Over the past several months, I’ve received questions about the use of dough boxes versus sheet pans and individual plastic bags for storing dough balls in the cooler. In this article and the one that follows in October, I’ll delve into some details that might help you decide which is right for you. We’ll start with dough boxes.

Dough boxes have long been the industry standard for storing dough balls. Used properly, they’re very effective. When you’re using dough boxes—or trays, as they’re sometimes called—don’t place any oil on the bottom of the box. If you do, the dough balls will skate around in the box if it gets tipped over during handling, and you will find them huddled together at one end of the box. If not corrected, this will result in one giant dough ball by the end of the fermentation time. Instead, simply oil the top of each dough ball after placing it in the box. The balls should be spaced about 2” to 3” apart to allow for expansion of the dough during the fermentation period. Some doughs, especially those with higher absorption, may need to be spaced even further apart, as the softer dough will tend to flow out rather than rise during fermentation.


Cross-Stacking and Down-Stacking

Once the dough balls are boxed, they need to be cross-stacked in the cooler to allow for uniform cooling of the dough. Failure to cross-stack the dough boxes typically results in excessive sweating of the dough, which can lead to sticky dough when the dough balls are opened into skins. It can also promote bubble formation on the dough during the baking process. Additionally, failure to cross-stack the boxes will result in more variability in the rate of fermentation, due to normal variations in finished dough temperature. Both problems can become increasingly problematic with refrigerated fermentation times of more than 24 hours.

For most of us, the dough boxes should remain cross-stacked until the internal dough ball temperature reaches 50°F to 55°F. But always target the same specific temperature (say, 53°F), not the range, as your indication to down-stack and seal the dough boxes for the fermentation period. And, if you don’t know, down-stacking means taking the top box and placing it on the bottom of a new stack and orienting the boxes so that each one becomes the sealing lid for the box underneath it. The top box of the stack is then covered with a lid or an empty box.

When cross-stacking dough boxes in a reach-in cooler (as opposed to a walk-in), the boxes should be placed into the rack or shelves in a staggered manner so that alternating ends of the boxes are open and exposed, allowing for air circulation around the dough balls and improved cooling. For a reach-in cooler, the finished dough temperature should be targeted in the 70°F to 75°F range to compensate for reduced cooling efficiency. When down-stacking for a reach-in cooler, the boxes are typically not restacked in reverse order; they are typically just lidded or nested in the order that they were placed in the cooler and allowed to ferment for the duration of the cold fermentation time.

After cold fermentation, boxes should be removed from the cooler and allowed to temper at (not to) room temperature until the internal dough-ball temperature reaches 50°F. At that point, the balls are ready to be opened into skins for immediate use. Under typical conditions, the dough balls remaining in the boxes at room temperature will be good for a period of two and a half to three hours. Just keep the box lidded to prevent the dough from drying out.


Advantages and Disadvantages

Dough boxes offer some key advantages. They’re available in different colors for different days of the week or to signify different doughs contained within the box, and they’re available in different heights to accommodate different dough ball sizes/weights. You can even find smaller sizes to fit limited-scale operations. Dough boxes can also be used to efficiently and safely transport dough between locations—such as from a commissary to various stores, or from one full-service store to a satellite or express store—thus saving the need for dough preparation space or equipment at the receiving store.

The disadvantages of dough boxes include the need for regular cleaning, initial purchase expense and space needed for storage. Some box manufacturers make plastic scrapers designed specifically for their boxes. These tools have specially radiused corners to fit into and help clean the boxes’ inside corners, making for faster, easier cleaning. But when working with plastic dough boxes, do not use metal scrapers to remove the dough balls. You might gouge the surface, which makes removing the dough balls and cleaning the boxes more difficult.

In the next issue, we will look at aluminum sheet pans and individual plastic bags for storing your dough balls!  

Tom Lehmann was the longtime director of bakery assistance for the American Institute of Baking and is now a pizza industry consultant.

Food & Ingredients, Tom Lehmann, Tom Lehmann: In Lehmann's Terms