This guide covers everything you need to know about scoring bread to help you make your slashes correctly. Bread is such a simple food, yet the look and craftsmanship in shaping and cutting can make it look amazing. Cutting bread can be a true art form. Look at the video below from Sourdough Bread Art’s Instagram. I can’t help but be inspired by it! But it doesn’t have to be so elaborate. Spending much of my career in commercial bakeries there isn’t time to spend on design. The other loaves waiting for the oven would over-proof! So I prefer to keep things simple. Whether you want to keep it simple or let your artistic juices flow is up to you, here are some tips to help you get started with this beginner’s guide to scoring bread.
At the end of proofing, we make cuts in the surface of the bread before it goes into the oven. The cuts open up as the bread expands during oven spring. The result is a bread that rises well and looks appealing. The patterns that artistic scoring leave behind vary from simple one-stroke cuts to elaborate designs of beauty. Yet scoring bread isn’t just about aesthetics, it has an important role to play in the crust and crumb qualities too.
In the oven, the warm environment enables the yeast to generate excessive amounts of carbon dioxide gas. Without cutting, the gas will form a bubble in weak areas of the dough’s gluten structure. As the bubble expands as more gas is produced, it would force through the outer surface of the bread, tearing the structure to create an unsightly rupture through the crust. When this happens it is called “ripping”, “rupturing” or “tearing” the crust. Bubbles of gas not released from the crust leave pockets in the crumb, making it uneven and unsightly. The texture of the crumb is damaged and less appealing.
It’s common to want a bit of ripping. This is created by making the cut slightly too shallow and slightly under proofing the dough. It forces the cuts to open up during oven spring more than they would normally and leaves an exciting crust without denaturing the crumb texture.
The majority of loaves of bread are scored before they enter the oven, however, some are not scored. Where more complex grains are used such as rye, wholemeal or spelt there are fewer simple sugars and the gluten proteins are less accessible. The result is the dough structure is naturally less extensible and therefore isn’t able to stretch well and has poorer gas retention qualities. Scoring these doughs before baking lets the majority of gas produced during oven spring escape. A less prolific oven rise is observed, leading to a denser loaf. It means it is better to not score the dough as less gas would be produced with these flours in the oven, with minimal risk of rupturing.
To cut the bread a lame, also known as a grignette, is commonly used. A lame is essentially a razor blade on a stick (some bakers make their own!). A sharp blade has a smaller surface area so is able to cut soft dough with accuracy and without dragging which would mark the surrounding area.
I previously used a serrated knife when I was a baker for a supermarket. Though not as accurate or as versatile as a lame, a serrated knife or even a bread knife can score bread:
For some cuts, a sharp pair of kitchen scissors are used. These are great for getting into areas when the accuracy of the cut is important, for example, when scoring star shapes.
Take a look at the what knife to use for scoring bread article to help you decide on yours.
2 – 20 seconds is all that is required to score a loaf. If you make just one or two loaves at a time you can spend more time making prettier designs if you wish. Spending any longer than this in a commercial bakery adds labour costs, causes bottlenecking at the ovens, and risks over proofing the remaining dough as they continue to proof.
For more elaborate designs the dough is best placed in the freezer for 10-20 minutes before cutting. This hardens the surface to make it easier to make the slashes. Times of up to 15 minutes can be used in when the dough is cold.
Before you make your cut, get everything ready. You’ll want to put your bread straight in the oven so get your kettle boiled (if used to create steam), your peel ready and clear your route to the oven.
If using, turn the bread out of the banneton or couche onto a tray or peel. If the bread is to be slid onto a preheated baking stone in the oven, flour the peel beforehand, and check the bread isn’t stuck to the peel. Slide a metal dough scraper or palette knife underneath the dough to loosen it if required.
Flour on the surface of the dough will burn which leads to a dry, bitter taste. Use a pastry brush to remove the excess flour from the crust surface. Bakers using new bannetons often use extra flour to prevent sticking so having a brush handy is helpful.
Take the lame and remove the cover, so it’s ready to use. Plan your cuts first. There are five golden rules when scoring bread:
In this case, we’re going to make a pound sign design (also called a windowpane). To make it easier we’re going to move the peel 90 degrees after every cut. This means every cut will be cutting at the same angle.
Take the blade in your hand, holding as shown:
Position the blade at a 30-degree angle and about 10 cm away from the bread.
Pull the blade towards you whilst lowering the blade into the surface of the dough and continue to pull the blade through the length of the cut. Raise the blade from the bread when the cut has ended whilst following through towards you.
Note: The blade dragged against the dough which you can see in the middle image here. This is a sign that I was too slow when making the cut (I was trting to get a nice photo!), if you notice this happening try a quicker and firmer movement. You'll find it becomes easier with experience!
Check the cut is even and go over any missed areas of you have to. Don’t play around too much, cuts open up better when they are clean and singular.
Turn the bread 90 degrees and repeat for all four sides.
If (and when) you feel confident twist the angle on the blade, so it is in reverse for the opposite cuts as shown in the images. This method only requires a 90-degree angle change. This can be created by either moving your body and approaching in a different position or by moving the peel.
A single stroke gives a much cleaner look but if the first cut isn’t deep enough then a second cut can be made.
30 degrees is the standard scoring angle for bread. Some bakers will increase the angle to 45 degrees for baguettes and bread where the opening of the cuts is important. Though it is debatable whether the larger angle is an improvement.
As soon as the cuts are made, the bread should go into the oven. It is important that the oven spring pushes the bread upwards therefore it is important that there is no delay. For the cuts to open out properly and the bread to rise add steam to the oven.
Making the cuts for baguettes at the perfect angle is a bit of a challenge and takes a little practice. It’s important that the dough is proofed to the perfect point as well. The dough shouldn’t be overly gassy as you want the oven spring to be quite powerful and open up the cuts.
There should be 5-8 cuts in a full-size baguette (unlike my diagram!). The cuts should be made from the top, working downwards starting around 1/4 from the edge. The cut should be made diagonally, at a 30-45 degree angle. The next cut should start higher than the previous one ends.
Using a curved French lame is often preferred for scoring baguettes. The curved cuts will open up nicely to create a diamond shape that is magnificent on the eye.
This is covered in detail in the how to get an ear post. Simply take a dough that has been well fermented but slightly under-proofed and cut in the half-moon pattern. Bake with plenty of steam and the bread will open up like an ear when baked.
Stencils are a great way to create excitement in the look of your bread. There isn’t a massive selection to choose from though you might find some joy looking at cappuccino stencils or even make your own using a 3D printer.
View my recommendations:
If you want to be more creative with your bread designs there are two things that are crucial.
There are four reasons that dough sticks to the blade when scoring:
Use a baker’s lame or if using, replace the blade with a new one. A blade should be replaced or rotated every 50 – 100 loaves of bread depending on the level of accuracy required. A craft baker will change their blade every night, but in high-intensity bakeries, the number of blades used will be higher.
Develop a stronger gluten network by increasing the bulk fermentation time, the amount of kneading or using a high-quality baker’s flour.
Chill the dough to harden the surface, or if you are using a proofer, remove the dough for 10 minutes to dry out before making the cuts. Placing it in the fridge often helps.
Together we’ve covered all the basics of scoring bread, including how to score a basic design. If you would like to see my advice on the best bread lame click the link. The challenge is now for you to practice. I’ve trained several bakers and many of them don’t master scoring bread until they’ve had several attempts! If you struggle to get to grips with the techniques described I recommend making a large batch of dough to practise with -if you have the time. Drop a comment in the section below if you have any questions.