The temperature at which the dough ferments greatly affects the activity of the yeast and the rate of fermentation, as well as other processes the dough undergoes during maturation.

Simply put, the higher the fermentation temperature, the more active the yeast, enzymes, and bacteria in the dough will be, leading to a faster fermentation and maturation process. In other words, dough fermented at room temperature will ferment and mature much faster compared to dough fermented in the fridge, resulting in a faster development of flavor.

An article discussing the superiority of room temperature fermentation over cold fermentation for flavor development will be published in the future. In brief, dough fermented at room temperature “matures” and develops flavors 4-8 times faster than dough fermented in the fridge, depending on the fermentation temperatures. Let’s consider two fermentation temperatures: 20°C/68°F, and 4°C/40°F (average temperature in a home fridge).

In the example above, each hour of fermentation at 20°C/68°F is equivalent to approximately 6 hours of fermentation at 4°C/40°F in terms of flavor development. In other words, fermenting dough at 4°C/40°F for 6 hours is equivalent to fermenting it at room temperature (20°C/68°F) for just one hour. Similarly, fermenting dough at 4°C/40°F for 48 hours is equivalent to fermenting it at room temperature for approximately 8 hours.To conclude, fermentation at room temperature allows flavors to develop more quickly compared to cold fermentation. Additionally, fermenting at room temperature also has a significant impact on the flavor profile and texture, which will be discussed in more detail later on.

Why Is Room Temperature Fermentation Not as Popular as Cold Fermentation?

..but if room temperature fermentation allows for faster flavor development and allegedly better flavor and texture, then why is it not the common fermentation method, and rather cold fermentation is the “standard” for most home bakers?

This is an excellent question that will be answered in detail later on. However, within the scope of this section, the “short” answer is divided into two:

Firstly, most people are not aware that long fermentation at room temperature is even possible, or they hold the mistaken belief that cold fermentation is better for flavor development in the dough.

Secondly, room temperature fermentation is more challenging compared to cold fermentation. It requires experience, skill, and precise adjustment of the amount of yeast to the fermentation conditions, specifically the duration and temperature of fermentation.

Why is room temperature fermentation more demanding? The answer is simple – the higher the fermentation temperature, the faster the fermentation and maturation processes occur in the dough. This leaves less room for error and necessitates greater precision in terms of yeast quantity, baking timing (according to the planned fermentation duration), and maintaining a constant and stable fermentation temperature. Any deviation in these factors can significantly impact the dough’s state (over-fermented or under-fermented), and consequently, the final product.

To illustrate this, think of driving – the faster you drive, the quicker you reach your destination, but it also requires more concentration and allows less room for error. If, for example, there is a pothole ahead, driving at a speed of 20 km/h or 10 mph gives you ample time to notice it from a distance and react accordingly. However, driving at 100 km/h or 60 mph reduces your reaction time, and without attentiveness and quick response, avoiding the pothole becomes challenging.

In the above analogy, fermenting at 20 km/h represents cold fermentation, while fermenting at 100 km/h represents room temperature fermentation. Neither speed is inherently “better” – it depends on your skill (baking experience), the conditions (equipment available), and the desired outcome (maximizing flavor development or ease of preparation?).

I personally prefer to do room temperature fermentations, typically lasting between 8 and 24 hours during the winter (around 20°C/68°F), and between 6 and 12 hours during the summer (around 28°C/82°F).

What is Cold Fermentation

The main principle behind cold fermentation is simple – placing the dough in the fridge to slow down its rate of fermentation. Cold fermentation is often referred to as “retardation,” indicating a delay in the fermentation process. In terms of temperature, cold fermentation refers to any temperature between 1-7°C/34-45°F.

Cold fermentation has become the most common method of fermenting dough among home bakers and beyond. This is mainly because it offers maximum convenience and a larger margin of error and usability window. With room temperature fermentation, even a slight deviation in the baking timing can lead to over-fermentation. However, with cold fermentation, we can extend the fermentation for many more hours, and sometimes even a day or two beyond the planned baking time.

Why is this possible? Well, with cold fermentation, everything simply occurs at a slower pace. As a result, the usability window widens, allowing for a greater margin of error (similar to the driving analogy mentioned above).

That’s about it. Apart from convenience, there is nothing particularly “special” about cold fermentation. Contrary to popular belief, it does not “create more flavors” in the dough (unless you compare a 72 hours cold fermented dough to one that ferments for an hour at room temperature. In that case, the dough that undergoes a longer fermentation in the fridge will obviously have more flavors). However, as we will see later, cold fermentation can result in a different flavor profile, which is not necessarily better or worse. But again, the main purpose of cold fermentation is convenience, not flavor enhancement.

Cold vs. Room Temperature Fermentation: Flavor and Texture

So, now that we understand the principles behind each fermentation method, let’s explore their differences in terms of flavor and texture.

Some terminology before we proceed:

Long fermentation at room temperature = fermentation for 6-8 hours or more (depending on the fermentation temperature).

Usability window = the specific time frame during which the dough is in an ideal state of fermentation. This means that it is neither under-fermented nor over-fermented, but precisely at the point where it will yield the best baking results. For instance, if we have a one-hour usability window, we must use the dough within an hour from the moment it reached its optimal fermentation point. In contrast, a 10-hour usability window grants us much greater flexibility.

Impact on Flavor Development

Firstly, in terms of flavor development, fermentation at room temperature is significantly faster compared to cold fermentation. In practice, this means that we can reach a theoretical “flavor point” using room temperature fermentation 4-8 times faster than with cold fermentation.

In addition to the “speed” at which flavor develops, the flavor profile of dough that ferments in the fridge will also differ due to the production of different by-products during fermentation, specifically, different aromatic compounds.

As we discussed in a previous article, there are two main acids that directly and indirectly contribute to the flavor of the dough: lactic acid and acetic acid. Lactic acid gives the dough a mild, yogurt-like flavor, while acetic acid gives the dough a sharper and more acidic flavor, similar to vinegar or lemon. If you have ever tasted sourdough bread with a distinct sour or tangy flavor, you have experienced acetic acid.

When comparing cold fermentation and room temperature fermentation, it is important to note that cold fermentation tends to result in the production of more acetic acid, whereas room temperature fermentation tends to result in the production of more lactic acid.

In simpler terms, fermenting dough at room temperature will create a delicate flavor similar to yogurt, while fermenting it in the fridge will result in a sharper flavor reminiscent of vinegar or lemon.

It is important to note that neither flavor profile is inherently “better” than the other, as preference is entirely subjective and based on personal taste. However, in my experience, most people tend to prefer the flavor resulting from lactic acid fermentation at room temperature.

Impact on Texture of the Crumb/Crust

Different concentrations of lactic and acetic acid, depending on the fermentation temperature of the dough, can potentially affect the texture of the final product.

In theory and practice, dough fermented at lower temperatures (resulting in a higher concentration of acetic acid) will be more elastic, while dough fermented at room temperature (with a higher concentration of lactic acid) will be more extensible.

But why does this happen? As explained in the previous article, acidity strengthens the bonds between the gluten-forming proteins, thereby affecting the overall elasticity of the dough. Acetic acid causes these bonds to tighten more compared to lactic acid, resulting in a more elastic dough, while lactic acid leads to a more extensible (less elastic) dough.

In practice, this means that dough fermented at room temperature, containing more lactic acid, will be more extensible, resulting in:

  • A softer and more easily stretched dough.
  • A more open crumb structure with increased volume.
  • A softer crumb texture.

On the other hand, cold fermented dough, with a higher concentration of acetic acid, will be more elastic and resistant, resulting in:

  • A more resistant dough
  • A more compact crumb structure.
  • A tougher and chewier crumb texture.

It’s important to note that these differences are RELATIVE. It does not mean that dough fermented in the fridge will universally be tough and chewy, but rather that it will be chewier compared to dough fermented at room temperature, all other things being equal. The effect may not be noticeable or significant, but it will be present. There are various other factors that influence the final texture of pizza dough, but understanding the impact of different fermentation temperatures is also important.

Another potential effect of fermentation temperature is its impact on the texture of the exterior crust of the pizza. The presence of lactic and acetic acid directly influences the browning and baking process of the dough. In short:

  • A higher concentration of acetic acid in the dough will result in a thicker exterior crust, which will also be tougher and chewier, and have a darker color.
  • A higher concentration of lactic acid in the dough will result in a thinner exterior crust, which will also be softer, and have a lighter or golden color.

The exterior crust refers to the outermost layer of the pizza base that comes into direct contact with the heat during baking. This thin section browns and crisps up, developing flavors through Maillard reactions and caramelization. It’s distinct from the (inner) crumb and the puffy outer rim (cornicione), playing a crucial role in the pizza’s overall texture and flavor profile.

Cold vs. Room Temperature Fermentation: Pros and Cons

So, we’ve established that fermenting at room temperature would result in faster flavor development, assuming all other things are equal. However, does this mean that it is the ideal fermentation method for everyone? Not necessarily.

Room Temperature Fermentation: Advantages and Disadvantages

As mentioned, dough that ferments at room temperature develops flavors 4-8 times faster than dough that ferments in the fridge. Therefore, the main advantage of room temperature fermentation is the faster development of flavors.

Faster flavor development also means that you can prepare the dough on shorter notice and achieve a well-flavored result. In my experience, an 8-16 hour fermentation at room temperature produces better flavors than most cold fermented pizza doughs (up to 72 hours).

However, fermenting at room temperature has its disadvantages, which make this method more challenging and less ideal for many, if not most, bakers.

The main disadvantage of room temperature fermentation is the need for precise control, specifically in terms of yeast quantity and temperature. This precision necessitates the use of ‘special’ equipment, such as an accurate scale capable of measuring yeast in increments of 0.01 grams, and a thermometer to monitor the room temperature. Even a slight deviation in either the amount of yeast or the temperature can result in the dough fermenting more or less than desired.

In terms of the usability window, dough that ferments at room temperature has a much shorter window compared to dough that ferments in the fridge (assuming proper fermentation in both cases). Typically, dough fermented at room temperature is usable for only a few hours, while dough fermented in the fridge can remain usable for a few days without significantly affecting the final product. In simpler terms, room-temperature fermented dough demands greater precision and offers less flexibility in the pizza-making process.

In conclusion, fermenting at room temperature has a greater potential for flavor development. However, it is much more challenging to execute due to the need for precise fermentation control. It requires a higher level of skill to consistently achieve good results, but the rewards are also greater.

Cold Fermentation: Advantages and Disadvantages

The main advantages of cold fermentation are primarily related to comfort, practicality, and ease of use/execution.

First, cold fermentation is much more ‘forgiving’ and less demanding in terms of yeast precision. Even if you miscalculate the amount of yeast (up to a certain point), it will not significantly affect the fermentation process. Additionally, measuring the required amount of yeast for cold fermentation is easier because larger quantities of yeast are needed at lower temperatures. Therefore, you can use a less precise scale (such as a standard kitchen scale) or volumetric measurements (such as half/quarter/third of a teaspoon, etc.).

In terms of the usability window, a cold fermented dough (when done correctly) can be used for a significantly longer period compared to dough that ferments at room temperature. Assuming the fermentation process is executed correctly, the usability window of cold fermented dough can be extended for even a day or two with minimal impact on the final product.

In conclusion, cold fermentation provides great flexibility and allows us to bake the dough within a wide timeframe.

The main drawback of cold fermentation is the slower development of flavors. In the fridge, everything happens at a slower pace, and achieving the same “level” of flavor development as dough that ferments at room temperature requires a significantly longer fermentation time. This is precisely why cold fermentation requires fermentation durations of 24-72 hours for proper flavor development. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the flavor profile will also differ, for better or worse.

To summarize, cold fermentation offers ease of use, simplicity, and practicality, which are important factors for most home bakers. These advantages are significant and explain why cold fermentation is the most popular method of fermentation. In contrast, room temperature fermentation would be too complicated and less practical for most bakers. This is why most learning resources, such as chefs, recipes, books, and baking classes, teach cold fermentation, as it is easier to execute and suitable for bakers of all skill levels.

Comparison Chart: Cold vs. Room Temperature Fermentation

Below is a table summarizing the differences between cold fermentation and room temperature fermentation:

Room Temperature FermentationCold Fermentation
(Speed of) Flavor DevelopmentFaster flavor development and dough maturationSlower flavor development – it takes 4-8 times longer to reach the same level of flavor development compared to fermentation at room temperature.
Flavor ProfileMilder, yogurt-like flavorSharper, lemon/vinegar-like flavor
TextureMore extensible dough, softer, and with a more open crumb structure and a thinner exterior crustMore elastic dough, with a tougher and chewier crumb texture and a thicker exterior crust
Ease of Execution / PracticalityPrecision and high skill are required, especially when dealing with long fermentation periods. It can be difficult to execute and is less suitable for beginnersMuch easier to execute and suitable for bakers of all skill levels
Equipment NeededPercision scale (0.01 grams), a thermometerNone
Usability WindowShort usability windowVery long usability window

Cold vs. Room Temperature Fermentation: Concluding Remarks

Room temperature fermentation and cold fermentation each have their own benefits and challenges. Room temperature fermentation develops flavors faster and creates a mild, yogurt-like flavor. However, it requires precise control over yeast and temperature, making it less forgiving and more suitable for experienced bakers.

Cold fermentation, on the other hand, slows down the process in the fridge, making it easier and more practical for most home bakers. It offers a longer usability window and greater flexibility, resulting in a sharper, tangier flavor profile. This fermentation method is more forgiving and aligns well with various baking schedules.

It is important to remember that there is no universally preferable fermentation method. Instead, you should choose a fermentation method that specifically suits your needs and work process. In general, if you want to maximize flavor and texture, room temperature fermentation is recommended. However, if you prioritize convenience and practicality, then cold fermentation is a better option.

In the end, it’s about finding what works best for you. As always, I encourage you to experiment with both methods and see which one fits your dough-making process and schedule, as well as which flavors you prefer. You might be surprised by the results.

Click here for a practical guide to cold fermentation
Click here for a practical guide to room temperature fermentation

Click here for more articles on fermentation

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