In this guide on how to preshape bread dough, I'll outline a step in bread baking that sometimes gets overlooked, but I find it critical in setting the stage for successful shaping.
Prehaping is the step in the baking process after bulk fermentation and division, where you loosely gather up each piece of dough into a form that will help facilitate final shaping. It's called preshaping because it's the step right before you shape the dough into whatever your end loaf will be: a batard, a boule, a baguette, etc.
At a high level, preshaping bread dough:
Why do I need to preshape my dough?
Preshaping does a few things; aside from transforming the dough from bulk fermentation into smaller pieces that are more orderly and ready for shaping into its final form, it also can be used to add additional strength to your dough.
When bulk fermenting dough that makes for more than one loaf, there comes a time when you have to transform that dough into smaller pieces, each a loaf on its own. Dividing takes that dough from a big piece of dough into small pieces, and those smaller pieces need to be shaped into their final form before proofing. To make this transition easier, preshaping is performed to gently get those pieces into a shape that will result in an even and consistent final shape.
Besides helping to shape, I like to think each time I round and tuck the dough when preshaping as adding in a little extra strength, like a single stretch and fold. It's a place where you can also correct for a dough that might be a little too slack but giving it a strong preshape with several rounds and tucks, giving it a strong outer skin of dough that will help keep it in form while shaping and into proof.
With all that said, there are times when preshaping bread dough isn't necessary and you can skip the step.
Can I skip preshaping my bread dough?
Yes. It's not mandatory you have to preshape, and in some cases it might not make sense to preshape at all. This is all related to dough strength: if your dough is strong enough and doesn't require any help getting into its final form, no preshape is needed.
A good example is when I'm baking my sourdough miche. Because it's a single, large piece of dough, there's no dividing. It's also typically strong enough to skip the preshape (although not always) and shape it directly.
The important thing is to be flexible. If the dough feels very strong coming out of bulk fermentation, either because you've mixed it to great development, given it many sets of stretch and folds, its hydration is on the lower end, or all of the above, skipping preshaping might make sense.
How to preshape bread dough
Before starting to preshape, step back and assess your dough at the end of bulk fermentation: is it slack and weak looking1? Or does it look like it has well-defined edges, is smooth, and on the stronger side? If the dough is on the weak side, go into preshaping knowing you might want to impart additional strength by preshaping more aggressively. If the dough is smooth and strong (as you can see in my video below), you can be gentle with fewer movements.
Using your bench knife at a shallow angle with the work surface, push the dough while at the same time using your wet hand to tuck it under itself, creating tension. It's a fluid motion, pushing and slightly rounding with your bench knife while using your free hand to continue the rounding motion while tucking the dough slightly under itself.
One thing you'll begin to learn with time is how to push, tuck, and pull the dough to keep it in a mostly round shape. It's easy to get a side of the dough “stranded” and hard to incorporate back in to keep the round symmetrical. The best way to keep everything together is always to remember to slightly tuck the dough under itself as you're pushing and rounding.
Let's take a look at how to preshape bread dough with a video (and some explanation along the way).
Video: how to preshape bread dough
The following video shows me preshaping a recent bread dough at about 70% hydration. As I mention in the video, the dough is rather strong, and you can see the result: very little effort and manipulation to get it into a gathered up round ready for its bench rest.
See my YouTube channel for more bread videos.
Why is my dough tearing during preshaping?
If you find your dough is tearing or breaking apart when preshaping, you might be forcing the dough or overly tightening it.
Why is my dough too sticky to preshape?
If you find your sourdough bread dough is too sticky when you are dividing and preshaping, it might be because it's over hydrated, under strengthened, or under proofed. The majority of the time, I see this because the dough needed less water or more kneading upfront (or stretch and folds during bulk fermentation). Next time, try either reducing the water in the mix (which will bring strength to the dough), knead for longer, or give it more strengthening during bulk fermentation.
After your dough is preshaped, the next step is the bench rest.
What is a bench rest?
A “bench rest” is the time right after the dough is preshaped up until the time when the dough is shaped. During this time, the dough relaxes and spreads on the work surface. This relaxation is important: if you tried to shape your dough right after preshaping, it would likely be too taut and strong, tearing as you forced it into shape.
Giving the dough some time to rest allows the gluten to relax, making it easier to shape the dough into its final form (e.g., a batard, boule, etc.). And the amount of time to allow the bench rest can vary. Let's talk about why the duration is important.
How long should I bench rest dough?
The exact duration of time you let the dough rest after preshaping isn't as important as the state of the dough when you go to shape. You want the dough to have relaxed outward to some degree. It shouldn't be a flat pancake on the work surface (and if so this would mean your dough went into preshaping under strengthened), and it shouldn't be so tight and gathered into a ball you can't stretch the dough and perform final shaping.
The goal is to give the dough enough bench rest time to relax outward enough to make shaping possible without tearing or forcing the dough. For a typical sourdough bread recipe at moderate hydration (like my Beginner's Sourdough recipe), I'd expect the bench rest to be around 30-40 minutes, depending on how tight you preshaped the dough.
Now that you've got how to preshape bread dough down pat try it out with a few of my beginner sourdough bread recipes and guides to get a feel for it. Of course, it's a skill that you'll likely use in most of your baking, but working with a lower hydration dough that isn't excessively sticky helps!
A good sign of this can be the edge where the dough meets the container is flat and has no definition (convex) at all.↩