There are an endless number of ways to shape bread but a few that come up far more often than others. Let’s take a closer look at a few techniques…
Sandwich Loaf – Imagine you are rolling up a poster. Flatten your dough to a rectangle roughly 6×8 inches. Working from the short side, roll up the dough tightly one rotation at a time. Each time you make a rotation pinch the crease to create suface tension. Once rolled completely place into the loaf pan to rise and bake as directed. See the Lazy Sunday Sandwich Loaf for a visual of this process.
Boule – A boule is a simple round ball and can be used as a stepping stone to many other types of shapes. Start by forming your dough into a rough round shape. Stretch the outside of the dough (using both hands from opposite sides) towards the bottom, creating surface tension. Repeat this several times, ultimately pinching the seam together at the bottom where you have been pulling the dough. See this video from Peter Reinhart for a demonstration.
Batard – A batard is a torpedo shape that can be used for a variety of loaves. To start you will pat the dough out to a rectangular shape, similar to if you were making a sandwich loaf. However instead of rolling it up, you are going to fold in the sides like you were folding a letter. Fold the bottom third of the dough into the middle, then fold the remaining dough over the top. Pinch the crease and edges closed. To get a more torpedo like shape you can first fold in the corners of the dough toward the center before proceeding with folding in the bottom third of the dough.
Baguette – To shape baguettes start by making a batard and letting the dough rest for 5-10 minutes. Next, crease the dough down the middle. Now repeat the steps you did to make the batard, folding one third of the dough in toward the crease, then the remaining dough over it. Each time you make a crease remember to seal it closed. Beginning from the center and moving your hands outward, rock the dough back and forth to the desired length. If you have trouble getting it to retain shape, let it rest another 5 minutes before rolling again.
Scoring them provides a guide for your bread to rise in the oven, otherwise it will split at the weakest point. This can result in what I affectionately call tumor bread, which rises unevenly and has a tendency to burst out wherever it pleases. While it usually tastes the same it doesn’t look nearly as good! I could go on and on here about scoring loaves but will defer in this case to The Fresh Loaf, an excellent bread baking resource that has a particularly useful page on scoring bread. I will recommend investing in a pack of double edged razor blades to score with. No need to buy a fancy $10 device, just stick a blade on the end of coffee stirrer (or if you’re adventurous just hold it carefully).
Steam plays an important part in the baking process, particularly for hard crusted breads. In the first 5-10 minutes of baking, before the yeast has been heated to the point of death (Boy, doesn’t that sound great), it goes into overdrive. This results in your bread rising an additional amount during the baking process, known as oven spring. Steam helps give an extra boost to this process and keeps the crust of your bread soft as it expands. Once the bread is done rising you can remove the steam element and your bread can develop a nice crackly and caramelized crust. Professional ovens have steam injectors, but something tells me your home oven isn’t equipped with such technology.
There are two main ways you can steam your oven. While preheating your oven place a baking pan (I use a cake pan) on the bottom rack. When you add the bread in, toss 6 ice cubes into the pan and shut the door. This will create a great deal of steam for 5-10 minutes while the bread bakes. After 15 minutes take the pan out to allow the crust to develop.
You can also mist the bread with water before baking and spray the oven walls with water when you start to bake. I used to do this but no longer advocate it for a few reasons. First, it involves that you open and close the oven door several times at the beginning of the bake, which lets out critical heat. Second, if you have an oven light you run the risk of accidentally getting the bulb wet and shattering it (I have had this happen). All in all, both methods work but there is significantly less that can go wrong with using ice cubes in a pan.
If you have a dutch oven handy (cast iron pot), you can bake bread in that to create steam as well. The superheated pot creates steam from the dough and, having nowhere to go if you have the lid on, goes back into the bread and provides oven spring. I bake most sourdough loaves in this way now. Place the dutch oven (with lid on) into the oven 45 minutes before baking and preheat the oven to 500 F. When ready, carefully place the dough into the pot and place the lid back on. Cook at 450 F for 25 minutes, then another 20 minutes with the lid off.