2012 August: Dough Shelf Life

Quite frequently the question arises: How long can I keep my pizza dough in the cooler? The second question: How can I keep it in the cooler for a longer time? To answer these questions, we need to understand some of the basic mechanics of yeast fermentation along with a little physics 101. But first, we must know what the actual shelf life of our dough is. If you find that your dough sometimes blows after only 12 to 15 hours in the cooler, then it must be assumed that your actual, effective shelf life is less than 12 to 15-hours. But sometimes we get dough that doesn’t blow right away in the cooler, and it may be good for two or three days.

Why is this?

The most common detractor to long refrigerated shelf life is incorrect dough management practices. Dough that is above the recommended temperature range of 80 to 85 F may take too long to efficiently cool down to a stabilizing temperature when the dough is taken to the cooler. This can result in excessive fermentation taking place during the refrigerated storage period, which results in over-proofed dough that is either on the verge of collapse or experiences total collapse when the dough balls are removed from the storage box.

Another, and possibly the most common problem, is that of allowing the dough balls to set at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour, or more, before being taken to the cooler, In this case, the dough balls are actively fermenting when they go to the cooler. As a result, they have become much less dense (more airy/gassy) and are better insulators than a just-mixed, fresh dough. So instead of cooling down uniformly, they end up blowing during the night. The common response to this is not to take the dough directly to the cooler, as it should be, but instead to reduce the yeast level to some point where the dough doesn’t blow.

The down side to this approach is that the yeast level is now so low that the dough doesn’t rise properly when it is finally taken to the oven for baking. So, what is the right thing to do? Don’t let the dough set out for more than about 10-minutes after it has been scaled and balled. This will ensure that the dough hasn’t yet started to ferment, and it is sufficient dense to allow for the efficient removal of heat from the dough balls within a reasonable time. Like I said, physics 101, heat is conducted better through a more dense material than through a less dense material.

The next thing to consider is cross stacking of the dough boxes in the cooler. Cross stacking is building the stack of dough boxes in the cooler with each box perpendicular to the box under it. This leaves the two ends of the box open from which warm air and humidity can freely escape from the dough balls. If the dough boxes are not cross stacked, but rather vertically stacked with each box completely sealed closed, the heat coming from the dough balls will be trapped within the box along with the humidity from the dough balls. This keeps the dough warm, allowing it to continue fermenting until it finally blows.

Yet another important step in dough management that is commonly missed is that of down stacking the dough boxes. This is where the top box on the cross stack is removed and placed to the bottom of the new stack being assembled. This allows for the warmer dough at the top of the stack to be exposed to the colder temperature at the bottom of the stack, (remember, heat rises, so the temperature is slightly warmer at the top of the stack in the cooler than at the
bottom of the stack) This further aids in more consistent cooling of the dough.

The length of time that the dough should be allowed to remain in a cross stacked manner will vary to some extent depending upon the weight of the dough balls contained in the boxes. We have found that if the dough ball weights are above 12-ounces, the cross-stacked time should be 2-hours. If the dough ball weight is 12-ounces or less, 90-minutes cross stack time is sufficient. As always though, experiment al little to see what works best for you, with your dough, in your shop. Just strive to be consistent with whatever time you find works best for you.

Following these basic steps will provide dough that will last for up to three days in the cooler. But what if you want dough to last longer than three days? This is very easily accomplished by adjusting the finished dough temperature of the mixed dough. If we target, and achieve a lower temperature, than the normal temperature range of 80 to 85F, and still maintain the same dough management procedure, then the rate of dough fermentation will be effectively slowed, allowing us to hold the dough longer in the cooler, but remember, the dough will keep longer in the cooler, but it will not be ready to use as soon either..

For example; if we drop the finished dough temperature to the 70 to 75F range, the dough will keep for up to five days in the cooler, but it will not be ready to use until the third day after mixing. Your use window will still be three days, but in this case it will be days 3, 4, and 5 rather than days 1, 2, and three as it would be with a finished dough temperature in the 80 to 85F range. Why would you want dough that could only be used on days 3, 4, and 5 after mixing? This is a great way to provide dough from a commissary store to satellite stores as it allows you to develop a two-day dough inventory at the commissary, ship dough to the stores on the night of the second day, so they will have dough to use over the next three days (days 3, 4, and 5).

The last part of effective dough management is to condition the dough for forming into dough skins. To do this, remove a projected two to three hour inventory of dough from the cooler, leaving it sealed in the dough boxes, allow the dough to temper at room temperature for 60 to 90-minutes, or until the dough forms well by whatever forming method you have opted to use, then begin forming the dough. The dough will remain in good condition for forming up to three hours after you begin the forming process. Any dough that will not be needed within this period of time can be pre-formed and placed onto screen pans and stored in a wire tree rack in the cooler. Be sure to cover the rack of dough to prevent excessive drying of the formed dough skins. The dough can then be used when needed later in the day.

As you can see, effective dough management and consistent dough management procedures are a vital aspect in the refrigerated shelf life of our pizza dough, with this in place, you can easily keep your dough in the cooler for anything from one day through 5 or more days. The trick is, you have to do your part to make it work.
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