Babka, half a circular babka swirled with chocolate

How to Shape a Bread With a Filling

Bread can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. You can make a perfectly fine loaf from just flour, water, salt and yeast, shaped into a nice simple boule (or not shaped at all and just put into a baking tin).

On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to give just a little extra to that bread. You can add fillings, roll it, braid it, decorate it, the options are endless. (If you’re a Great British Bake Off show watcher you will have seen all sorts of creations come by during their recurring bread week episodes!).

If you opt for making a bread with a filling you want to make sure those fillings are well distributed throughout the bread. Getting those fillings in might be tricky. Luckily, there are also a lot of ways to do this!

What to look out for when shaping a filled bread

Shaping will not only impact the appearance of your bread, it can also improve the quality of your bread if you choose a proper method.

A lot of fillings are prone to burning, an obvious example would be raisins. If they stick out of the bread in your hot oven, chances are they get scorched. Herbs also need to be protected by the bread dough to prevent them from burning and losing all their flavour. Other fillings work great if exposed to the oven heat (e.g. cheeses).

So, apart from appearance, think about whether your filling should be protected by the dough or not. Also, think about whether they’ll release a lot of steam (which you might not want within your bread) or oil. We’ll discuss four major methods:

  • Swirls – works best for fillings that can endure some heat since part of it will be exposed to the oven hit and for fillings that are don’t contain too big pieces
  • Rolls – works great for protecting your fillings well by rolling them completely within the dough. They couldn’t be too liquid or fatty since all of that will remain within your dough
  • Encasing – works best for sturdy fillings that can cook within the enclosure
  • Mixed within the dough – protects the fillings well and will give the most homogeneous distribution of your filling. You can’t add as much filling generally though, nor something that will affect the texture and structure of your dough

The first three methods will allow you to make your dough first and let it prove. You will only add the fillings once you start shaping your bread.

kardamummabullar in muffin tray

1. Swirls

If you’ve got a bread with a filling with smaller pieces, for instance chocolate pieces or chopped nuts, making a ‘swirl’ is a fancy way to shape your bread. It’s the bread at the top of this post. So how does it work?

How it’s done

This method starts by rolling out your dough into a rectangle or square. Don’t roll it out super thin and make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Then sprinkle your filling around generously. Roll up the dough to incorporate the filling well. So far, it’s very similar to the rolls method above, however, from now on we start deviating. You now have a long strand of rolled dough, you might want to roll them a little thinner if it’s a very thick roll.

Now take your roll and starting from about 2 cm (1 inch) from one end cut the roll in the middle along the long side. In essence, you’re splitting your one long strand into two long strands and doing so you open up the filling of the roll. Take care, it might fall out here.

Since one end of your strand is still connected to each other you can now swirl the two sides along side each other. Try to keep the open filling side on the top and swirl them around one another. It’s a bit like braiding, but then with two instead of three strands. Once you’ve swirled the two strands you can either fill a bread pan with it by folding it over one another or you can roll it into a round baking pan.

Why it works

This method only works if you’ve got plenty of filling. There needs to be enough to cover the whole surface of the rolled out dough. The filling is what keeps the different layers of dough well separated. It prevents them from sticking together and opening up again when you swirl them around each other.

This also has the advantage that the bread has a lot of ways to grow to. It isn’t constrained in one particular direction. You can see quite a bit of a rise in the second proof after shaping this bread.

There are of course a lot of ways to do this, here’s a nice video showing one example:

2. Rolls

This definitely is one of the more elaborate shaping styles, but definitely worth it. You can find the recipe to the rolls shown on this photo at the end of my post, it’s probably one of the best loafs I ever made. The rolls are a great way to hold on to filling, create a nice look, but it will also give a dough a bit more sturdiness for holding itself up.

How it’s done

As with every shaping technique, there are a lot of ways to make rolls. This method can be used with and without fillings. Take a piece of dough and roll it into a rectangle, the long side should clearly be longer than the short side. Now is the moment to add the filling along the long side in a thin strand. Roll up the rectangle along the long side, so you end up with a long thin strand (not a short thick one).

Roll this strand a little thinner by rolling it over the bench with your hands. Rolling it a little thinner now will make it easier to handle when you’re filling it. The thinner roll is also easier to make into a swirl. Now take the strand and start forming it into the swirl or snake like shape you see on the photo.

The rolls need space, but not too much

The trick when rolling your bread is that you give it enough space to continue proofing after the shaping stage. It needs to be able to expand, else you’ll risk a dense, even undercooked bread. If you’ve got a filling in these rolls (which this bread does), it’s also important that the bread is forced to rise in such a way that it doesn’t create large air pockets when baked.

Keeping those two in mind, take care of the following. When you shape the rolls, don’t roll them too tightly against one another, but they should touch. Take the resulting swirl and place it in a pan. In my case, I managed to fit 5 in without squeezing them into each other too tightly. There were plenty of empty spaces in between for them to grow into, but they did touch another. This way, they can only expand sideways slightly, but enough, after that they’re forced to rise up!

Don’t try fitting in another one when it’s just about full. Just take a mini baking pan or a tray and put it on there. It will still taste great.

three roquefort walnut bread rolls

3. Encase the filling

If your bread has a high ratio of filling compared to bread and you want the filling to stick together, you might want to encase it. This method is great for sturdier, not too moist fillings, such as a minced meat mix.

A common example of this are what we Dutch call ‘worstenbroodjes‘, or sausage rolls. The sausages are folded within a thin layer of dough and baked inside this layer.

The advanctage of cooking within the encasing is that the filling stays nice and moist, it will not lose a lot of moisture.

Worstenbroodje - ready to eat

4. Shape as you would a bread without a filling

Last but not least, the most boring of the three: shape it like you would any bread. If your filling is homogeneously dispersed through the bread (e.g. walnuts), in other words, you have mixed it through completely, you can use most conventional shaping techniques.

Take care that during shaping some of your filling may still want to stick out. Ensure there’s a layer of dough around the fillings that are prone to burning.

three roquefort walnut bread rolls

Walnut roquefort bread rolls

Yield: 6 swirls
Prep Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours 15 minutes

Want to practice your bread shaping skills? Here's a great recipe to try out. This recipe is heavily inspired by the one from Paul Hollywood, from the Great British Bake Off.


  • 450g flour
  • 50g rye flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 390ml water
  • 200g walnuts (de-shelled, but not cut into too small pieces)
  • 200g blue cheese (you can use Roquefort, but just about any blue cheese you like will do


  • An egg wash for the top (I skipped it, waste of an egg)


Making the dough

  1. Mix the flours, salt, yeast and water in a stand mixer (or knead it by hand) until it has formed a soft and pliable dough. This will easily take 10-15 minutes.
  2. Add the walnuts to the dough and let the mixer mix them in. There are quite a lot of walnuts, mixing them in b hand can be a challenge, but for the mixer it's peanuts.
  3. Leave the dough to rise for about 1,5h, it rises pretty quickly and becomes beautifully puffy.

Filling the swirls

  1. Cut the cheese into smaller pieces. It shouldn't be mush and it's good if you have some larger and smaller pieces. Divide into 6 equal portions if you have trouble filling them all evenly.
  2. Push some of the air out of the dough and cut the dough into 6 equally sized pieces.
  3. Take one piece and roll it into a rectangle using a rolling pin. If you've got quite big walnut pieces in there they will determine you minimum thickness, very handy.
  4. Sprinkle the cheese in a thin layer over the middle of the dough, sprinkle it over the long side. Now roll the dough up, you should end up with a strand of dough about 15 cm long. Make sure the roll is closed and there's no cheese peeking out.
  5. Roll the strand into a slightly thinner one and shape it into a swirl, snail-like shape.
  6. Place the roll in a baking tray lined with baking paper.
  7. Leave to rise for another 30-60 minutes, they should increase in size considerably.
  8. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200C for 40-50 minutes. If the sides of your pan can be removed, remove those after 30-40 minutes to leave the outside to brown and crisp up a little further.

Other ideas

There are a lot of beautiful breads out there, here’s a just a few suggestions! Culinary Kitchenette, Dough eyed baker (beautiful pesto babka, using the swirl technique), King Arthur flour (made a beautiful star shaped bread)

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