10 ways to shape a bread

Have you tried making a nice round bread, only to end up with a flat, deflated disk? It just wouldn’t hold its shape, despite your care.

There are several reasons as to why this might have happened: you might not have kneaded enough for instance (not developing the gluten sufficiently), or you might have left the bread to rise for too long, it’s over-proofed. But another reason might be that you didn’t shape your bread. By shaping your bread you help the bread to keep its shape and keep some tension. Shaping of bread is very different from, let’s say, shaping a cookie that you can do with a simple cookie cutter. Shaping of bread though requires some thought and handling to make sure that the shape survives proving and the oven, it’s a lot more dynamic.

Shaping a loaf is definitely not a ‘level 1’ skill you’ll learn when baking bread. And, in all honesty, there are plenty of ways to bake delicious breads without ever having to shape them (we’ll mention how and why just a little further down). But, if you want to level up your bread baking skills shaping is definitely something you’ll have to learn and understand.

Baking bread

Baking bread requires first and foremost patience and at least a little bit of instinct and insights into bread baking (you can learn some of those while watching tv :-). After you weigh your ingredients and knead your dough, you have to prove it at least once before you put it in the oven. During proofing the yeast does its work and produces gas in the dough, inflating it. In most cases, after this first proof you do some sort of shaping of the dough before you leave it to proof another time. How you do this shaping step impacts your final bread in several ways.

Appearance

Of course, the most apparent effect of shaping bread is how the bread looks like. Through shaping you can really change how your bread looks like. It can be a simple rustic ball or a more elaborate braided bread. Shaping has been used by bakers for centuries. It is a convenient way to distinguish between different bread doughs after baking and helps customers choose their bread. (The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco is a great example of using shaping to create fun, distinct breads, they make turtle shapes as well as Mickey mouse and many others.)

Keeping air in or taking it out

Apart from appearance though, shaping, also greatly impacts the texture and structure of your bread. The most obvious one probably is the presence of (large) air bubbles. Some shaping techniques push out a lot of the air bubbles in the bread whereas others are a lot more gentle and keep in more air. A ciabatta for instance is handled very gently only, to make sure the air bubbles stay in. In other breads though, you want to push down the dough a lot more to get rid of the larger bubbles.

Whether you want to keep the air bubbles depends on the texture you’re looking for, but also on the type of dough you’re using. Some doughs can handle those large air bubbles, whereas others can’t do so as well.

Don’t shape it – Method 1

This is a post about shaping bread and we start with a method that doesn’t involve any shaping. It might seem contradictory, but it’s not, not every bread requires the physical shaping. Sometimes, the shaping is done by the bread pan or tin you’re using and you don’t have to do anything else to it.

There are great no-knead recipes out there that generally don’t need shaping either. In some of those cases you just place the risen dough in your cast iron pan or other suitable baking tool (e.g. a loafnest) and bake it in there. You are a little more limited as to the type of dough you can use here.

Balls / Boule

One of the most common ways to shape a bread is to make a ball of it. The description is often simple, shape into a ball. But the actual execution is harder. I still struggle to shape certain doughs in a boule. If you don’t shape a boule well the bread will still collapse under its own weight and form more of a disk than a ball.

One way to shape your dough into a bread is to take your ball of risen dough. Now fold the sides into the center at the top, do this at least 6 times, so you’ve gone round the whole dough, but it will depend on the dough how often is best. After doing this you should feel a slight tension on the dough.

Turn the dough over. Continue folding the sides in but now fold them into the bottom. You should feel the tension on the top increasing. Especially this second step needs a bit of experience with shaping, once you get a feel for it it becomes easier to do. I would say the boule is the method that requires most instinct of the methods we discuss here.

Bâtard

The name batard can refere to a specific bread or a way of shaping the bread and I found out that within shaping techniques, it can also refer to slightly different ways of shaping. All shaping methods though give a slightly rectangular bread. If you find other batard shaping methods online they may well be slightly different, but not wrong of course.

The method I use when refering to batard  is as follows. Take your bread dough ball and flatten the dough by hand (not with a dough roller, that tends to create a denser bread) into a slightly rectangular shape. It doesn’t have to become very thin. Now fold the top side and gently fold it in, it shouldn’t reach the half of the dough, you probably fold up the upper 1/6th piece. Now take the right corner and fold it in about the same distance, do the same for the left angle and then do the same for the bottom.

Batard bread folding technique
Simplified representation of making a batard bread. Roll out the bread into a rectangle. The next illustrations first indicate with an orange box which part will be folded and then show where it’s folded to. The final shape will be way less pointy than shown here and more cylindrical.

Next, take the lower quart of the bread and fold it to the middle, do the same for the top. Properly close the seal, you can do this by pinching the dough together or by gently rolling it back and forth over the seal. Continue rising and baking with the seal at the bottom of the bread.

You can use a batard to shape a bread before adding it in a bread tin, but it should also be able to hold its shape, creating a nice slightly rectangular bread.

Baguette

We’ve discuss baking baguettes quite extensively before, so we won’t repeat it here in full detail. Baguettes are a long, pretty thin bread. Because of this, a baguette tends to be a lot of crust, with quite little soft bread on the inside. Because of this, it doesn’t tend to be very suitable for quite dense, heavy breads and is more used for lighter breads.

Making a baguette is actually very similar as making a batard. However, with a baguette, you should roll it into a longer and narrower rectangle at the start. Also, make sure to make the edges pointy to get extra crispy crust at the end. The small point will make it easier and faster to cook and dry out which results in that extra crunch.

french-baguette-dough-rising
Freshly shaped baguettes, ready for the second proof.

Roll it up

If you’ve never shaped a bread before, this is the one to start with for sure. It is the easiest way in my opinion to get a bread to stand by itself, not needing a tin. It is not very suitable though if you want to maintain a lot of large air bubbles in the bread. This method pretty much reduces all air bubbles in size, making it more suitable for more regular or denser breads.

The way it is done is as follows. Take your bread dough and roll it into a rectangle, put the long side horizontal. Take care that the dough has the same thickness throughout. Fold the right third over the middle third of the dough, then do the same for the left third of the bread and fold it on top of the dough you just folded in.

Roll out the dough again with the rolling pin. Now roll up the dough from the bottom to the top. You will be rolling it up perpendicular to the folds you made just before.

I’ve called this method ‘roll it up’ since I couldn’t find a common name for it, besides just shaping.

Braiding

One of the most common ways to make a beautiful bread is to braid it. Challah or brioche breads especially are commonly braided. You can braid any bread that isn’t too sticky and can be rolled into a strand. For this, the dough has to be flexible enough, some tougher doughs won’t be very suitable here and doughs with fillings tend to be hard as well.

When you braid you need to split the dough in at least 3 evenly sized portions. You then roll these out into thinner longer strands. The thinner your strands, the longer and thinner the final bread is. You don’t want the strands to be too thick because that will make it very hard to roll. On the other hand, too much rolling and rolling of the dough can make it quite dense since you’re pushing out more and more air.

For all braids you should take care that you don’t braid it too tightly either. The bread will need space to proof again after you’ve braided it. A slightly looser braid will give the dough the space to do so. This will make the final bread lighter and airier.

3-strand braid

Once you’ve got your three (or more) strands, lightly attach the them together at the top. Then start braiding with three strands the pattern is quite easy. Take the leftmost strand and fold it over the middle one, positioning it in between the middle and right strand. This strand now become the middle. Now do the same for the strand on the right side, fold it over the one in the middle. Continue this pattern until the braid is done.

5-strand braid

This braid sounds very complicated but it is actually very similar to the three braid one. However, instead of taking the outer strand on one side and folding it into the middle, you actually want the fold it over three over strands. If you start at the right, the strand will now be the second to the left. By alternating left and right as you do with the 3-strand braid you get the beautiful design shown below.

five strand braid challah bread
A 5-strand braided challah bread.

Tabatière

This is kind an interesting way to shape a bread, but pretty easy to do as well. It starts with making a simple ball of your dough. It doesn’t have to be shaped into a perfect ball since you build up the tension on the dough in the next step.

Take a rolling pin and flatten the top half of your dough ball. The bottom half will remain a ball whereas the top is a lot thinner. Dust the top with some flour and now fold the thin bit over the bottom ball of the dough. It should look like half a circle now, with a flat top and a rounded bottom. The stretching of the top give just that tension to hold the bread together quite well.

boule on the left and tabatiere shape on the right
The one on the right side is a Tabatiere shaped bread. Since this bread contains whole hazelnuts the flap couldn’t be rolled out as thinly.

Square

This is a fun variation on the tabatiere bread shape technique. In this case you roll out the sides of the dough ball on all four sides. As a result, you will have a thick center with 4 flaps on the top, bottom, left and right. You now fold the bottom flap over the center, the top flap over that and the same for the left and right flap. You will have a square dough. Bake it with the folded flaps on the bottom so your top is nice and smooth.

Bagels

In order to shape a bread into a bagel it should be quite sturdy since you have to be able to move it. Apart fro that, you could shape any dough like a bagel, a ring, without it necessarily being a bagel :-). Baking bagels involves boiling the bread before baking it. You can shape the bagels be taking a small portion of dough and rolling it into an evenly sized strand of dough. Attach the ends of the dough by pinching them together to get the famous bagel/ring shape!

Flat breads

Of course, there’s another whole category out there that doesn’t really need any height to the bread, the flat breads. These are generally made by rolling them out flat with a rolling pin, a pita or chapati for instance.

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