How To Shape (and Preshape) Bread Dough For Better Oven Rise

Mastering how to preshape and final shape bread dough can be tough. Especially if your not naturally good with your hands. My drawing and handwriting abilities are pretty horrendous. My highlight being my passport getting refused because the signature was ineligible!

Pretty funny, but I say this as I had to work really hard to get my moulding skills do a decent level, where others might find it easy. But what that does mean is that I’m pretty good at being able to share how to shape bread correctly – I’ve spent enough time practising!

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How to master shaping bread

The most important shape to master is the ball or “boule” shape. It’s used for everything. Preshaping, making round breads, sourdough and cobs. As with most things in bread baking, “perfect one thing and others will fall into place.”

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A dough shaping exercise

The best way, and how I learned to shape bread was to make a big batch of dough (with half the usual amount of yeast) and practice. Preshape, rest, final shape and start again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

After half an hour or so you’ll be much more confident at handling dough.

For many of you, making 10+ loaves is just a waste, never-mind the logistics of getting them into the oven. In which case, save the big batch of dough and use the follow techniques instead to develop your skills “on the fly”. You can always knock up a big batch to practice later on.

How to develop your shaping skills as you bake

Improving your shaping skills is as much about being confident with how the dough will react as it is the accuracy of the technique used. The only way to get better is to follow the step by step guides shown below and practice.

Practising shaping doesn’t just have happen when bulk fermentation comes to an end. We can also shape the bread into the boule shape after mixing and any stretch and folds.

You can even practice you shaping skills every 10 minutes during the first rise if you want to. Just reduce the fermentation time slightly to compensate. The dough won’t be as developed as it should during these practice goes, but it can only help your experience.


What is preshaping and is it important?

Before the dough is moulded into its final shape it is preshaped and left for a while to rest. This rest is often referred to as the “bench rest”.

The first shape creates an even distribution of gas and a stronger platform of gluten. This is so important as it helps the dough to hold it’s shape when it’s shaped for the second time.

The preshape redistributes the ingredients and pushes out some of the air bubbles. If done well, it also generates a strong membrane around the outside of the dough piece. This again helps to support the doughs shape during the final proof whilst also benefiting the development of the crust.

Bench resting

How long should the bench rest last?

The intermittent proof or “bench rest” duration is usually between 10 and 30 minutes. It’s length is generally gauged on the temperature of the dough. After a long, cool first rise the full 30 minutes is used. For warmer risen “quick” breads the bench rest is reduced to 10-15 minutes.

Do I have to bench rest bread rolls?

In the case of rolls, preshaping and bench resting are not used. The dough is divided into pieces and shaped straight away. The firm pressure applied to smaller pieces of dough makes leaving the dough to rest pointless and actually detrimental.

Smaller pieces of dough have less food for the yeast and have to be shaped and risen quickly to get an airy crumb.

Do I have to bench rest ciabatta?

No, well not like other bread is preshaped. The open, airy crumb should be preserved in ciabatta so the dough is not preshaped into rounds. Though it is often shaped, left to rest in a couche for ten minutes and then stretched to its final shape.

Top tips for preshaping and final shaping

Here’s a few tips that will help you with your dough shaping. You’ll soon pick them up over time, often without even thinking about it!

  • There are a few exceptions, including ciabatta style breads but push out as much air as possible during preshaping. You can use a lighter touch when final shaping to generate an open crumb if you desire.
  • Try not to incorporate flour into dough when pre or final shaping. For sticky doughs I prefer to use an oil slick.
  • Prepare your basket or baking tin before you final shape so the bread can go in it straight away.
  • Each dough should be treated differently. If one is wet or sticky, you will have to move fast. If the dough is firm and dry, more pressure is needed.
  • Surface tension created by stretching the outer membrane during both pre and final shaping is most advantageous. A strong dough, firm technique and adequate rest periods to avoid tearing are essential.

Preshaping techniques

The most common shape in bread baking is the all or “boule”. Although there are others, this one is the most common and can be used for nearly all types of bread. 

Preshaping bread into a round “boule”

Turn the dough upside down onto the table so the rough side’s at the top. Take the edge that’s furthest from you, stretch it and fold it over to the bottom of the dough. Turn the dough 45 degrees and repeat. Keep folding over the longest edge to form a rough round, this will take 3-7 folds.

Next use the “rounding a round” method below.

Step 1
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Rounding into a round

This method takes our rough round shape and turns it into something stronger and structured. Cup your hands over the dough in a “v” shape with your fingers touching the table leading the rest of the hand. Next, drag your hands towards you using your lower fingers to pull the dough and stretch its outer membrane.

Now here’s the secret sauce** Close the bottom of your palms together and push away from yourself. This means you’ll end up tucking the dough on the other side.

Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat 3-5 times in order to form a round. Note, it doesn’t have to be (and won’t) be a perfect circle, it’s best to make fewer firm actions over caressing it endlessly.

Rounding 1
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Rounding 7

Preshaping a sticky dough into a round

If the dough is sticky, a slower, yet more firmer approach is used.

Preshaping a very wet dough into a round

Sometimes for very wet dough using the stretch and fold method and rounding into a round is the best method to use.

Preshaping into a batard

Turn the bread so the rough side is facing up. Fold over the top of the dough to the middle, stretch out the sides and fold them to meet in the centre. Turn the dough 45 degrees and from the point at the top, roll into a “sausage”.

Final shaping techniques

Shaping into a round

Using the same technique that was used previously in preshaping. The dough should feel strong and elastic making it easier this time. When you get confident you’ll be able to do this in seconds, see video below.

Shaping into a long

This shape is probably the second most common as it used for tin and bloomer style breads. Many of the bread sold in supermarkets and bakeries will use machines to make this shape. Here’s how to do it by hand.

Turn the dough over so the rough side is facing up and poke out any air bubbles with your fingers. Take the top side, stretch and fold over to halfway. Use the edges of your fingers to push the dough down and stick them together.

Take the sides and stretch outwards a little, before folding to make the edges meet in the centre. Again, push down, slowly but firmly.

Take the top of the dough and roll it towards you (no stretching this time) until there is about an inch and a half remaining. Push down with your fingers and give a little stretch to the remaining dough at the base to ensure it is even. Roll over the last little bit and use your fingers to push the edges together and make a smooth seam.

Shaping a tin loaf 1
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Shaping baguettes

Preshape into batards and leave to rest for 20-30 minutes. Next place the dough piece onto a lightly floured bench and starting from the centre, roll out into a cylinder.

Keep rolling by starting from the centre and working to the edges repeatedly until the baguette is the desired length. You can taper the ends if you wish by applying more pressure there when you roll.

Lift up and place in the couche with the seam side facing up.

Shaping bread rolls

Shaping bread rolls is an excellent way to get a feel for the dough. The ideal technique starts with a flat hand and ends in a high curve shape though the stickiness of the dough will often dictate otherwise.

Stage 1: Flat hand
Stage 2: Mid- cupping
Stage 3: Full cupping

This video shows how to cup your hands and drag and stretch the dough piece into a round ball. The process shouldn’t take any longer than 20-30 seconds to prevent the dough being overworked and tearing or becoming too warm and sticky.

When you get confident try using both hands to shape two rolls at the same time.

Shaping a bagel

Taking a round roll that’s rested for 10 minutes lightly flour it and use to finger to force a hole in the centre. Stretch the hole using both hands making it as even as possible. Lay to rest on a floured tray or cover in seeds to prevent sticking.

These are then boiled for 1 minute a side in a pan of hot water and malt before baking.

Shaping a bagel 1
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Shaping into a crown

The pattern created by pushing a rod or wooden spoon into the dough is largely lost when baked. However it serves a purpose by encouraging the bread to spread outwards and not puff upwards.

Similar to a bagel, use fingers to make a hole in the centre of a rested boule. Stretch the dough out to form and ring. Leave to rest on a floured surface for 10 minutes.

On return, stretch again into a square shape. Lightly flour and using the handle of a wooden spoon (or similar) push the dough down to form a square pattern around the dough.

Making a crown shape 1
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A split bread (Fendu)

Flour a rested batard and push a wooden spoon handle through the centre. Add further flour along the newly formed crater and push down again with the spoon handle. Turn the dough over to proof.

Once ready to be baked the dough is flipped again and the parting can be filled with cheese if wished.

Shaping fendu bread 1
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A four-braid plait

Roll out 4 equal weights of rested dough into “sausages” of equal lengths. Make the pieces overlap at the top as shown in the images and label each piece 1 to 4 from left to right. Then place 4 over 2, 1 over 3 and then 2 over 3. Repeat until the dough is fully plaited.

Making a plait 1
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Shaping a cottage loaf

Divide a rested boule 70:30 and shape both pieces into rounds. Find the centre of the larger piece and use your fingers to make a slight crater. Place the small ball on top and poke down from the centre.

Flour the hole and return with two fingers to push down. This secures the top to the bottom whilst forming the charismatic hole of this loaf.

Make 5 cuts around the outside whilst holding the dough with your other hand. Then allow to rise.

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Bread shaping FAQ’s

Does the seem side go on the top or the bottom?

The seam should always be on the bottom of the bread when it goes into the oven. If the dough is to proof upside down like when using a banneton, the seam will be facing upwards.

Shouldn’t the seam be sealed tighter?

Some amateur bakers pinch the seam several times when shaping. This doesn’t generate any improvements and will not be seen in professional bakeries, including the best ones in the world. 

How long to leave between preshaping and shaping dough?

Anywhere between 10 – 30 minutes. The time is determined by the dough temperature and the amount of levain activity. Warmer, more active doughs require a shorter bench rest than cooler, slowly fermented breads.

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