I have been puzzling over how to approach this next topic, the “how-to” of shaping loaves. It seems to make sense in this era of YouTube to demonstrate the skill of shaping by video, rather than by written word and pictures. My problem is this– I have no desire to see myself on video nor to have others see me on video either. When I was younger, I played several stage roles in community theater, one of which earned me a standing ovation with much cheering when I played Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.” That was 1983. I’m not quite as cute as I was then. So here’s what I propose:
1) Watch as many YouTube videos as you can about shaping. There are plenty of them already. You will see that not everyone does it in exactly the same way, so there’s no one right way to do it. Take heart in that, please. And then practice, practice, practice.
2) Here’s how to tell if the dough is ready to be deflated and shaped–a very reliable and simple test. Wet your finger with water so that it won’t stick to the dough and push it into the middle of the risen dough about 1/2″. If the dough is ready to be deflated or degassed (or sometimes people refer to this as “punched down” although I never punch–I press the dough down), it will feel spongy and the little hole you’ve made with your finger will not fill in. There are two other responses that your dough may show you and I’ll describe them so you can know what you don’t want to see. If the dough feels firm and seems like it wants to fill in a little when you remove your finger, it needs to rise longer. If the dough kind of sighs and retreats as you push in your finger, it has already risen too long. You can’t fix that; just go on to the next step and try not to let it rise too long (overproof) on the next rising.
3) Don’t be afraid of handling the dough. Yes, there is a living thing in the dough–the yeast. And you don’t want to tear the gluten strands that have been developing, but you can handle the dough. Handle the dough purposefully but gently, rather than punching or slapping or pulling, or anything vigorous like that. The dough must be deflated or degassed before shaping. It can be done by flattening the dough with your hands or with a rolling pin. This is good for the dough. For a long time, I was afraid that I would ruin the strength of the bread dough with my pressing or shaping of it, so I handled it very little and probably set several loaves down for proofing that were not well shaped and had little tension on the surface.
4) After the dough has been deflated (some of the carbon dioxide that has been filling all those air pockets has been released) then Laurel Robertson of Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book recommends rounding the dough. (I admit that I don’t always do this.) She removes the dough from the rising bin so that the dough surface is maintained intact. In other words, after your loaf is formed, you will be seeing the very same surface dough that was exposed when you looked at it in the rising bin. To round it up, she suggests imagining the dough like a flower that has opened up completely and you are going to help make it into a bud again. Fold in edges of the dough to the center, going around until you end up with a ball shape. Hold the ball on the table with both hands and apply a little pressure as you give the ball a little turn. Doing this a few times increases the surface tension of the skin . Notice in the picture to the left, the bottom of the ball of dough has sort of pulled itself together more tightly after having turned the ball a few times on the work surface.
5) Dough needs to rest a little while (5-10 minutes) after rounding before it is shaped into whatever type of loaf you want. This is the time to prepare whatever pan or banneton you will be using for the final proof. Cover the dough up with a cloth or plastic so that the surface does not become dried out during the rest.
Lots of recipes tell you to cover the dough with plastic wrap. Rather than using wrap from the roll, I will often use one of those plastic bags that I put my fresh produce in at the grocery store, assuming that the bag didn’t get too wet and yucky. If it’s only slightly damp inside, I just turn the bag inside out to dry and use it later. I cut the bottom off the bag which makes the bag into a large rectangular sheet of plastic to use for covering the rising or resting bread.
6) After the dough has risen for an hour or so (go by whatever recipe you are following) you are ready for the fun part–shaping the dough into loaves. And that, my friend, will be the subject of the next post.