This is a long article, so before we begin let me make it clear – this is NOT a “how to” article. I won’t be detailing various shaping methods, or demonstrating proper dough handling technique. This is not another tutorial on how to shape a loaf.
This is something else entirely. This goes to the very heart of what we’re trying to accomplish when we shape our loaves. This is about purpose . . . and knowing what’s required to achieve it.
But before we can accomplish our purpose, we’d best define exactly what that purpose is. Otherwise, we’re just pissing into the wind.
So what is the perfect loaf?
Might as well ask, “What is the perfect day?” or, “What is the perfect song?” The answers are as different as the individuals that answer them. But when it comes to artisan bread we can make a few generalities . . .
What We’re After
- The loaf should have a nice “full” shape to it. Inflated, not limp. It should be well risen, exhibiting good oven spring and appropriate blooming of the cuts.
- It should be free from telltale flaws such as irregular shape or surface tears.
- The crumb should be open and airy, yet free of oversized air pockets or tunnels.
- In short, every loaf should demonstrate the skill of the baker who shaped it.
But here’s the rub: you can’t simply isolate one step in the process and claim it as solely responsible for all these qualities. Each step should prime the next step. Well made dough makes for better shaping than poorly made dough. Does the finished loaf appear flat and limp because it was poorly shaped? Or was it because the dough was weak and sticky?
For this discussion I’m going to assume we’re working with a well made dough. I’m also going to assume that the reader (that’s you, my friend) has enough shaping experience under the belt to understand some of the subtleties I’m going talk about. If you’re not there yet, don’t worry . . . there’s still value to be had in reading this article, but you may want to come back and read it again after you’ve gained more experience – it should provide you a bit more insight then.
But Where Do We Begin?
Just when, exactly, does the process of shaping actually start? Is it only when we shape the final loaf? Does it begin in the pre-rounding stage? Or does it go back even further, perhaps to when the loaf was scaled?
I’m of the opinion that proper shaping is the result of proper bench work. This includes every step from flouring the bench, tipping out the dough, scaling, pre-rounding, resting, and finally shaping.
Each step is an important piece of the puzzle — not a one should be neglected.
As an example, an under-floured bench leads to dough that sticks and tears. Stuck and torn dough leads to damaged and irregular pre-rounding. And irregular pre-rounding leads to irregular shaping.
On the flip side, an overly floured bench can lead to the incorporation of too much flour into the loaf during pre-rounding and shaping. This can lead to streaking in the dough, or even worse, to air pockets and tunnels.
We sure as hell don’t want that.
So we need to be certain we get every step of our bench work right from the start.
Flouring the Bench
I’ve already addressed a couple problems that can arise from incorrect flouring of the bench. Suffice it to say, flouring is practically an art unto itself. A properly floured surface is one that has just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, and no more.
The flour should be evenly disbursed over the bench. No clumps. No bare spots. Just a nice level coating that helps facilitate easy handling of the dough. Learning to throw flour properly is an important skill to develop.
We must also consider the exposed surface of the dough — it should only be lightly floured as well. Just enough to prevent sticking as you scale the pieces out. Too much flour on top leads to flour incorporation during pre-rounding; too little leads to sticking and tearing – just like flouring the bench. As above, so below.
Unfortunately, proper flouring is a difficult skill to describe. I tend to think of it as a quick flinging action, kind of like swatting a ping pong ball with a paddle. You hold the flour in your hand, as if you were about to roll a couple dice, then quickly flick it into the air at a slight upwards angle. At the end of this motion immediately pull your hand back — the flour will fly out from your hands into a cloud that rains an even dusting of flour onto the bench. It takes a few tries before you start to get it.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of proper scaling when it comes to a well shaped loaf. This is where the handling of the dough truly begins. Too heavy a touch and you lose all the gas — and the lovely crumb that comes with it.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Scaling actually begins when we dump our dough out onto the table. Dump may not be the best term here. Better to think of it as easing the dough out of its container.
“Gentle there. Gentle.”
Believe it or not, it actually takes some skill to get a bin full of dough emptied onto the bench while minimizing damage to the dough. It seems like a minor thing, but it’s not. This is where the integrity of the loaf begins, and so we must treat this step as equal to the others.
What’s important here is to minimize sticking in the container. That’s why so many bakeries lightly oil the container before adding the dough. The oil helps the dough to slide out of the tub smoothly.
Now, you don’t have to oil the container if you don’t want. There are many valid reasons for choosing not to. But be aware . . . the more your dough sticks to the container, the more damage it accrues. When the dough sticks and stretches during removal, it causes tearing and degassing of the dough, reducing its integrity and harming that open crumb we’re hoping for. You need to be swift and sure with the plastic scraper as you’re turning out your dough in order to minimize sticking in a non-oiled container.
For those who’ve oiled their tub, the process is a fair bit easier, but we still want to be careful here. Sometimes it helps to wet a plastic scraper and scrape down the sides of the bin before we turn out the dough. This can help “break the seal” and prevent a vacuuming effect as the dough spills out onto the bench – this helps stickier dough release from the container better.
But often times, we can omit this step entirely. Scraping down the sides of the bin always causes some damage to the dough. It’s a trade off: with a sticky dough, say ciabatta, we might scrape down the sides causing a bit of damage, but in turn preventing even worse damage that would occur should the dough stick to the container.
However, if the dough will slide out easily enough on its own, then why bother scraping it down in the first place? This is a call the baker must make based on the dough and the conditions of the day. As with anything in baking, what’s right one day may be wrong the next.
Alrighty then, now that we’ve turned out our dough onto a properly floured bench, it’s time to actually begin dividing, or scaling it to our desired weight. This step could fill an entire article in itself. There are simply too many subtleties to discuss in their entirety here.
So we’ll focus on the bigger picture.
The goal here, as usual, is to minimize damage and preserve the integrity of the dough. So how do we accomplish that?
It all comes down to handling.
Dough handling is a fundamental skill every baker must strive to master. It’s an essential part of the craft. Just as a guitarist cannot create wild and amazing solos without command of the fretboard, a baker cannot create beautiful and well-formed loaves without command of dough handling.
Obviously, we want to get the weight right in as few cuts as possible. The more cuts we make to a piece of dough, the more harm we do to its structure. And the more chunks of dough our divided loaf is made of, the tighter the crumb is going to be. Again, it always comes down to dough integrity – the more “whole” the dough piece, the better the structure and, therefore, the better the crumb.
Let me elaborate a bit on this “integrity” thing, because it’s a term I feel deserves a bit more weight in our baking vocabulary than it’s given. Look at it this way, every batch of dough holds a certain potential. Sometimes we have wonderful dough with great potential – a true pleasure to shape. Other times, we’re stuck with a pile of cow shit that will, at best, make little cow turd loaves. Our job as bakers is to maximize the dough’s potential in order to create the best loaf we can with what we’ve been given.
No mean feat.
In order to get the most out of our dough’s potential, it’s of utmost importance to preserve its integrity to the best of our ability. That means minimal degassing, minimal tearing, and minimal flouring. In other words, we want to minimize any form of damage the dough may incur.
That’s what I mean by “integrity.” We keep our dough whole and unharmed. As much as possible, anyway. Leave no footprint.
The less we molest our dough, the greater potential it will exhibit. This is a vital concept, and the most important thing to keep in mind while scaling. Be Gentle. Many bakers, especially newbs, grab at the dough with a claw grip – there’s no need!
Don’t grab the dough . . . it’ll grab you!
Use the lightest touch. Don’t let the dough hang from your fingertips – let the bench knife support its weight. Don’t throw the pieces to and fro; set them down gently and deliberately. Cut the pieces in a shape and size that will facilitate easy pre-rounding; square for rounds, rectangular for ovals.
Always treat each piece you scale with the utmost care.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Especially for the novice. It takes time and effort to develop true skill at dividing. Most bakers merely develop a base level of handling ability and weighing accuracy before they begin focusing on speed.
This is the wrong approach.
It leads to bakers who can scale fast, sure enough, but only at the cost of accuracy and dough integrity. First, learn to scale clean, precise, and gentle. Only then should you turn your attention towards speed. Now let’s move on . . .
The Joy of Pre-rounding
Pre-rounding is a subject I could go on and on about . . . and probably will in future articles. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to pre-rounding. And I’m probably in the minority on this one. But years spent observing and experimenting with this process has taught me a thing or two. So here’s the deal . . .
Many bakers take a lackadaisical approach to pre-rounding. To them, it’s simply a minor step that helps (somewhat) when it comes time to shape the loaves. Their pre-rounds are loose and sloppy. Just a half-hearted attempt at getting some sort of form, and maybe a wee bit of tension. Hell, they may even skip this step altogether. After all, it’s only the final shaping that really matters. Right?
Here’s the truth: pre-rounding can make or break a loaf. Simple as that. Remember what I said about each step in the process acting as primer for the next? Remember what I said about potential?
This is the step in which it all comes together. Proper pre-rounding can do amazing things for the finished loaf. Let me list the ways . . .
- It allows you to correct deficiencies in the dough. Weak dough can be rounded tightly (improving strength), overly strong dough can be rounded gently (preserving extensibility). Young dough can be rested longer; proofy dough can be rested shorter.
- Pre-rounding is a prime opportunity to build tension into the dough. The more tension you build into a dough, the better it will hold its shape, and the more potential it holds for generating oven spring. Remember, maximizing potential is the name of the game.
- Proper pre-rounding facilitates proper shaping. In other words, a nicely pre-rounded piece of dough requires less work to shape. And the easier a loaf is to shape, the better shaped it tends to be. When combined with well made dough, a properly pre-rounded loaf practically shapes itself.
These are the reasons that proper pre-rounding is so crucial to the shaping process. Skillful pre-rounding provides value that carries over all the way through the rest of the process. It makes for well-shaped loaves that keep their body during proof, hold surface tension (thus scoring easily), and a finished bread that displays wonderful spring and bloom.
Yes, we owe a lot to the pre-rounding stage; let’s give it its due. To treat it as anything less is simply wasting potential that our loaves could’ve held. That they should’ve held.
Now, there are likely as many ways to pre-round a loaf as there are to shape one. I won’t get into the various methods here; use whatever technique suits you best. But I will describe the qualities of a properly pre-rounded loaf:
- The pre-round should be smooth and evenly shaped. Oblongs should be of equal proportion to each other – no long ones here and short ones there. For fat batards the pre-round should be slightly rounded on the long side (oval shaped). For straight sided batards and baguettes, the long side should be straight as possible (cylindrical). As for boules, the pre-rounds should be just that – round. Not squarish. Not triangular. Not thick on one half, thin on the other. The loaf should look as though it were just given its final shaping.
- The pre-round should be as tight as can be, given the length of time that it will sit before final shaping. That means tight for long resting loaves, and looser for short resting one’s. If you’re rounding lots of loaves, you may round the first ones a bit looser than the final ones since they’ll rest for less time overall. It’s important to always strive for building the most tension into the loaves as you can. This tension will carry over into the final loaf and make for a lively well shaped loaf with plenty of “body,” and rising potential.
- The pre-rounding should be accomplished gently. Even though you’re looking for maximum tension (given the rest time) it’s vital that every pre-round be shaped with the utmost care and attention. Always preserve the integrity of the loaf. Don’t degas or tear the loaf in a mad rush to roll it up quickly. Use a light touch with a calm steady hand.
I simply cannot overstate the importance of this step. No, you don’t have to make great pre-rounds in order to make good loaves . . . and if “good” is all you’re looking for, then by all means feel free to devalue this step to whatever degree you wish. But for those of us striving for excellence, striving for the perfect loaf, we’d better make sure we’re creating the absolute best pre-rounds we can.
How Long to Rest the Loaf?
Well . . . as long as the loaf needs. I know that’s not a very helpful answer, but in essence it’s the right one. Of course, in a production environment there are other considerations at play, not the least of which is the timing of the bench schedule. The home baker, however, usually has a bit more leeway. So instead of strictly declaring how long the pre-round should rest, I think it’s better to understand the signs of a well-rested and ready-to-shape loaf:
- The pre-round should be relaxed, but still retain body. In other words, it hasn’t given up all its tension. It hasn’t proofed to the point of losing strength. It hasn’t become a loose and floppy piece of crap.
- The loaf should feel supple when you shape it. Though it’s relaxed and molds easily, it still holds enough tension to keep its shape and provide the proper resistance necessary to build even more tension as you go. If the pre-round has sat too long, or been rounded too loosely, it becomes a limp and lifeless blob that requires excessive force and handling in order to shape tightly. Even worse, if it has proofed excessively during the bench rest then you end up with a bubbling mess that must be degassed with a heavy hand, otherwise the loaves will deflate during proof. This comes at the cost of dough integrity, crumb and flavor.
- The pre-round should feel airy yet firm. If you pre-rounded it correctly there should be no dense spots, just a nice smooth even proofing throughout.
- Assuming you put enough tension into the pre-round, there should still be a bit of “bounce” to the loaf, though it’s begun to give. If you haven’t rested the loaf long enough, that tension will be too strong and the loaf will tear and shape unevenly.
When it’s time to shape the loaf, the pre-round should feel ready. It should feel balanced. It should be begging you . . . “Shape me! Shape me! Please! There’ll never be a more perfect time than NOW!”
If you think your dough doesn’t speak to you, it’s because you’re not listening.
And Finally We Shape the Loaf
The moment is here. Time to show off our fancy shaping skills and nail that perfect loaf. This is what the whole article has been leading to, and yet . . .
There’s really not much to say here.
I told you, this is not a “how to” article. Technique must be taught in person, baker to baker. It must be practiced over and over . . . and over again. Shaping a hundred loaves ain’t gonna cut it. Shaping a thousand is better. Ten thousand better still.
A truly masterful shaper makes so many minute adjustments as he goes he could never describe in detail what he’s doing. He’s going by feel, responding to the needs of the dough in hand. I can’t tell you how to shape, but I can provide you with a simple goal to strive for . . .
Light and tight.
New bakers struggle to make a tight loaf. Achieving shape with surface tension is a tricky thing. And it takes time. No one gets it right off the bat.
The trouble, however, sets in when the novice finally does learn to get that shape and tension going. In the beginning, it’s almost always at the cost of dough structure.
Tight, but dense.
Sadly, this is where progress often stops. Many bakers simply feel that “they’ve got it now.” There’s nothing more to learn and so their skills stall. But mastery comes through refinement. You can always get better, even if you’ve shaped a hundred thousand loaves.
Refine, refine, refine.
Always aim to make your loaf as tight and as light as you can. Developing high surface tension while minimizing degassing of the dough is the real art of shaping. And it must always be practiced . . .
With each and every loaf.
If every step in your benchwork has been performed with mindfulness – with care – then your loaves should practically shape themselves. The prep work has been done, and done well. Now it’s simply a matter of execution.
Because your loaves require such minimal handling during the shaping phase, you have the chance to learn and practice the true subtleties of shaping; to chase after that ideal “light and tight” loaf . . .
To chase after perfection.
Trevor J. Wilson