I have seen different recipes for pizza dough, some of which let the dough rise for about an hour at room temperature, others which recommend an 18-24 rise in the refrigerator. What are the differences between each method, and is one inherently better than the other?
The warmer the dough is during fermentation, the faster the yeast multiply and produce carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide production rate maxes out at around 90°F). So with very simple recipes, this entire process can take place in just a few hours.
Experienced bakers and pizza-makers know that this is not the best way to make dough. Though yeast produces carbon dioxide rapidly at high temperatures, it also produces undesirable flavors. Rather than tasting rich and complex, hastily made breads have the one-dimensional flat flavor of the flour, and sometimes even develop off flavors, like sour milk.
Retarding a dough is the act of placing it in a cold environment after it's mixed in order to slow down the activity of the yeast. At cool fridge temperatures, yeast behaves differently, producing more of the desirable flavor compounds and fewer of the sour ones. It also produces carbon dioxide more slowly.
Texture is also improved: Long fermentation times give the enzymes present in the flour more opportunities to cleave proteins (a process known as autolysis), making it easier for them to untangle, straighten out, and link up into gluten. Gluten structure is improved. Finally, the colder the dough when you shape it before the final proof, the fewer bubbles are forced out of it.