Shaping Bread Dough | 19 Ways To Shape And Preshape Bread

Lots of people find that it’s tough to learn how to preshape and final shape bread dough, which is why many turn into a paralyzing fear. Especially if you’re not naturally good with your hands. But you’re not alone!

There are many different bread shaping methods. And methods can apply to different types of bread, and even variations of the same bread. In this complete shaping bread dough guide, I’ve listed the main shaping techniques used in bread making, we’ll also explore the importance of degassing bread dough, how long to bench rest and plenty more!

The time it takes to master shaping bread dough will vary from person to person. Most bakers are always trying to perfect their technique and whilst perfection is a challenge every single time, with practice you will always reach a level of profeciency that you are happy with.

I’m not the best with my hands, so had to work really hard to get the skills that I have. Some people that I have taught manage to pick it up the first time. Maybe it’s my coaching skills, but it’s probable more to do with natural ability! Either way, don’t be dismayed if you struggle to master shaping bread dough at first, just keep trying and enjoy the process!

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Dough shaping exercises

Use the methods below to improve your shaping skills, or even bookmark this page to use as a reference when trying a new technique. If you are completely new to making bread, you may want to practice using one of these exercises to accelerate your learning.

1- Make a batch of dough with less yeast

The best way to practice how to shape bread is to make a batch of dough with half the usual amount of yeast, and practice. Preshape, rest, shape, rest and start again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. After half an hour of practice, you’re shaping skills are bound to improve! And yes, you can bake it afterwards, it’ll just take a little longer to rise.

2- Develop your shaping skills as you bake

Shaping skill practice doesn’t have to be a set exercise. You can take moment to practice your technique at the start of the first rise, or why not shape your loaves a few times? Or, instead of dough stretch and folds, practice your shaping skills every 10 minutes instead? It’ll have a similar effect on the dough.

3- Make bigger batches

Instead of making one loaf, make 5 – 6, or more! This will enable you to try different pressures and methods. Once baked you can review which way worked best. It’s how professional bakers are trained, so why not adopt the same approach? You can freeze the loaves of bread that you don’t consume.

Preshaping vs shaping?

Before the dough is moulded into its final shape it is preshaped and left to rest. This pause is referred to as the “bench rest”. The effects of preshaping are:

  • Air is removed from the dough
  • The gluten structure is then redefined
  • A strong membrane around the outside of the dough is generated

These benefit the dough as a stronger, more even structure is produced when the dough is shaped the second time. This enhanced structure supports the shape of the dough during the final proof, whilst also benefiting the strength of the crust.

How long should I bench rest?

The “intermittent proof” or “bench rest” duration is usually between 10 and 30 minutes. Its length is generally gauged on the temperature of the dough. After a long, cool first rise a full 30 minutes is necessary. For warmer risen “quick” bread the bench rest may be reduced to around 15 minutes.

It’s important to retain as much gas as possible in bread rolls. Therefore, most bakers will shape their rolls right after they are divided into dough pieces.

Preshaping bread into a round “boule”

The most important shape to master is the ball or “boule” shape. It’s used for everything, from preshaping yeast bread, preshaping sourdough, making round yeasted bread, final shaping sourdough and cobs. Here’s how it works:

Turn the dough upside down on the table, placing the rough side 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.

I've used my left-hand finger in the pictures below to support the dough when folding. This is for demonstration purposes and not necessary when shaping normally.
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Rounding in a rough shape into the perfect ball

Continuing the previous method, this technique turns our rough shaggy round shape and into a stronger one.

Rounding a ball of dough x
Rounding a ball of dough

Place the dough on the work surface with its smoothest side at the top. Cup your hands in a “v” shape at the side of the ball that’s furthest away from you with both little fingers touching the table. Next, drag your hands towards you using your lower fingers to pull the part of the dough closest to the table. This stretches the outer membrane of the whole dough piece.

For extra strength, try to close your palms together underneath the dough at the end of the “drag” and add a little push away to tuck the dough.

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Lift the dough up with both hands and place it back down on the worktop at a 90 degrees angle to previous. Repeat the v-shaped drag to cup method, turning the dough 90 degrees before each repeating the revolution 3-5 times. You can repeat this for longer although it’s best to make fewer firm actions. Caressing the dough endlessly will weaken the gluten.

Note: It doesn’t have to be (and won’t) be a perfect circle.

Preshaping a very sticky dough into a round

If the dough is very wet, the previous method can make the dough stick to the table. For a very wet dough, a stretch and fold method can be used to form a rough ball. The v-shaped drag to cup method can then be used to produce round it into a ball.

Final shaping into a ball

After preshaping, the dough is left to bench rest. Next, shaping the dough in a ball for a round banneton or classic “cob” shape is a popular choice. There are, of course, other methods which we’ll cover in a moment.

After 10 – 30 minutes, repeat the same technique as used in preshaping to shape the dough into a round shape. This time, you don’t need to degas, but you can if you wish.

After letting the dough bench rest, the dough will be stronger and feel more elastic.

When you get confident you’ll be able to do this shaping technique in seconds like in the video above.

Shaping a wet dough into a round

Flour on the worktop can be incorporated into the dough. This can damage the structure and flavour of your bread. It can also make it harder to shape. There are types of bread shaping techniques where this is the best thing to do, but for most sticky doughs I prefer to use an oil slick as shown in the video below.

If the dough is sticky, a firmer approach is required. This makes it more challenging for beginners but it is really the same shaping technique as previously described.

Preshaping dough into a batard

The second basic shape used to preshape dough is the batard shape. It’s used for preshaping dough that will be rolled out such as baguettes. But is also popular in sourdough baking. When using oblong-shaped bannetons sourdough bakers use this method to final shape and preshape their sourdough loaves.

Turn the bread so the rough side is facing up. Roughly flatten and stretch the dough into a small rectangle. Fold the topmost corners to meet each other in the centre, making a point.

Roll the dough towards you, pushing the dough in to stretch the outer membrane of the rolled section. Once you’ve rolled to the midway point, take the left and right sides of the dough with respective hands and stretch outwards and then fold to meet each other in the centre.

Continue rolling towards you to make a “sausage”. When rolling, be gentle in the centre of the sausage and apply more pressure as you turn the dough in.

Once rolled into a round you can opt to connect the seam tighter by pinching the seam area together or pushing it into the table with your fingers.

As a cylinder is formed, roll the entire sausage on the table a couple of times to make it smoother. You can also apply more pressure at the ends to “taper” them for final shaping, as shown in the baguette video below.

Using the flip method to shape a batard

This method makes a diamond-shaped dough piece. You can exaggerate the diamond further by changing the angle that you roll over. Some sourdough bakers use for proofing in bannetons. It’s actually great when proofing dough in a free-standing method. I use it for spelt loaves when I make them.

What is degassing bread dough?

Degassing is a key reason for shaping twice so you might be wondering how to do it effectively. Gas is produced by the yeast aerobically and anaerobically in the bread fermentation process. It starts off in liquid form but as it moves through the dough structure it finds little pockets of low pressure around the strands of gluten. As it transforms into gas, more and more is produced. This makes the pockets within the gluten structure expand for the dough to rise.

In general, dough that has been risen quickly will have lots of small gluten pockets. Slow proofing artisan loaves will have larger air pockets, but generally less. The structure of the gluten can be altered by adding extra ingredients such as fat, eggs, lecithin and by changing kneading and fermentation methods.

How to degass dough

Gas is pushed out from the dough when pressure is applied during preshaping and final shaping. We can alter crumb formation by how much gas is pushed out when preshaping.

To remove more gas, push down harder with your fingers or the heels of your hand when preshaping. You can also repeat several times to push out more gas if you wish.


When using the v-shaped drag you can apply more pressure to push further gas out the dough if you wish. This will also work if using the rolling the dough into a sausage method.

How much should you degass when preshaping?

The intended bread crumb determines how much the dough should be degassed. As a general rule, more gas should be removed when aiming for a close-knit crumb. Here are a few examples:

How to degass a sandwich bread

If trying to preserve a close-knit gluten structure suitable for sandwich or tin bread it is best to completely deflate the gas inside the dough and rebuild the gluten structure. In this case, you will want to push out as much air as possible and not bench rest for long.

How to degass a kneaded artisan loaf

For a more irregular crumb, knead the dough and bulk ferment for less. You don’t want the dough to be too gassy so a 30-40% rise is perfect. Degas with medium pressure and allow the dough to rise for longer after shaping.

How to degass a no-knead or sourdough loaf

For a no-knead loaf with an open crumb structure, the dough is bulk fermented for longer. Degassing should be minimal to retain the gas inside to open up the crumb.

How to final shape bread for a loaf pan

This shape is very common as it is used for tin and bloomer style bread. Many of the bread sold in supermarkets and bakeries will use machines to make this shape. There are two ways you can shape this dough by hand:

Basic way to shape dough for a loaf pan

Turn the dough over so the rough side is facing up and form a rough square. Poke any air bubbles with your fingers.

Take the top side, stretch and fold over to halfway. Use your fingers to push the rolled side where it meets the unrolled to merge them together.

Take the sides and stretch outwards a little, then fold for both edges to 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). Keep rolling until there is about an inch and a half remaining. Push in again with your fingers.

Give a little stretch to the remaining unrolled dough at the base to make it even with the length of the already rolled cylinder. Roll over the last section and use your fingers to push the edges together and make a smooth seam.

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A firmer way for shaping bread for a loaf pan

Turn the bread so the rough side is facing up. Roughly flatten and stretch the dough into a rectangle with the long sides pointed from you to the opposite side of the room. Fold both corners on the top section over to make a point at the top.

From the top of the dough, roll it towards you to make a “sausage”. Try to build tension in the crust by pushing the centre of the dough in with your thumbs.

Shaping a tin loaf

Roll till halfway, then, take the left and right-hand sides and stretch them out slightly before folding to be almost the same length as the bread pan.

Continue rolling again until there is only 1 inch of dough remaining. Stretch out the unrolled dough at the bottom to match the length of the cylinder and then roll it around.

If the seal is not tight, pinch it with your fingers to achieve a smoother finish. Place the dough in the tin with the seam facing down.

Surface tension created by stretching the outer membrane during both pre and final shaping is most advantageous. It helps the dough hold its shape as it rises and improves the oven spring and texture of the crust.

How to shape bread for baguettes

There are two ways to shape bread dough for baguettes. I used to use the second way for years, then discovered the easy way, now I’m back to the way most professional bread bakers follow! The first way is best for a less gassy dough when bulk fermentation is kept relatively short. Both can produce amazing results!

Shaping baguettes the easy way

Preshape into batards and leave to bench rest for 20-30 minutes. Next, place a dough piece onto a lightly floured bench and starting from the centre, roll it out into a cylinder. The technique to use is to start with your hands together, perpendicular to the centre of the dough.

Then using a back-and-forth motion, make contact with the centre of the dough and gradually rotate your hands 90 degrees as you make contact with the dough away from the centre.

It may take a few passes of this method to roll the dough to the ideal thickness. Always start from the centre and move outwards. You can taper the ends if you wish by applying more pressure there.

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

How to shape baguettes like a pro

This method is a little harder than the other version, but it enables you to shape the baguettes when they are preshaped into balls. It also removes more of the gas so is more suitable for gassy baguette dough.

After preshaping, leave to bench rest for 20 minutes. Lightly dust the work surface with flour and place a piece of dough with the smoother side facing the table. Flatten the piece into a rectangle approximately ½ inch thick.

Roll the edge that’s furthest from you towards you a full turn. Take your hands away and stretch the bottom edge so it is the same length as the rolled dough. Roll the cylinder again so there is ½ inch left unrolled.

Again, stretch the unrolled dough so it has an even thickness and is the same length as the cylinder. Roll the cylinder again, leaving just ⅓ inch unrolled. Lift the dough up to prevent it from sticking to the table, you can add more flour to the surface if you wish.

Then using your fingertips, push the seam together. Roll the cylinder with both hands, starting at the centre of the dough like in the previous method. Taper the edges if you wish and place it into a floured couche.

How to shape bread rolls

Shaping bread rolls may look easy but will require a bit of practice to master. Practice this method without any dough at first. The ideal technique starts by making circular rotations with a flat hand, moves to a hand position that’s claw-like and ends in a lightly clenched fist.

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

The stickiness of the dough will often dictate the shape of your hands, which is why perfecting this technique requires experience.

To shape bread rolls, place your hand initially flat above the dough piece. Then move your hand in an anti-clockwise circle, making light contact with the dough. Keep the circular motion going whilst cupping your hands around the dough, moving it against the table.

The process shouldn’t take any longer than 20-30 seconds. Any longer and the dough will become overworked and either tear or be too warm and sticky to mould.

When you get confident try using both hands to shape two rolls at the same time. Many bakers find it easier to do two at a time as they are more balanced.

How to shape bagels

Take a round roll and rest it for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface. Flour the top of the ball and force a hole in the centre using two fingers. Pick up the dough and stretch the hole with both hands, trying to make it as even as possible. Lay to rest on a floured tray or cover in seeds to prevent them from sticking.

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These are then boiled in a pan of hot water and malt for 30-60 seconds on each side before baking.

Shaping bread dough in a crown shape

The pattern created by pushing a wooden rod 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 ball shape. Stretch the dough out to form and ring. Leave to rest on a floured surface for 10 minutes.

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

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Shaping 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.

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How to shape bread in a four-braid plait

Making plaited bread is perfect for a showstopper loaf! It’s popular for challah and harvest loaves. 

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

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Shaping dough into a cottage loaf

Divide a rested boule into two pieces, 70:30. Pre-shape both pieces again into firm 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 area and return with two fingers to push down to form the iconic hole. This will secure the top to the bottom too!

Make 5 cuts around the outside, then proof till it just passes the poke test.

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How to shape bread dough – frequently asked questions

Does the seam 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.

How long to leave between preshaping and shaping bread 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 slow-fermented bread.

Do I have to bench rest bread rolls?

When making bread rolls, don’t preshape or bench rest. The dough should be divided into pieces and shaped straight away. Smaller pieces of dough have less food for the yeast so must be shaped quickly to prevent the gas from escaping.

Do I have to bench rest ciabatta?

The open, airy crumb of ciabatta should be preserved so you should not preshape ciabatta. After shaping and leaving in a couche for 10 minutes ciabatta may contract so you may wish to stretch them again and return to the couche.

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