I continue to develop my skills as a fairly new sourdough baker, and one of those is how to find success in winter. Whether you’re making sourdough bread or loaves made with commercial dry yeast, your bread dough is a living thing. And like you, it gets cold in chilly weather.
“People go about their business as if it’s the first of July on the first of January,” says baker Martin Philip of King Arthur Baking Co., author of “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes.” The bread you bake in summer will likely not work the same way in winter, unless you make adjustments.
Even when the weather is consistent, “It is really going to be a different loaf every day,” says Sarah Owens, a baker and culinary instructor whose multiple books include “Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More.” When you find yourself adapting to the weather, “There’s really no right or wrong approach,” Owens says. Among the resources at your disposal are time, patience, equipment and environment.
Here’s how to make them work for you and your bread this winter, or any time your house is chilly:
Understand the process. “We’re really not bakers so much as ferment-ologists or dough-ologists,” Philip says. The actual act of baking is very short, while most of the time, our job is to guide fermentation, during which yeast and bacteria create the characteristic flavor and structure of bread. “Someone else runs the marathon, and you cross the finish line and high-five everyone,” Philip says.Those bacteria and yeast thrive in a variety of temperature zones depending on the species, but generally speaking, doughs are happy somewhere in the mid-70s. Some enriched doughs, those containing such ingredients as butter, sugar and eggs, like slightly warmer temperatures, Owens says. That’s not to say bread dough always needs to be warm. With sourdough particularly, there’s often an additional extended period of cold fermentation in the refrigerator, which is where more flavor development than rising occurs.
Still, once the temperature drops, “Things tend to slow down. I think we can all kind of observe that,” Owens says.
Be willing to wait longer. Time and temperature are connected in dough rising. Sometimes, all you need to do is wait longer. I have found that my 12-hour sourdough recipes have needed more like 15 or 16 hours to rise in winter. And that’s OK. You may also want to reconsider when you proof your dough. Given the extra few hours, I realized that starting a dough in the morning did not mean it would be ready before I went to bed, and there’s only so far my dedication will go – certainly not to regular middle-of-the-night dough babysitting. (Though I’ve done it, grudgingly!) Even though temperatures are cooler, I’ve mostly shifted to proofing overnight, so that if the dough needs a few extra hours before moving to the fridge in the morning, it’s no big deal.But don’t just look at the clock. With regard to bread or other recipes, any recipe developer worth their salt will tell you that you need to pay attention to much more than timing. As Philip says, “Watch your dough, not the clock.”When dough rises, the visual and textural cues are most important. Has the dough risen the proper amount, such as doubling? Is it domed at the top? Can you see a nice webbing of bubbles? How does the dough feel? Owens says she likes to think of properly risen sourdough as having the texture of a water bed or filled water balloon, so that if you press on it, it won’t pop but yield to the pressure and mostly bounce back into shape.
To make it easy to track the progress of the dough, I like to proof mine in a straight-sided, lidded, translucent, plastic bucket. I mark the starting level (a rubber band, tape or dry-erase marker will do) so I can quickly discern if it has risen enough.
Adjust the water temperature. Especially in the sourdough world, bakers tend to talk about the desired dough temperature, i.e., that sweet spot where the dough is most content. Factors that can affect the temperature of a dough include the temperature of the flour and room, as well as the heat generated by whatever your mixing method is (hand, machine, etc.). The final factor: Water temperature, which is the easiest, most flexible one to control.
In winter, heating the water can help you nudge your dough into the right zone. If you’re interested in calculating a precise water temperature, check out the equations and information on King Arthur and another great bread blog, the Perfect Loaf. There are also sites and apps with calculators (such as one on the Perfect Loaf) that you can use to punch in your numbers and get an answer.
If you’re doing calculations, you may even want to aim for a water temperature that will get you slightly above the desired dough temperature initially, Philip says, because the dough will start to lose heat in a cooler environment. Plus, “In general, at home, people underferment,” Philip says. “I see lots of doughs which are not fully risen during bulk” fermentation (the period before a dough is shaped).
Owens says she tends not to bother with precise calculations. While the yeast and bacteria in dough can tolerate temperatures somewhat above 100 (yeast dies off by around 140 degrees, for example), she thinks keeping water temperature in winter to a maximum of 85 degrees is a safe bet. Otherwise, fermentation could proceed too fast, which often leads to loaves without sufficient structure.
Increase the leavening. In sourdough, it’s common to increase the amount of starter (or leaven) in loaves in winter. That’s a relatively easy adjustment. Just be careful of putting in too much more – multiple tablespoons is not the way to go, Owens says. In terms of baker’s percentages (the amount of an ingredient expressed as a percentage of the total flour in a recipe by weight), she recommends not going above 15% to 17% starter. Again, you can consult calculators or the ranges given in a particular recipe.Sometimes, you don’t need to adjust the amount of starter to get things going. Whole grains can encourage more active fermentation, Owens says. So consider replacing some of the all-purpose flour in either your starter or dough, or both. Owens is particularly fond of whole rye, which won’t affect texture too much. And rye can subtly contribute to better, more complex flavor.
Adding a small amount of commercial dry yeast to a sourdough loaf, sometimes referred to as “spiking,” is another option, Philip says. Don’t feel bad about it, and don’t let purists sway you otherwise. Plenty of professional bakers do it. “Use the tool,” he says. “You don’t need to be binary in your use of fermentation.”
If you’re making a dough with only commercial dry yeast, you can bump up the amount there, too. Philip says this should be more of a last resort, after you’ve tried to manage water temperature, environment and time and seen how the bread comes out.
Manage the environment. By all means, set out on a hunt to find the warmest spot in your house to encourage your dough to rise. Above appliances that give off heat – a dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, water heater and even a stove top after the oven has been running – is a good option. Or try the microwave after you’ve heated a few inches of water in a bowl. The oven with the light on is another possibility (lucky you if your oven has a proofing feature), though Philip notes that gas ovens tend to be draftier than electric thanks to their need to vent. If you choose inside an appliance, leave a note on the outside to make sure no one turns it on mid-rise. Swaddled in a coat with a hot water bottle? Philip has done that, too.If you prefer precision without overthinking and can afford the investment, an electric bread proofing box, such as the collapsible Brod & Taylor, is an option. It allows you to program to a particular temperature, meaning you can set it and forget it.
Go easy on yourself. It might take you a little while to master the peculiarities of baking bread in winter. To make the process more organized, Owens recommends keeping a journal to track the date, time of day, weather and humidity. We tend to focus on the failures when something goes wrong. But when it comes out great, “we don’t think about the process” that got us there, Owens says.Documenting what you’ve done can help you pinpoint the reasons. “Be patient with yourself and be accepting of both successes and failures as a way to learn,” she says.