Learning to make great sourdough bread comes with many challenges. And scoring bread successfully was surprisingly one of the hardest parts for me to get right. It was also the most nerve-wracking part of the whole bread process, because if you get it wrong, you can’t undo it! But once you learn a few handy tips, it’s not too difficult to learn to score your bread dough like a professional baker.
Here are 7 steps to scoring bread dough successfully:
- You’ll need an extremely sharp blade.
- Make slashes to the dough swiftly; with confidence and authority.
- Don’t press down on the bread dough. Instead, let the blade do the work.
- Score the dough using your whole arm, not your wrist.
- Wet your blade with water or spray it with oil so that you get smooth cuts rather than ragged ones, mainly if the dough is sticky.
- Cold dough is easier to score, so chill it before scoring.
- Once your loaf is scored, bake it right away. Otherwise, it will start to deflate.
The tips above will give you a great head start to scoring your bread dough successfully, but let’s take a deeper look into a few fundamental techniques to get you slashing like a master baker. But firstly, do we score bread just to make it look good or is there a bigger purpose?
The Purpose of Scoring Bread
Scoring bread describes cuts made to bread dough before the dough is placed in the oven and baked. The cuts or the scoring of the bread dough are made with two purposes in mind:
- To control the way the bread expands in the oven
- To control the way the loaf will look
Why Do We Need to Control the Way Dough Expands in the Oven?
When baking bread, the intense heat of an oven causes the dough to rise rapidly by expediting the fermentation process. Through the production of gasses, the dough is forced to spring up and push against the taut surface formed during the shaping and proofing stage.
Whether intentional or not, the weakest points in the dough surface will give way and burst open. Bread bakers score dough to create these weak spots and direct the expansion of the loaf. In other words, wherever you slash or make cuts in the dough will be the places where the dough is able to expand out.
Without this step in the baking process, our loaf will burst open in unexpected areas. Some home bakers don’t mind these irregular openings, but scoring is the way to go if you want maximum height in a consistent and controlled manner.
The second purpose of scoring bread is aesthetics…
Who hasn’t been drawn to a beautifully presented loaf of bread with its dramatic, surface ear or intricate pattern? It’s here where the baker can leave his/her individual touch on the final baked loaf. Some bakers opt for a single, long slash, whereas others prefer lots of tiny cuts that together form a beautiful, artistic design.
Scoring can be simple and straightforward, or intricate and complicated. It’s a chance for the baker to really personalize their loaf of bread. And the way you score will differ depending on if you want an intricate design, or a large ear (an ear on a loaf refers to the beautiful upright crust formation that develops when you have made a deep single slash across your bread).
It’s worth mentioning here that nothing is written in stone when scoring bread dough; each baker tends to develop their own method over time. But let’s discuss the best way you can score your bread if you want to develop a beautiful ear on your loaf. (We’ll get to tips on intricate designs later)…
How to Score Bread to get an Ear on your Loaf
For an ear on your bread, the real trick is to be confident, quick and use a really sharp blade so it doesn’t drag. It’s also best to only have one or two slashes maximum, so that the dough expansion can be really concentrated to one or two areas only. This give the dough a real chance of developing that crusty ear.
Follow these steps to help get a successful ear on your bread…
- Step 1 – Consider using a fresh blade. Having a super sharp blade is absolutely essential. Check your scoring blade often. A sharp razor will glide through a properly fermented dough in swift, satisfying cuts. I like to use my blade no more than a few times before switching to a fresh side/corner. Then I can be confident it won’t drag the dough.
- Step 2 – Decide beforehand if you are scoring towards you, away from you, left or right. Usually you will have a preference that tends to feel more natural so bear this in mind when positioning your dough. If the dough is vertical to your body, scoring towards you is easier. If the dough is horizontal to your body, it is easier to cut away from your body. (But again, you will know pretty quickly which one feels more natural to you).
- Step 3 – Hold the blade lightly but firmly locked in your hand, then slice the dough in a single, smooth cutting motion. The more confidently and smoothly you go, the better the result will be.
- Step 4 – Place the dough in your oven to bake as soon after scoring as possible.
If the blade drags against the dough, even though your blade is super sharp, this can be a sign that the dough is over-proofed and has started to lose structural integrity. Next time try proofing for less time or at a lower temperature.
QUICK TIP: Warm dough is more challenging to score than cold dough proofed in a fridge. Colder dough has a tighter, firm surface that holds shape when cutting. Try placing your dough in the fridge for at least an hour to help develop a stiffer form for you to cut through more easily.
What is the Best Tool to Score Bread Perfectly?
There are a number of tools that bakers can use to score bread. Some are more effective than others. Here’s a list of options for the home baker, along with my favorites:
- A very sharp, thin kitchen knife – It must be small, thin and VERY sharp. A kitchen utility knife or kitchen paring knife can work.
- Sharp kitchen scissors – These are also a possible option, especially if you’re baking a loaf of brioche. Snipping around the edge of the bread dough gives it that characteristic mushroom top.
- Razor blade or bread lame – A lame (pronounced larm) is a tool that holds the razor blade. This is by far the option that will give you the best result.
Using a Knife to Score Bread
If you’re scoring bread dough with a kitchen knife, a sharp paring or serrated utility knife will work best. Here are some tips to get a better result:
- Hold the knife lightly when scoring the bread dough.
- Don’t press down hard on the dough. Instead, let the knife do the work.
- If working with sticky dough, wet the blade between slices.
- Slice the dough at a 40-degree angle to the surface of the loaf, about ¼ inch deep (0.6 cm).
Using Kitchen Scissors to Score Bread
Kitchen scissors are a really useful tool to score bread with when your loaf is laden with nuts or coated with grains or seed.
Straight and curved blades can snag on these additions sometimes and cause uneven and ragged scoring. Scissors provide clean and precise cuts to the dough, allowing it to open beautifully in the oven. Here are some tips to get a better result when using scissors:
- Place your fingers through the scissor loops and hold the scissors as you usually would.
- Angle the scissors to about 15-degrees to the dough surface.
- Snip the dough in a straight line from the top of the dough to the bottom. Each snip starts where the previous one finished.
- The scissors must have super sharp blades.
NOTE: You will get a different kind of scoring pattern when using scissors, because it is a completely differently way to score bread. The blade will dig into the loaf before actually making the cut, and so the scoring will be rather ragged. But this isn’t a bad thing if you include it as part of your scoring design!
Using a Razor Blade/Lame to Score Bread
A razor blade or lame is the most popular tool used to score bread dough, and with good reason. It allows the hand to be close to the dough, and the cuts made in a much more clean, smooth and precise manner.
Although using a razor blade on its own can work well, many bakers find that it feels a little too dangerous to use as an open blade. (I come under this category!) So instead you can use a bread-lame, which is essentially a tool designed to hold the razor blade safely so you can focus on the scoring without worry.
There are many different types and styles on the market, but after having tried many different lames, one of my favorites is this one sold by Wire Monkey. Its super durable, dishwasher safe, and the one that I have found to be most comfortable and natural to use.
Note: You can also buy a holster to go with it made from up-cycled leather, and they come in a range of really beautiful vibrant colors. Check them out at Wire Monkey here.
However, if you don’t want to spend the money but still want to use a razor blade safely, then you can even make your own bread lame. All you need are a few coffee stirrers.
Simply push the wooden stirrer through the center of the double-edged razor, and you have your bread lame! Of course, it’s nowhere near as sturdy as a store bought lame, but if you’re not a regular bread baker then this DIY method can work just fine.
Using a Curved Blade to Score Bread
You use a curved razor blade to score dough when you want your loaf to have a prominent ear or raised crust area. A curved blade encourages a flap of dough to form when scored. The flap peels back and pushes up the dough when it rises.
Using a curved blade is definitely for the more advanced baker, as its not as easy to score compared to a straight blade, but here are some tips if you are after that pronounced ear on your loaf:
- To score using a curved blade, hold the lame at a 30-degree pitch to the dough surface. The upward curve of the blade’s edge will help the formation of the flap of dough.
- Don’t press hard or cut the dough too deep. The scoring should be deep enough so the surface of the dough doesn’t fuse back together when baking in the oven.
- Your cuts should be between ¼ inch and ½ inch deep. If you score the dough too deep, your loaf will show signs of a cave-in in sections as the opening was too large to support the surrounding, rising dough.
- Make your cuts quickly, ensure that they’re below the taut skin formed during shaping. If there are areas where your scoring wasn’t deep enough, lightly score over the area again with the blade cutting a little deeper this time.
QUICK TIP: If using a curved blade it is NOT recommended to use the blade on its own as this is far too dangerous. Use a lame that will curve the blade for you, such as this one from Wire Monkey.
Using a Straight Blade When Scoring Bread Dough
When you score with a straight blade, hold it perpendicular to the surface of the dough.
- This cut will create a splayed opening as the dough rises rather than the dough peeling back and forming a distinctive ear.
- A straight blade can cleanly create extra decorative cuts, if you want, with a few extra slashes.
- When making small, decorative cuts, it’s best to cut more shallowly but also more often. This helps to alleviated pressure build-up evenly across the dough surface as it expands in the oven.
- Conversely, fewer, deeper cuts allow the loaf to open more dramatically in those few spots rather than evenly in many spots.
- When scoring with a straight blade, hold it lightly in your hand at a 90-degree angle to the dough. Your cuts should be slightly deeper than if you were using a curved blade. The dough will relax and open outward.
So here’s a quick summary of the different tools you can use for scoring bread dough:
|Tool to Score|
|Good For||Recommended Item|
|Sharp knife||-Occasional bread bakers|
-Basic straight slashes
|Regular pairing knife|
|Sharp kitchen scissors||-Occasional bread bakers|
-More jagged cuts
-Better suited to heavily seeded bread
|Regular kitchen scissors|
|Straight razor blade/lame||-Regular bread bakers|
-Basic straight slashes
-More intricate designs
|UFO Lame by|
|Curved razor blade/lame||-Regular & more advanced bakers|
-Better suited to produce an ear
|Arc Lame by|
My favorite scoring tool is the UFO lame by Wire Monkey. As you can see in the table above, it’s the most versatile scoring tool because you can use it for straight big slashes across your dough that open up your loaf really well. But you can also use it for prettier, more intricate designs too (tips on these later in this article).
And I even manage to get an ear on my loaf using this lame by cutting into the dough nice and deep at a 45 degree angle straight across the top!
Whichever tool you decide to use, whether it’s a kitchen knife or a proper lame, here are some common scoring designs and techniques that you can try out!
Basic Bread Scoring Designs & Techniques
When we use the word basic, it doesn’t mean that your scoring patterns won’t look great. Any single cut in the right place at the right angle can create something truly marvelous! The simplicity of an essential score highlights the bread itself and not the design. Here are some common ones…
The Single Slash
A long smooth deep slash from one end of the loaf to the other. This cut is what creates that elusive ear everyone talks about. With a bit of practice, you’ll achieve the ear you’ll be proud of!
- For the boule – Start by holding the cutting blade lightly in your hand with the blade at a 45°angle. Score the dough swiftly but carefully in a crescent moon shape from the top of the loaf to its bottom. The cut should be between 1/4 inch and ½ inch deep. (A curved lame will help create a more pronounced ear for this design)
- For the bâtard – The technique is the same. Hold the blade lightly at a 45° angle but this time score lengthwise across the bâtard loaf.
You are much more likely to achieve an ear with this design, and your loaf will open up nice and wide!
The X Score
The X score is another basic but straightforward design that’s very popular among novice and professional bakers to use on boule shaped loaves.
- Slash at a 90 degree angle (so completely head on) from one end of the loaf to the other between 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, right across the center.
- Make another slash perpendicular to the previous slash, creating an X across the loaf.
Your loaf will open up beautifully in the oven with this design that will resemble an opening flower bud!
The Square Cut
The square score is a traditional design that helps give your loaf some good height.
- Cut a square into the top of your bread dough and overlap each cut with the other.
- You can cut at an angle or straight with this one, and you can make the square as big or as small as you like.
The four deep scores allow the steam to escape while also making a hat on top of your finished loaf. Your loaf will grow nice and tall with this design!
FUN FACT: Many professional bakers use bread scoring to differentiate the loaves they’re selling. An example is where their country loaf might have a single ear and their rye loaf two parallel slashes.
Advanced Bread Scoring Designs & Techniques
When we say advanced scoring techniques, it simply means that the cuts you make will be more decorative than functional. Though the element of scoring remains with the primary cuts you make, there will be more secondary ones involved.
The primary cuts will be deep (1/4 to 1/2 inch deep), and the secondary cuts will be shallow, as they are only for design rather than to influence the shape of the loaf.
BONUS TIP: Always start with the secondary cuts first, as they are shallow and won’t deflate the dough. Leave the primary large, deep slashes for the end, just before placing in the oven.
Here are some common designs…
Adding the design of wheat stalks to your scored bread dough lends a decorative touch to your loaf. It looks both delicate and complicated but is actually quite straightforward and easy to implement to do.
- Decide beforehand where you will be placing you wheat stalks.
- Score in a downward direction to make uncompleted V’s. Remember to only make small shallow cuts.
- Once you have completed all the smaller cuts, make a deep cut to help shape the loaf in the desired shape (e.g. one of the above mentioned basic designs).
Your wheat stalks can be straight or curved, depending on the shape of the loaf or your desired result. You can create a single stalk or make several stalks together, this is a chance for you to get really creative!
The swirl is one that works well if you have a steady hand, and is much easier to do if you place your loaf on a turntable like this one (Amazon link).
- Starting from the center, cut no more than 1/4 inch deep making a swirl going from the center to the outer edges of the loaf.
Because the cut you’re making is a large one, it’s important not to go too deep with this one!
QUICK TIP: When making intricate designs, try dusting some flour on your dough before scoring. It will accentuate the design and give your bread a beautiful finish!
Things to Remember When Scoring Bread Dough…
Scoring bread dough can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like it to be. One quick slash and straight in the oven, or taking your time with pretty intricate designs. It’s entirely up to you how creative you want to be. But here are some things to always bear in mind when scoring bread dough…
- Faster strokes make for cleaner cuts in the bread dough. So score with confidence!
- Generally speaking, the cut should be between ¼ to ½ inches deep.
- A properly proofed and fully risen dough will have more air pockets, making the surface of the loaf thinner and easier to score.
- Scoring has a direct effect on the end shape of your loaf. The deep cuts you make are where the loaf will open up. So you can influence how tall, wide, long, or round your loaf ends up, simply by deciding on how to score it.
- As soon as you score, the bread starts to deflate, so place it in the oven as soon as possible after scoring.
- Allow for at least one deep cut to your bread dough:
- Primary cuts are deeper and will allow steam to escape and create an ear.
- Secondary cuts are for aesthetics, and should therefore be shallow cuts.
- A wet and sticky dough requires a shallower cut, whereas a dryer bread dough requires deeper scoring.
- Cut at an angle if you are looking for a pronounced ear.
- Cold dough is easier to score
- Your dough needs tight skin as good surface tension is more conducive to a clean cut, so shaping is an important step toward successful scoring.
- The higher the dough’s hydration, the more severe the angle of the blade should be.
- Your blade needs to be very sharp
Although scoring seems like the easiest part of the bread making process, it was something that took me quite a while to get good at. As you can see from this article, there is quite a lot to think about when scoring, from the shaping and proofing, to the depth and angle of the cut. But the more you practice, the more scoring bread will become second nature.
If you’d like a step by step path to mastering sourdough bread from beginning to end, check out my course here.