Your best bread loaf shaping techniques, please?
July 22, 2014 6:09 PM   Subscribe

Bread bakers of Ask MeFi, please share your advice, techniques, favorite instructional videos, books and/or websites about making bread loaves look terrific.

My dough is fine, but I cannot get the hang of making my bread look attractive. I suspect some of that is lack of oven spring due to overproofing; some of it, though, is that I'm not proficient in shaping techniques. Tools I have: baguette pans; an (unused) couche cloth; various round stoneware pots/bowls; standard loaf pans. My free-form loaves also need practice. What has worked for you in improving the shape of your loaves?

The doughs I make most are ryes and Peter Reinhart's Pain a'Lancienne. My pizza shaping skills are also so-so -- advice welcome there, too.
posted by MonkeyToes to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Have you poked around theFreshLoaf website at all? It's a fantastic resource for bakers. You'll find all sorts of advice there. Plus, you can sign up (for free) and ask for help in the forums.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 6:37 PM on July 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Have you tried googling videos of professional bakers? I only ask this because I saw a short clip of a baker doing his stuff during a kids tv show. He shaped dough into a free form loaf (no tin) and the sort of karate chopped it lightly across the top of the loaf in thirds, so it had three indentations. It looked pretty good when it came out! With my own bread, I spray it lightly with water on top if I want a firmer crust on it as well and maybe add a sprinkle of Parmesan, herbs or whatever on the top to make it more attractive.
posted by Jubey at 6:41 PM on July 22, 2014

Oh, I should add:

For my loaves, I usually make round boules by curling the dough edges in on itself til the top is stretched and tight. I let it do its final rise like that on a sheet of parchment, then when the dough is ready, slash it with a sharp razor, slide the parchment onto the hot baking stone, spritz the boule with water and close the oven. Prior to this, I've preheated the oven to about 10-25 degrees hotter than the recipe calls for. Once the oven door is closed, I count to twenty and turn the heat down to the proper temp.

Good bread making!
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 6:43 PM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Advice in no particular order:
It helps a lot if you fold the dough under itself in the final shaping, so most of the unsightliness ends up on the bottom.

I've found that spray oil works much better than water for keeping the bread moist in the oven as long as possible (which leads to better oven spring, and thus, better shape).

The thing that makes the biggest difference is timing the proof just right - not too high, not too low. If it's too high, I don't get any oven spring and the cuts in the top don't expand and look awesome. If it's not high enough I don't get that nice muffin top look, and the bread is too dense. Work on your overproofing. When my kitchen is about 75-80 degrees, the proof is only about 40 minutes, which means I need to start the preheat after only 25-30 minutes at most. If I don't set a timer, I often forget.

I usually make bread in a loaf pan, because it turns out I like the regular shape and greater crustiness. What worked really well for me for boules was proofing and then baking in a cast-iron skillet. I always have problems with release on baking sheets, and never did with the skillet. Also, very important to use spray oil on whatever pan or stoneware I'm using.

In conclusion: use spray oil.

The only thing that helps me with pizza dough is chilling the dough for 8-24 hours before shaping. It just ends up easier to shape without tearing. I am not entirely sure why.
posted by contrarian at 7:32 PM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

YouTube is your friend. Jeffery Hammelman shot a series of videos on the bread baking process for King Arthur flour and I think the one on shaping is pretty great, but the whole series is worth watching.
posted by clockwork at 7:43 PM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

What has worked for you in improving the shape of your loaves?


I have no idea how to explain what I do. I would check any video link suggested here or at the fresh loaf link above; you'll start to see five or six main techniques that will keep reappearing.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:48 PM on July 22, 2014

I really like the Weekend Bakery. They've got lots of instructional videos, including this one about how to shape a boule — in slow motion too!
posted by ZipRibbons at 2:06 AM on July 23, 2014

I learnt a lot from the River Cottage bread handbook.
posted by monkey closet at 3:36 AM on July 23, 2014

Videos are great, the fresh loaf is great, hamelman is terrific.

Proofing is your first issue to sort out, I'm no help to you there as mine tend to go under not over.

In terms of shaping, tension is key. The top should be nice and tight. It should start pulling apart, just a little, when you score, before it even gets in the oven. Practice will help you a lot. Batards are the easiest shapes in my opinion, baguettes are very hard and don't forget that professionals use bowls for both batards and boules (though I find depending on hydration that batards don't flatten to much. Boules are a write off without support unless you like four centimetre high loaves.).

Also don't under rate the humble loaf tin. I hardly ever do free form these days as I find, rustic appeal aside, loaf shapes are just more convenient.
posted by smoke at 4:59 AM on July 23, 2014

I butter my hands before picking up the dough.

I love, love, love my cast iron loaf pans. Perfect, beautiful loaves every time. I do the second rise in the pan which clears out any imperfections in shape.

It is difficult to shape dough that isn't finished. If your pizza crust is tearing, knead it more. If your loaves are going flat and not keeping shape, you may either need to add more flour to your dough or feed your yeast better. A bit of sugar as it's proofing can add a little extra umph to your yeast.
posted by myselfasme at 5:51 AM on July 23, 2014

Regarding proofing, my father lined a wooden box with, IIRC, flashing and rigged up a light bulb wired through a thermostat. His "bread box" kept the dough at the proper temperature like a champ and his results improved immediately.
posted by carmicha at 7:16 AM on July 23, 2014

I learned much of my bread craft from Judith Jones' The Book of Bread.

I usually stretch my dough so the surface tight (as described by several others). This gives a more aesthetically appealing exterior. If your dough is very sticky and resists this by pulling up off of your hands, coat your hands lightly with oil before doing so.

As an alternative to the stretch, you could do an envelope fold: lightly flatten your dough and shape into a rough rectangle with the shorter edge facing you. Fold the top edge down to the middle and the bottom edge up to meet it. Turn and repeat, overlapping the edges slightly. You can either rise and bake from here or you can turn it into a log, which this post does an admirable job describing and illustrating.

You could try proofing baskets to get a consistently round shape.

I mostly use loaf pans these days. (I have a sandwich lover in my house.)
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:02 AM on July 23, 2014

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