bread -- long rise, but how long is too long?
I've been making (and experimenting a bit) with the Bittman/Sullivan St bakery no knead bread recipe. I made a batch of dough two days ago, which I intended to let rise at room temperature for 18 hours. It went to 24 and then I still wasn't ready to move on so I put the dough in the fridge to stop/slow the rise. I know that a lot of people put dough in the fridge to stop the rise, but what really is the purpose? Would any harm have come if I left the dough to rise at room temp for another 12 hours? BTW, room temperature in my house currently ranges from about 60 to 70 degrees.
Also, can I now work with the refrigerated dough right away, or do I need to let it come back to room temp?
The gluten starts to break down eventually.
Putting a developing dough in the fridge is a way of slowing the yeast activity. The goal with yeast is leavening which is the quick and easy part, but TIME is what makes bread taste good. "Fermentation" is the technical name for what you're doing, and it's when the big protein molecules of flour get broken down into smaller, tastier stuff and it's also the flavor contributed by yeast poop, which is basically alcohol. This happens more slowly than the CO2 yeast produces that leavens your bread, so we "retard" the dough. Eventually that yeast poop raises the pH of the dough to the point that the gluten you've worked so hard to develop will start to break down and your dough turns into a puddle.
That many hours at room temperature is probably going to get you a puddle, but you can certainly try it.
The best way to see this is by making a 100% hydration starter--equal amounts flour and water and a bit of yeast. The first surprise is that what starts out as paste will develop gluten all on it's own. Let it sit and eventually that same nice stringy mass turns into soup.
Whether or not you work with a chilled dough depends on the dough and your handling methods, IME. Try it both ways and compare your results. There's no hard and fast rule.
1) I do the no knead bread from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and I LOVE IT. Their times work for me even though I live at 8500 feet.
2) I was explaining this to a friend and he told me about the bakery in his family's grocery when he was growing up. They had a large box filled with dough from which they made bread. Each night they would add flour, water and a bit of salt. It was not refrigerated, just in a darkish room. Presumably they had figured out just how much yeast to add each night, if any -- the dough from the past would likely have added enough. He said they did not call it sourdough, but it used a similar technique.
I'm making a Pain de Campagne and this particular recipe that I use actually takes at least two days. Day one you make a starter, day two you add more flour and water for a sponge, and day three you finally add the final batch of flour and let it rise and bake it. Bread dough is very forgiving and should last for days in the fridge. It produces a lovely fermented flavor in the bread.
It's all about the yeast - the little microorganisms that eat the sugar in your dough and produce the gas that creates the rise. (poetic, isn't it? That yeast breads are risen via the power of yeast burps.)
At room temperature, they're much more lively, so they eat more and produce more gas. When they're cold, they slow down - it doesn't kill them, just retards their growth a bit.
If you leave the dough out at room temperature, eventually all the little beasties run out of food and starve to death -- and your dough will eventually deflate and make very dense bread. The length of time it takes for this to happen has too many factors to be able to accurately predict - the strain of yeast, how many of them there are, how much food (sugar) is in your dough, etc., etc., etc. - all we can tell you is that it will eventually happen.
The temperature of the dough itself also impacts what happens with the yeast -- if you work with the cold dough right away, it won't rise much again before the heat of the oven kills the yeast and sets the gluten structures...if you let it warm up, they'll wake up and produce quite a bit more CO2, lightening the structure again.