Rather like kneading, this stage of bread-making requires a bit of practice.
Shaping isn’t just about the aesthetics and moulding the dough into the shape you want, it also impacts the texture and structure of your bread. Shaping develops the surface tension, the outer ‘skin’ of the dough, which helps hold the dough in the shape you’ve chosen while it rises in the final proof. It also helps push out larger air bubbles.
Why preshape dough?
Preshaping is necessary when transforming dough to smaller pieces after bulk fermentation. You’ll need to gently shape those pieces, if you are making small loaves or rolls, for instance, into their individual shape, ready for the final proof.
Whilst pre-shaping is not obligatory if you are only making one loaf, we recommend it as it coaxes the gluten strands to move in the right direction, adding strength and making your final shape easier. It’s a good time to check in with your dough and get an idea of its strength and fermentation activity. Every tuck and shape will help the dough keep its form. The best guidance is to be gentle and use the minimum amount of flour to dust your work surface.
See our video below on preshaping technique
Some lower hydration doughs and doughs which have been strengthened through many sets of stretches and folds may not need a pre-shape, so skipping it might make sense here. Use your judgement and experiment.
Let’s get shaping
A good starting point is the ball or ‘boule’ shape as it is used so much. We have it as our go-to shape; it’s the one that comes out of the Risen oven on a regular basis! As with most things in bread making, work to perfect one thing and the rest will fall into place. You’ll soon find what suits your dough and fingers.
Once you've mastered a simple sourdough boule, a sourdough batard is a nice shape to master. The long, oval shape can be easier to slice and a more manageable size for sandwiches.
Make up a large batch of dough and practice shaping again and again and again. You won’t have the pressure of getting it right as you are simply practicing. Follow the pre-shaping, bench rest, shaping routine and after those few hours you’ll be far more confident and have mastered a shaping technique or two. By all means, put some loaves in the oven but if they turn out imperfect, who cares?
If you want to master braiding but don’t want the dough to dry out or shrink, buy some nylon ropes from a hardware store, tie all the ends together at the top and practice braiding without the pressure of it drying out.