How to Shape Dough

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Oh good grief. The dough in your videos are waaaaaay more stable than mine. I use your basic recipe. My dough is so wet and so gassy and so sticky. I don’t know at what point in the process I go wrong. Kind of frustrated.

I’ve been making Cooks Illustrated “Almost No-Knead Bread” recipe for over ten years. I must have made hundreds of loaves by now.

I always use the exact same flour, and I weigh all of my ingredients, and use fresh yeast that I keep in the freezer. The instructions say to let rise for 8-18 hours (with a subsequent proof of 2 hours) and I always stay within these guidelines.

Sometimes the dough comes out very wet, sticky and loose and the resulting loaf shapes into a flat blob.

Sometimes, however, the dough is considerably firmer and dryer and I get a much taller, taut round that bakes up much more beautifully.

The only variable is the ambient temperature and time of the initial rise. After all this time I’ve still never figured out what contributes to a saggy, loose loaf and a taut, dryer round.

This dough had less water in it than the No Knead Sourdough recipe. You might try reducing the hydration of your dough, too. See how that impacts your shaping and final bread.

These two variables absolutely affect the texture and feel of the dough. I think you have figured it out, if I’m not misunderstanding.

The more fermented (long time and higher temperature), the more loose and bubbly the dough will be. The stickiness can be from humidity and/or extended fermentation.

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Great post and videos! How much should I worry about not incorporating too much dusting flour into the loaf when shaping? My dough tends to be on the wet and sticky side because I use a high percentage of whole grain flour (sometimes 100%) and I need higher hydration for a more open crumb. I’ve always tried to really minimize the flour I use in shaping but I’d need to use a lot more if I wanted to have the kind of control in your videos (and still have reasonably high hydration).


As long as you’re not seeing swirls of unincorporated flour in your baked bread, I wouldn’t worry about how much flour you have to use.

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What is the hydration percentage of the boule?

If you include the flour and water from the sourdough starter/levain the hydration was 72%.

24% of the flour (including the starter/levain flour in the total) was home-milled whole grain spelt.

I notice that you don’t preshape/bench rest for the pan loaf. I’ve been using some recipes from The Perfect Loaf, and Maurizio always preshapes and bench rests his pan loaves. What are the benefits to including this step for pan loaves, or do you think that it’s unnecessary for pan loaves?

When you say “this dough” had less water than the No Knead Sourdough, what is the recipe that you used?

If you’re dividing a large dough into multiple loaves, the bench rest is important to give the dough time to come together after being cut, possible into small pieces when weighing things out.

If you’re only dumping out one loaf’s worth of dough - no dividing - then a pre-shape and bench rest can still serve a couple of purposes:

  1. strengthen and organize the gluten strands further
  2. extend the fermentation by another 20-30 minutes before the dough is set in it’s final shape.

For most sandwich loaf doughs, though, I tend to end the bulk fermentation with a sense that the gluten is strong enough/my firm shaping will do the trick and with the dough quite fermented. So I don’t bother with the pre-shape and bench rest.
If I were dividing dough or the dough felt under-fermented, I might do those steps though.

75% bread flour
25% home-milled whole grain spelt
70% water
13% starter
2% salt

I made four small-ish loaves (boule, batard, oblong, and back-up). I did massive doughs like this more than once – using different whole grain flours – as I figured out lighting and more for the videos. Luckily the end product is so delicious :slight_smile:

  • 1200g bread flour
  • 400g home-milled whole grain spelt
  • 1120g water
  • 200g starter
  • 32g salt

Either of these blog posts (25-30% whole grain flour) describes my typical process (no laminating the massive doughs, though, since they would have been bigger than my table surface stretched out).

Lots of information to “digest” . . . thank you, as always. I do have one somewhat off-topic question: Do you have any general guidance on converting a sourdough recipe to using instant dried yeast? I think it’s possible to figure out the exact answer for the Pain de Campagne, as an example, because of the information you provide at the end of the recipe. But what if you don’t know the relative amounts of water and flour in the starter?Just replace the starter with equal weights of water and flour, and of course add a small amount of yeast? Or instead take the route of making a poolish the night before?

Unless otherwise indicated, the sourdough starter in recipes is usually 100% hydration, meaning 50:50 flour and water by weight. So yes, you can add those ingredients into the recipe’s flour and water totals.

I really like your idea of making a poolish the night before, though. I think that would enhance the flavor of the final loaf. When I was developing a couple of yeast artisan-bread recipes a while ago, I found that 1-2 tsp yeast rose the dough too fast – not enough time for gluten or flavor development. Using a small amount of yeast (like the Lahey no knead), autolysing the flour, using a poolish/biga are different ways to improve the gluten strength and flavor.

Great, I think I will try to convert a sourdough recipe as an experiment. By the way, I believe I saw a post of yours on another thread in which you said you were uncertain about why autolysing works to improve flavor. As far as I know, the geeky answer is given in Emily Buehler’s “Bread Science”. During the autolyse, the flour becomes hydrated, chemical reactions begin, and the pH of the dough begins to fall, with a couple of effects on flavor. First, fermentation produces ethanol, which can later convert to flavor-producing organic molecules. Second, proteases (which work better at lower pH before salt is added) produce single amino acids, which in turn can be processed by yeast, resulting in organic molecules that add flavors.

Thanks, Melissa, this post is jam-packed with truly useful information. Do you find that any of the shaping methods is preferable for whole grain doughs?

Good question. I’ve only done a few 100% whole grain loaves in the past few months. The shaping videos (and alllllllll their drafts :slight_smile: were on 25-50% whole grain doughs.

@homebreadbaker works with 100% whole grain and maybe has some tips/preferences.

From some of my past projects, I would say the weaker the gluten, the more I prefer loose shaping, to preserve whatever aeration you’ve got. But hydration is also relevant in that too.

Have you seen this shaping method? It’s neat and when I used it, I got a somewhat splayed open crumb bread.

Thanks, Melissa. I loved the instagram video. Talk about minimal shaping! And it’s interesting that he does the same thing for boules and batards or whatever those long loaves are. I wish he’d shown what one of his finished loaves looked like. I’ll have to check out his website.

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I still haven’t done a true test of the results of that shaping approach – where I have two loaves of the same dough shaped his way and a more conventional way.

But anecdotally, I seem to get a flatter, more splayed loaf with his approach. My hunch is that the crumb is more open too, but really can’t say yet.

Here’s a batard with that fold shape.