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The weather outside is frightful: 5 tips for baking in winter

The weather outside is frightful: 5 tips for baking sourdough bread in the cold of winter. 

What effect does temperature have? Yeast (commercial or ‘wild’ sourdough), lactic acid bacteria, enzymes and other reactions within the dough are slowed down by cold, and happen faster with warmth. For preparing dough, we are aiming for a balance between the two.

Our goal as bread-makers is to adapt and adjust to guide and work with these changes to achieve our baking goals.

These are some tips. Some will suit your schedule, others will not. Your kitchen may be hotter or cooler. There are many variables at play, so experiment with these ideas to find what works for you.

This blog assumes some sourdough knowledge and experience and is based on my classes.

For context, I am referring to cold weather as being daily high temperatures below 200C and below. Overnight lows can be as cold as 00C-50C.  

 

1. Find somewhere warmer or use an insulated container.

Find somewhere warmer

Is there a warmer room or area in the home suitable for a bowl of dough or container of sourdough starter to rest? For example, a room with the heater on. Through the cooler months storing flour and fermenting the sourdough starter overnight in that space can enable more consistency and control.

Use an insulated container

Placing the container of sourdough starter or bowl of dough during bulk ferment in an insulted container will assist with keeping the cold out and warmth in. Simple options are an esky or insulated (freezer) grocery bag. If the final dough feels cold, a hot (warm) water bottle placed inside the container with the bowl of dough can help keep the temperatures warmer.

2. Increase sourdough starter amount.

The sourdough process requires perpetuating some microorganisms (yeast/s, lactic acid bacteria, enzymes, etc.) through a piece of dough/batter, known as “sourdough starter”. The sourdough starter added to each refreshment or build or elaboration (for my students’ reference: stages 1 and 2) is inoculating the next stage of starter/dough with a quantity of microorganisms. More starter will contribute more microorganisms, thus increasing the speed of fermentation. So, on my class recipes I include a range of sourdough starter to add for the ‘build’ or ‘refreshment’ stages (1 & 2). This is to allow for the changes in seasons.

3. Use warmer water to balance dough temperature.

Flour stored in the pantry is at “room temperature” – however this could vary by several degrees across the seasons. So, the simplest way to adjust the dough temperature is by adjusting the temperature of the water. As we discuss in class, a small quantity of dough, for example a loaf or two, will adjust to the ambient room temperature. So, on the wintry days increase the water temperature to “warm” for the final dough (as a rough guide somewhere between 35-450C, if the flour is cold). The warmer dough will ferment actively from the beginning.

4. Increase sourdough starter fermentation time.

This may or may not be helpful for you because it has the potential to mess with a schedule. But one way to manage the heat and associated faster fermentation is to respond to the lethargic cold fermentation by increasing, sometimes considerably, the fermentation times. This may also be used to advantage. The sourdough starter can be prepared earlier in the day ready for the next day 18+ hours later, rather than preparing at night.

5. Leave the shaped dough out of the fridge for longer.

After shaping the final dough, I typically refrigerate it overnight, before baking over the next day or two. Because I like to bake the dough straight from the fridge, I often leave the dough at room temperature after shaping to rise so it’s “perfectly approximately” risen before being chilled and most of the yeast activity is halted. In winter and even on a cool day this time at room temperature can be 4+ hours, sometimes 8+ hours! Whereas in summer it is often straight to the fridge (Summer baking? See here). Temperature makes an enormous difference to fermentation speed.

(Alternative option requiring $$) Buy temperature control

One alternative option is to purchase a temperature-controlled proofing box (RRP approx. $380) or make a DIY temperature-controlled box ($40+) with brewing/growing heat pads and an insulated container (e.g. esky cooler). If set-up well, with no direct heat contact to the dough, both will help with consistent warmer temperatures, albeit with an added cost.

Temperature control is helpful but not required.