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I've been reading "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and all the sourdough bread recipes call for overnight storage in the fridge. Is this really necessary? Can I just leave it out at room temperature and bake it that night? What is the purpose of storing it in the fridge for a night?

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Not to be too snarky, but the answer to your question is in the book you're reading. It explains, in exhaustive detail, what the purpose of the overnight ferment is. –  bikeboy389 Jan 5 '11 at 23:59
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While I agree somewhat in principle with the RTFM sentiment, I think that the real value of a site like this is not that the OP gets his question answered, but that someone 6 months later doing a web search who has the same question (but maybe not the same book) gets his question answered. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 6 '11 at 1:24
    
The book is massive, I've not had a whole lot of time to read it –  Malfist Jan 6 '11 at 4:34
    
Definitely no offense meant. More than anything else I've tried to do in the kitchen, getting reasonably good bread with residential mixers, refrigeration and especially ovens is the most technically challenging. BBA is a decent book, but hardly the final word. It seems like there are quite a few bread geeks here who should be able to help interpret some of the stuff that any single book could only cover partially. The question was a very good one, and I say keep em coming. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 6 '11 at 5:50
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@Bikeboy & @Cold the other reason to ask here rather than simply take a cookbook's explanation on trust is to canvas other opinions. the best answers here may entirely agree with the cookbook's author. or there may be interesting differences of opinion. either way adds to our knowledge and understanding –  Tea Drinker Jan 6 '11 at 22:16

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

You can, in theory, leave it out on the counter for longer to develop the same amount of fermentation. What you won't have is a very cold fermentation, which helps to develop the big holes in rustic breads that many people love. Temperature and fermentation are a tricky balance, and you should listen to an expert like the author. Also the overnight fermentation keeps you from needing to do something like a full 9 hours in one sitting.

Bikeboy389 made an excellent point in the comments. BBA has absolutely everything you want to know to make its recipes successful in the first part of the book, which Reinhart strongly advises you not to skip. If you want to make excellent bread, you will want to know all that information. Plus, as a amateur or professional baker, you should find it fascinating.

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Also, the irregular structure of the crumb (a good mix of big and little holes) has a lot to do with how the dough is handled when folding and especially final shaping. IIRC, Reinhart doesn't emphasize the stretch and fold technique during fermentation in BBA. Hamelman defintely does in "Bread", and it looks like Reinhart's new book might, but I haven't seen that in person yet. In a nutshell, if you want the big holes, be as gentle as you can when degassing the risen dough and when you form it into its baking shape. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 6 '11 at 1:31
    
@Cold Oatmeal - Reinhart does have something to say about cold fermentation in a recent Q&A on the Washington Post website. I agree with you that irregular crumb has to do with gentle handling, which Reinhart glosses over in BBA with a quick reference and goes into more detail on in Whole Grain Breads. –  justkt Jan 6 '11 at 1:48

A long, slow fermentation (known commonly as "retarding") of a sourdough bread is about flavor development. Yeast is most active at room temperature, so when you allow your sourdough loaf to rise overnight in the refrigerator, you're giving the bacteria that gives the sourdough its characteristic tang more of a chance to develop while slowing the yeast down. In my experience, the best temperature for flavor development is a slightly warm refrigerator, around 40° F / 4.5° C. (I have a separate refrigerator I use for beer and bread fermentation, so if you don't have a similar setup I don't necessarily recommend warming up the fridge where you keep Sunday night's chicken.)

As @justkt said, you can definitely let the bread rise/proof at room temperature for a shorter time. It just won't have quite as much sourdough flavor as it potentially could. To be completely fair, every area's sourdough tastes different due to the different local bacteria that take up residence in the culture. Unless you live in San Francisco, it's probably not going to get as sour as SF sourdough no matter how slow you ferment. Other techniques such as using a more firm vs. more liquid starter will make a difference too.

So, in short, feel free to rise the bread as fast as your little yeasties will work, but you definitely should give a slow ferm a shot at some point, and use the blue cheese and walnut variation of the sourdough recipe in that book. That purple bread will make your tastebuds sing!

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A cooler works well too, and is fairly cheap. –  derobert Jan 6 '11 at 21:27

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