The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Retarding = less flavor?

Bread_Slavery's picture

Retarding = less flavor?

I've never really used the retarding technique but after reading how it can make breads more sour I wanted to try it.

I generally bake 2 2lb 100% wheat sourdough loaves once per week; ripen the seed saturday, pre-ferment the levain overnight, then bulk-ferment and bake Sunday->Sunday night. Lately i've been breaking up the routine by seeding Friday, preparing to bake Saturday, then retarding the loaves until I bake them on Sunday.


While I get amazing oven spring, taut surface tension while shaping, amazing scoring, I think the loaves lack flavor. They seem to get "creamier", less-sour, and less salty. Has anyone else noticed this? I even added more salt last time and they just still seem a little 'dull' to me.

They sure do look nice, though.




Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

When you look at a loaf of bread and think about it, it's a miracle. So many factors contributed to the bread. The grain, the milling of the grain, the age of the grain, the water - the quality, mineral content, temperature and quantity of water are all important, the salt, the riser, the dough development, the rise, the slash, the bake and more. Much more. It's kinda hard to look at a loaf and figure out all that happened.


Right now, if I could have wishes granted, I'd wish to see a ruler next to the loaves above. How big are they? How tall are they? How big are the holes? I'd also like to see a picture of the loaves you didn't retard.


There's a lot of stuff going on here. It looks as though your bread collapsed at the slash. Which makes me wonder if the dough was under-developed or if it was over proofed. Either can cause that collapse at the slash. It really isn't necessary to slash all loaves, just like women don't have to wear lipstick all the time. Or ever, for that matter.


The French feel that excessive oven spring is an indication that the bread wasn't allowed to rise long enough, to fully develop its flavor. If a loaf is tearing itself apart, it more than likely hadn't risen enough.


I'm not sure how healthy your starter was given the relatively short refreshment cycle before you make the dough. And an over sour underactive starter can rob you of rise also.


Using whole grains makes everything more difficult, including unravelling problems when they occur. 


Also, improper retarding can also rob you of rise. All in all, I am thinking that these loaves have a number of issues.  Issues that are imponderable at this distance.


So.. I'll talk about the generalities of retarding a bit. How important is retarding? Craig Ponsford has said you can not make a properly sour San Francisco style sourdough without an 18 hour or longer retard. Note, sour is a subset of flavor. There are many flavors other than sour. Retarding helps them all, when done properly.


The information below is taken from an EXCELLENT message from Abe Faber, the owner of the Clear Flour Bakery outside Boston. Abe is one of the keystones of the Bread Baker's Guild of America, and one of a handful of people to whom I happily defer.

There are three essentially different kinds of possible process involving the use of refrigeration, which are all too often lumped together under the broad title, "retardation."

1 Retarding in bulk, otherwise known as a Delayed First Fermentation.
2 Slow Final Proof or Rise of finished loaves.
3 Retarded Proofing process of finished loaves.

When retarding in bulk for 12-18 hours the dough will benefit from being down around 45-48 degrees.. It can be divided and preshaped (if applicable) right out of the retarder. Then rested perhaps a little longer than normally as its coming up to temp, but the shape and final proof as a regular dough. So 3 ­ 4 hours may elapse between removing from the retarder through divide and shape and proof and until out of the oven. Yeast can start at 1.2 percent for this method.

With a slow final proof after mixing the dough is divided and preshaped after only half an hour. Rested another half hour or so and then shaped. Then the loaves are set in a retarder at 50 degrees. Anytime between 12-15 hours the loaves could be pulled out at 50 and baked directly. Yeast for this method start at 1 percent but the amount depends on the length of the intended long slow proof.

When retarding the final proof (as opposed to just slowing it significantly at 50) one does the same rapid divide, preshape and shape as described above but then stows the dough away at 38-40 degrees. Now the dough can sit in there anywhere from 12 to as much as 36 hours before pulling the loaves and finishing the proof for as many hours as needs to come up to room temp. Or by allowing a automatic proofer-retarder to come up to 75 over a few hours. Yeast for this is more near 2 percent. Why more yeast if we want it retarded???

Because when we do wake it up we want it there to go! This is the method those of us (like at our bakery) who do not have neato multi temp units can use.

For both the methods where the bread is shaped up front you need a little stiffer mix and a little longer (more developed) mix, and definitely preferment to insure enough strength.

The difference between RETARDING at 38-40 as opposed to SLOWLY PROOFING at 50 - 55 is a pretty big difference. With one you are putting things close to dormant (yes I know its not completely dormant.. Don't go off all technical on me about this), intending a final proofing stage, and with the other you are just asking the bread to drive all the way to the oven nice and slow in the breakdown lane and directly off the exit for downtown Ovenville USA. Yeast amount, temp and timing become everything here.

With both techniques for making the long period occur in the final loaf you have issues possible with the outer skin drying out if not using some expensive high tech unit, as well as potential for skin blisters at the bake, as well as potential difficulty with transfer to the hearth.

With all three methods you want the initial mix temp to be more like 73 degrees rather than 75-78, so nothing takes off too fast.

When going for these long slow techniques the qualities of your flour become incredibly important to understand as well. Those qualities are magnified!

If you happen to be using a mill run that came in with a falling number of 240(very active) you will have much less success of controlling the long slow process than if you have a nice puttering along flour with a falling number closer to 280.. desirable in this case. In addition you really need flour with the gluten quality to stand up to the long exposure to the degradation as a result of all that time the dough is subject to the action of the protease enzymes. As far as I understand (could be wrong) the protease keeps on gnawing on the gluten structure even at the lower temps.

Sometimes a little ascorbic acid is warranted for these methods. For retarding the final proof longer than 12-15 hours some kind of (hopefully natural) dough conditioner might be needed. But if you have a method that is working and then senses to work don't forget to look at fluctuations in the flours enzyme activity or protein quality as a cause.

For a high hydration dough the bulk fermentation is probably the way to start. Pulling a high hydration dough off a linen its been on for 18 hours can be dicey, although I¹m sure there¹s a way.

I fully understand that all sorts of variables are possible other than these three. But these three represent the different basic approaches you are going for in what you are expecting from the dough. The choice between delaying fermentation and then allowing it to happen at the end, as opposed to controlling it slowly over a long period. Anything else is some combo of the two. It would probably be helpful to first try and observe the basics before going for hybrid situations.

A full and meaningful discussion of trying to control any particular dough over a long period requires looking at the ENTIRE picture. This means the whole formula including percent of prefermented flour, total yeast percentage, profile of the flour, how big are the individual tubs of dough going into the proofer, etc.. Otherwise everyone is taking shots in the dark reacting to just one of many factors.

It's possible to get almost the exact same final loaf using many methods and timelines but all the factors of flour selection, final mix consistency, final dough temp, etc.. become more important to control.

Home bakers who want to experiment with retarding may find that their refrigerator doesn't have enough of a temperature range to be able to stay at the 48 - 50F range discussed above. The answer is to go to a homebrew store and get a refrigerator controller from them. This device lets you control a refrigerator or freezer very accurately.

The last question is how to decide which technique to use. Retarding, the first and second senses Abe listed, allows for wonderful flavor development and should be recommended to everyone. However, most of the people talking about retarding dough are looking at process control, and you need to pick the option that most closely works with your needs. Delayed first fermentation has the advantage that it allows you to minimize your refrigerated storage - you are looking for space for a tub with numerous loaves in it, not a space to put a large number of formed loaves which need space around them. You need to look at how many loaves you are talking about and how much space they will take up, either as a bulk fermentation or as separate loaves. Delayed first fermentation is also less likely to produce a blistered crust. Many Americans like the look of a blistered crust, but the French feel it is an indication that the baker didn't do a good job.

The last technique, the retarding of finished loaves is strictly a matter of production scheduling and does not improve the quality of the breads.

In our bakery, we used the second technique, the slow final proof. We tracked our process very carefully and we would form our loaves, give them varying amounts of floor time, depending on how that bread responded, and then put them in the retarder. In the morning, we'd pull fully proofed loaves out of the retarder and bake them immediately. This worked very well for us. As we are moving into a new facility with less refrigeration space, we will be moving to Delayed First Fermentation.


If you're still reading, I suspect you are doing the third approach, and you can't expect a lot of flavor gain there. See if you can find a cheap refrigerator somewhere - they are often available cheaply at garage sales, through local shopper papers, and sometimes appliance repair people give away appliances that their customers no longer want. Put a homebrew thermostat on it and get the temperature up a good bit. The retarding that is done for San Francisco Sourdough style bread is typically done around 68F, not somewhere in the 30's.


Hope this helps,



Janedo's picture

Oh my Mike, I'm going to have to print this one out and study it.


hotboxbert's picture

Hi, does anyone have a graph of temperatures that are suitable for retarding dough i.e. how many hours the rising is slowed by holding at what temperature.

ehanner's picture

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Richelle's picture

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