What happens when dough rests
When dough rests, several important things happen that allow the dough to develop more flavor and improve in texture. First, resting allows gluten strands to relax after being worked and stretched. This prevents the dough from becoming too elastic and tight. Second, resting gives time for hydration. As the dough rests, the flour fully absorbs the liquids and the starches swell with moisture. This allows the dough to become supple and develop a silky texture. Finally, resting allows fermentation to occur. Yeast feeds on sugars present in the dough, producing carbon dioxide gas and alcohol as byproducts. The gas pockets stretch and aerate the dough, while the alcohols contribute to more complex flavors.
Factors that impact resting time
Several factors impact how long dough should be rested:
- Flour type – Dough made with high protein bread flour requires longer resting periods than dough made with weaker all purpose or cake flours. The stronger gluten strands in bread flour take more time to properly relax.
- Hydration level – Wetter, more hydrated dough requires longer rest times to fully absorb the liquid and allow starches to swell. Drier dough with less water will rest and hydrate faster.
- Kneading intensity – Dough that has been vigorously kneaded and worked will be tighter and more stressed. More intensive kneading requires longer resting periods to relax the dough.
- Yeast level – Dough made with a lot of yeast needs more time to ferment and produce gas bubbles and alcohols. Dough with minimal yeast may not require as long of a rest time.
- Temperature – Warmer temperatures accelerate fermentation and enzyme activity, shortening the required rest time. Colder dough temperatures slow the process and require longer rests.
What happens if dough rests too long?
While resting dough is important for texture and flavor development, it is possible for dough to be over-rested. Here is what can happen if dough is allowed to rest for too long:
Yeast will continue producing gas and alcohol as long as sugars are present for it to feed on. If dough rests for too long, the yeast can over-ferment the dough. Too much gas production can create oversized air pockets and a coarser, irregular crumb texture. The alcohols from excessive fermentation can also create off-flavors.
While resting allows gluten to relax, if left to rest for too many hours, the gluten networks can start to break down. This can make the dough sticky and slack. Over-rested dough will lose its elasticity and the ability to hold its shape.
This occurs when the swollen starch molecules start to reconnect into tighter bundles. The dough can take on a dry, firm, and dense texture if rested too long and retrogradation progresses too far.
Oxidation and staling
Oxidation is the degradation of molecules due to exposure to oxygen. Long resting exposes dough to more air, which can accelerate oxidation and cause dough to take on stale flavors. Enzyme activity can also lead to starch crystallization and staling over a prolonged rest.
As the yeast exhausts its food source over a long rest period, the dough loses some of its rising power. Using dough that has rested too long can result in flatter baked goods with poorer rise.
How long is too long for dough to rest?
The exact point where dough becomes over-rested depends on several factors:
|Ideal Rest Time
|Maximum Rest Time
|Lean bread dough
|Enriched bread dough
|30 mins – 1 hour
As shown, enriched dough with milk, eggs, sugar, and butter can rest for longer periods before quality deteriorates. Lean dough and dough with less hydration have shorter ideal rest times. However, most dough should not rest for longer than 4-8 hours maximum. Beyond this point, gluten breakdown, over-fermentation, and staling become more likely.
Visual tests for over-rested dough
In addition to resting dough for an appropriate timed interval, bakers can perform visual and tactile tests to check for over-resting:
- Press a finger into the dough and see if the indent springs back slowly and partially, instead of quickly recovering its shape.
- Check if the surface of the dough looks dry and dull instead of smooth and elastic.
- Gently stretch a portion of dough. Over-rested dough will lack elasticity and be more prone to tearing.
- Shape a small test portion of dough into a ball. If the dough cannot hold its shape and spreads out, it is over-rested.
Performing these simple tests periodically can confirm if dough has rested for the ideal time or if it has over-rested.
What to do with over-rested dough
While it is best to avoid letting dough rest for too long, sometimes life gets busy. If you end up with dough that has over-rested, there are some things you can do to try to revive it:
Give it a fold
Folding the dough will redistribute and reorganize the gluten networks. This can strengthen and tighten slack dough for improved shaping.
Punch it down
Punching down the dough will help break up oversized air pockets for a finer, more uniform texture. Be gentle to avoid excess gluten breakdown.
Add a little more yeast
Sprinkling extra yeast on top can provide renewed fermentation power if the initial yeast has exhausted its food sources.
Over-rested dough may need a little more water to improve elasticity and rehydrate dried out dough. Or drier dough can be sprinkled with flour to absorb excess moisture.
Knead it again
A minute of re-kneading can strengthen gluten bonds and improve the structure of limp dough. Be careful not to overwork it.
Shape and proof again
Shaping the dough and allowing it to proof one more time before baking can coax some extra rise. Shape gently to preserve existing gas pockets.
Use for a different purpose
Flatbreads, pizza crusts, and dusted bread sticks are more forgiving to work with than loaf breads if the dough has lost too much elasticity. Cookies also hold their shape with relaxed dough.
Storing rested dough
To get the most out of the time invested in properly resting your dough, you’ll want to store the dough correctly after the initial rest so you can use it when needed. Here are some storage tips:
Portion the dough
Divide rested dough into portions based on recipe requirements before storing. This makes it easy to take out just what you need.
Refrigerate rested dough, well wrapped, for 1-3 days of storage. The cold prevents over-fermentation.
For longer storage of 1 month or more, freeze rested dough in an airtight container. Thaw overnight in the fridge before using.
Use plastic wrap
Direct contact with air can cause dough surfaces to dry and oxidize. Wrap dough portions in plastic for the best seal.
Cover with oil
Brushing dough with a thin layer of oil before covering prevents drying and creates an air barrier.
When sealing containers, allow dough room to rise slightly during storage without compressing the dough.
Properly resting dough improves its flavor, texture, and workability. However, dough should not be left to rest indefinitely. Ideal rest times are generally 1-4 hours. Excessive resting of more than 4-8 hours can lead to over-fermentation, gluten degradation, and staling. Checking for visual and tactile signs of over-resting allows bakers to determine when dough has become over-rested. Reviving measures like kneading, punching down, and adjusting hydration can improve dough condition if it does rest too long. Storing well-rested dough in the refrigerator or freezer allows you to bake with it at your convenience without losing dough quality.