Baking bread at home certainly comes with challenges (or as my enigmatic college calculus professor used to tell me, opportunities for continuous growth). Baking bread at home with a consistent outcome has even more. But there’s a crucial facet of baking that can help us bakers increase consistency that isn’t always immediately apparent: the importance of dough temperature in baking.
Because temperature is one of the main contributors to vigorous fermentation, it’s key that we maintain a sufficiently high, and stable, dough temperature through the entire baking process. Of course, this does become more difficult when ambient temperatures begin to drop (hey, winter!) — and sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening.
Often we blame the lack of vigor on our sourdough starter: it just wasn’t as lively as usual we say, or maybe we forgot to feed it last night, we confess. While sticking to a solid starter maintenance routine is important, sometimes temperature (too low or too high) is at fault and all we need to do is make sure it’s warm (or cold) enough for heightened activity. For me and my starter this is usually between 75°F (24°C) and 80°F (26°C) — read on for how I maintain these temperatures in the winter.
This post focuses on the tips, tricks, and tools I employ throughout the year to ensure my starter and dough are at my desired temperature for a formula. While there’s a lot of scientific information motivating the things I do, this post is intended to be more of a hands-on guide rather than a technical treatise on fermentation rates, strain types, etc. All of the information below is focused on trying to increase consistency 1 in our bakes at home.
Let’s take a detailed look at each part of the dough-temperature equation below: monitoring, calculating, and maintaining. First let’s look at monitoring, because, well, without the ability to monitor it’s hard to do any calculations or maintenance.
Monitoring Dough Temperature
Some bakers will say you don’t need a thermometer and you don’t need to monitor dough temperature — this is true! People have been baking bread way before the thermometer was even invented. However, I find investing in a few simple tools, with corresponding processes, help me take away the guesswork and make steps towards increased consistency. A good quality thermometer (like my Thermapen) is one such tool.
Over time as your baking intuition builds, reliance on these tools does subside but to this day I always take a minute (if that) to measure the dough temperature right at the onset of bulk fermentation. Why? It provides me with an intuitive sense for how bulk will progress. Is my dough temperature a few degrees lower than I expected after mixing? Did I miss my desired dough temperature (DDT) target? If so, I’ll plan to either warm up my dough a little at the beginning of bulk (more on this below) or I’ll plan for bulk fermentation to likely go a little longer than planned. Conversely, if I overshot my DDT bulk will likely take less time and I better keep an eye on it near the end, cutting it short if necessary.
I keep my dough covered at all times to help retain its core temperature.
Monitoring dough temperature is a simple affair: stick your thermometer into the center of the dough mass and record the temperature. If you feel like your dough temperature might swing drastically during bulk, take its temperature every time you do a stretch and fold — this is a great time to check-in with the dough and assess dough development and progress.
While it’s incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to assign hard numbers for how long bulk fermentation should last for a particular dough, the following table is an example how bulk duration could be impacted by a range of final dough temperatures. Note that this table is for illustrative purposes only, my attempt to give a snapshot of how things could change with varying temperatures. The table assumes all other factors are equal bake-to-bake (which is hard to ensure!)2.
|Final Dough Temperature (FDT)||Typical Bulk Fermentation Duration|
|75°F (24°C)||4.25 – 4.5 hours|
|78°F (25°C)||4 hours|
|80°F (26°C)||3.25 – 3.5 hours|
Desired Dough Temperature Calculations
The final dough temperature (FDT) is the temperature of the dough right after mixing all ingredients together. The desired dough temperature (DDT) is another name for this temperature but it’s more of a goal than a measured value. Naturally, each ingredient (the preferment, the flour, the water, and the ambient environment) has a temperature and while most of these are out of our control, we can adjust the water temperature. Adjusting it enables us to change the FDT of the entire dough mass to meet whatever the recipe calls for.
But more than that, a consistent dough temperature helps set the stage for consistent bulk fermentation each bake. Because temperature has such a critical impact on fermentation and dough development, we cannot expect uniform results each bake if our FDT is wildly different.
The formulas you’ll find here at my site typically target a DDT between 75°F (24°C) and 82°F (28°C). For naturally leavened bread these temperatures, in my experience, are most optimal for yeast and bacteria activit3. When working with a high percentage of whole grains or freshly milled flour, I tend to lean towards a FDT of 75°F (24°C) since activity will already be heightened. With a mostly-white flour formula, anywhere from 78°F (25°C) to 82°F (28°C) is typical.
So, how do we calculate our required water temperature?
Calculating Required Water Temperature
By performing a few simple calculations (see below for a link to a live calculator) we can quickly determine how much we need to heat (or cool) our water to reach a formula’s DDT. In the following example (from my Beginner’s Sourdough recipe) we calculate what our water temperature needs to be to achieve a FDT of 78°F (25°C). Each temperature below is obtained with the same thermometer used to measure the FDT, above. Measure the levain, flour, and room temperatures and plug them into the equation below.
The friction factor temperature represents the amount the dough will heat up when it’s mixed in a mechanical mixer. As the mixing apparatus (spiral, planetary, diving arm, etc.) spins the dough in a mixing bowl heat is generated and must be accounted for. When mixing by hand I typically set the friction factor to zero4.
|Room Temperature||75°F (24°C)|
Required Water Temp = (FDT x 4) - (Levain Temp + Flour Temp + Ambient Temp + Friction Factor) 5 Required Water Temp = (78 x 4) - (75 + 70 + 75 + 0) Required Water Temp = 92°F
We need to warm our water to 92°F (33°C) so at the end of our mix, our FDT will be 78°F (25°C).
Do You Have a Calculator?
Why, yes! Check out my common bread baking calculators page for a form to quickly do all these calculations plus a little extra information on dough temperatures.
Adjusting Water Temperature
So how do I personally adjust my water temperature for a bake? I use my microwave. I’ll place all the water I need for mixing in a large pitcher and pop it into the microwave for some set amount of time. I’ll keep microwaving it until it reaches the required water temperature I obtained via the calculation above.
You could also turn your tap water to hot, measure the temperature of the water in the stream, and then fill a pitcher — this is more practical if you’re doing larger bakes.
Maintaining Dough Temperature
Now that we’re able to monitor our dough temperature and hit that all-important DDT each time (right?!), how do we ensure our dough maintains sufficient temperature through bulk? This can be a challenge in the home kitchen with varying room temperatures.
Let’s go over a few options.
Brød and Taylor Proofer
In my post on building a dough retarder, I mentioned my use of a dough proofer to keep my dough warm through bulk. Let’s talk about this wonderful little device. I’ve been using a Brød & Taylor proofer for several years now. The proofer is powered inside my pantry and runs 24/7 where it holds my sourdough starter (and a levain before a bake) at a comfortable 76-78°F (24-25°C) for optimal activity. Since purchasing this proofer I noticed a significant increase in the consistency of my bakes, again, because the temperature is so important.
I also use this proofer to hold my kombucha in-the-making and even when I make homemade yogurt. It’s so versatile, anything you need to keep at a certain temperature it has you covered. If you’re worried about it taking up too much space in your kitchen, don’t. It folds up to a small, flat rectangle if you ever need to move it out of the way. An ingenious design.
There’s enough room in the proofer to fit my starter (and even another levain) in a corner, but it’s also able to simultaneously fit my proofing bowl with 2kg of dough (see the picture, below). This means I can have multiple bakes going at the same time that are nice and warm.
I know some of you will ask: the Weck jars shown above are their 1/2 and 3/4 liter glass jars (you can find them on my baking tools page). What you see above is typical for a morning here in my kitchen: two levain and my starter (at left). The proofer is plenty spacious and I could even fit my bulk fermentation container in there with these three.
The proofer is dead simple to use. Input the desired temperature via up/down buttons until the desired temperature is displayed. The entire bottom of the unit is a gentle heating element designed to run continuously and maintain this temperature. They even make a shelf you can insert midway from the bottom so it could hold to shallow bowls or trays.
In the beginning, I mentioned adjustments could be made in bulk if we miss our DDT by a small margin (1-2 degrees). If my measured FDT is a little low, I’ll turn up the heat on the proofer by 5 degrees so the dough mass heats up at the beginning of bulk. Then, at each set of stretch and folds (30 minutes apart), I take my dough out of the proofer and take the internal temperature. If the temperature is close enough to my initial target I’ll set the proofer back to my DDT for the remainder of bulk.
My Proofer Settings for Starter and Levain
When my starter is in the proofer I keep the unit set to 76°F – 78°F (24°C – 25°C) on the display. I have noticed the temperature inside my starter jar will sometimes register a few degrees warmer (perhaps due to extra insulation from the jar), but that’s my desired range for starter maintenance anyways.
Because the proofer can adjust temperature rather quickly, we now have the ability to speed up and slow down fermentation (within reason). Sometimes I’ll use the controls to speed up when my starter (or levain) is ready for a feeding by increasing the temperature a few degrees. This is incredibly handy.
My Proofer Settings for Bulk Fermentation
When I have dough in bulk fermentation inside the proofer, I set it to the formula’s DDT exactly. As I said before, this typically is between 75°F (24°C) and 82°F (27°C). I also like to keep an eye on my dough during bulk by periodically measuring the internal temperature, just to make sure it’s still on target. I’ll do these measurements at each set of stretch and folds, a good time to check in with the dough and assess progress.
Another Option: Oven With Light On
Another option for maintaining dough temperature without the use of a dedicated proofer is to use your home oven. Place your starter and/or bulk fermentation container in the oven (that’s turned off), along with an ambient temperature thermometer, and turn the interior light on. Usually, this light will generate enough heat to raise the internal temperature quite a bit — just keep an eye on that thermometer and make sure it doesn’t go too high.
The downside to this approach is that it ties up your oven for regular use. There’s also another worry: don’t accidentally leave the light on too long or turn your oven on to preheat! I’ve received a few emails/comments about people doing this (that’s why I recommend getting a dedicated proofer if possible).
I’ve talked in the past about how we, as bakers, need to be acutely aware of our environment and treat temperature as importantly as our ingredients flour, water, and salt. It’s that critical: temperature is a driving force behind fermentation. Yeast and bacteria each thrive at varying temperatures across the spectrum, but when temperatures cool unexpectedly we need to either be ready to adjust our dough’s timetable or adjust the ambient temperature. With the ability to control our water temperature (and ultimately the dough) and the ambient temperature during bulk, we can set the stage for predictable and consistent (last time I say this, I promise) bakes.
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of dough temperature in baking, we can square up with these challenges and see them as opportunities for continuous growth.
More on baking temperatures:
- Brød and Taylor Folding Proofer
- Thermapen instant-read thermometer
- My common baking calculators (for calculating all things dough temperature)
- A list of my best tools for baking
- BREAD by Jeffrey Hamelman for more on temperatures
Thanks so much to Brød & Taylor for sponsoring this post. As always, the opinions and content here are my own. I’ve been using their folding proofer for years; it became a staple in my baking arsenal from the day I bought it!