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Peter’s Blog, Sept. 15th, Cold Fermentation

Written By Peter Reinhart
Sunday, 16 September 2012 Peter's Blog

In my recent Peter’s Blogs we received a number great comments, including an offer to engage in some dialogue on dough methodology from Scott123. Rather than answer his first question in a Comment box in the previous post, I thought it might be best to make it the topic of a new Peter’s Blog, and we can keep all the comments related to this question here, and deal with subsequent questions each in their own blog posting. Who knows, we might end up with a nice collection of useful information, all nicely archived. So, the forum is open and let’s start with Scott’s opening salvo.

He’s raised an interesting question: does long, cold, overnight fermentation create a flavor that would universally be considered superior; that is, an inarguable benefit?  To answer this, I think, requires more than a simple yes or no, but an explanation as to what happens during the fermentation stage that would lead to the opinion that this is a way to improve flavor.  We’ve discussed this here in the past, though in an abbreviated manner, so let me draw it out more completely and, hopefully, address Scott’s question at the same time.

My belief (and remember, this is just my opinion — no one owns the whole truth in these matters) is that the key to the value of long fermentation is the enzyme activity, in particular the alpha-amylase and beta-amylase action that slowly releases glucose, maltose, and other sugars from their starchy chains in the flour. This takes time, anywhere from 6 to 12 hours minimum, but it is not a biological fermentation since enzymes are not alive, they are simply part of the grain (protein fragments, but not living organisms, if I understand the chemistry of them properly, but then I’m no chemist). The process of sugar break-out from the starch is slower at colder temperatures but is not subject to the same rules as yeast and bacteria (which essentially go nearly dormant when they get cooler than 40 degrees F.).  Anyway, pizza makers have known for a long time, whether by accident or intentionality, that their dough balls are better tasting and more beautiful to look at when used the following day (or even over a number of days, within reason) than if used on the same day in a fast rising method. It is not only because the fermentation is better in the slow method but, I believe, because more natural sugar has been evoked from grain by the enzymes and that improves both color and flavor, as well as providing new, ongoing food for the yeast and bacterial fermentation (so, in a way, it does elicit more fermentation flavor as well as releasing sugar). Bottom line: yes, Scott, I do believe long, cold fermentation improves flavor but, I have to say this too, it is not the only way to release flavor — that is, it is time more than coldness that is the key.

I say this because, as we discussed in the long comment thread a few weeks ago, Philippe Gosselin (and I’m sure others) uses a method that doesn’t require any yeast during the overnight period and, more importantly, pizza masters like Chris Bianco are able to achieve amazing flavor and texture by making their dough on the same day, not using any refrigeration. But in Bianco’s case, and others who can pull it off, the dough is made early enough in the day to allow the enzyme activity to occur without over-fermenting the dough by using a smaller amount of yeast. In other words, the “baking triangle” consisting of time, temperature and ingredients can be manipulated in many ways to achieve great results. Some methods and formulas might, for example, use a pre-ferment like a biga, poolish, or pate fermentee’ to add enzyme-evoked flavor in a shorter period of time.

So, to summarize, Scott123 is correct in asserting that long, cold fermentation achieves superior results to short, fast fermentation but let’s not forget the possibility of long, room temperature fermentation too, or the use of pre-ferments to shorten fermentation time (I won’t even touch the matter of commercial dough conditioners that spike the dough with added enzymes to speed things along — that’s another can of worms but one worth visiting in the future). If I’m not mistaken, Jim Lahey uses the room temperature method in his so-called “NY Times French Bread” method (and I believe also in his pizza dough — BTW, I think we should stop calling it the NY Times method and let Jim have it named after him, the Lahey method — I’m okay with that since he’s the one who first brought it to light and Jim is a good guy!). The fact that his French Bread dough sits overnight before going into a hot Dutch oven is for convenience more than because it is “overnight” — you could mix it in the morning and bake it at night just as easily; it is time, that very critical point on the baking triangle, that affects the flavor, as long as it is properly balanced by the other two corresponding points (ingredients = small amount of yeast; temperature = either cold or, possibly, ambient room temperature). For a pizzeria, though, it makes sense to work a day or two ahead for any number of reasons and, from what I observed at Pizzeria Bianco, it may simply be a matter of lack of space and refrigeration that necessitated the ambient method rather than a philosophical or anti-cold fermentation dough method. That is, we can almost always make the situation work to our advantage if we keep the three points on the “baking triangle” in the proper balance.

Okay, that’s my take on it — what do you all think?



It never even occured to me that using a smaller yeast colony vs. My “go to”cold fermentation method. I may have to give this a try. Thanks.

My take on manipulating conditions to bring out the best flavor to date for pizza crust comes from using Peter’s Pizza Napoletana from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice with 1% diastatic barley malt powder added into the dry flour and about half of the salt. My batches are too large for a 4 qt basic home mixer and mix it all by hand. I have become so particular with the cold fermentation method that I even chill the flour before mixing, chill between mixing , dividing and shaping, and only taking the dough out of the refrigerator right before stretching and topping. I only want the yeast to feed exactly when I need them to release they’re leavening power. We all know that pizza is best cooked quick but scorching hot.

I believe that the gases released by the yeast are detrimental to the flavor of the dough and must be kept to a minimal. The diastatic barley malt powder, for me atleast, is the key and it needs time to go to work on breaking down the complex sugar molecules. So if the yeast colony is small enough, I maybe able to pull it off but it might best serve well with my take of Peter’s italian bread (without the enrichments) from the same book as the Pizza Napoletana formula. What would be a good starting point for me when it comes to yeast percentage for the slow ambient room temperature?

    Peter Reinhart

    Interesting theory, Michael. I like your idea of upping the diastatic malt and lowering the yeast and using a long cold fermentation. My guess is that 0.25% instant yeast to flour (or 0.75% fresh yeast, or 0.4% active dry yeast) is about as low as you can go to get the positive benefits of fermentation, including the development of some acidity int he dough. But you may have to play with that amount. We’d love to hear back as to what you discern to be the “sweet spot.” Please write to me directly at as well posting here in this thread. Thanks so much!!

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