You’ve created your sourdough starter, nurtured it, mixed the bread ingredients into a beautiful dough, folded it, let it rise – and, wait? The recipe instructs you to ‘preshape’ the bread? Why would you need to shape the bread before shaping it? As you may know, I like to keep things as simple as possible and wanted to know if I could simply leave this step out.
Preshaping is a step in the bread baking process where you divide, shape, & rest the risen dough before the final shaping. It serves several purposes, including the following:
- to strengthen the dough
- to distribute the air
- to prepare the dough for easier final shaping
- to create a more uniform surface
- to help develop a better oven spring with a higher rise
Without preshaping, your loaf may potentially collapse, especially if it is a high hydration dough.
But as with most things, there are things to consider when it comes to preshaping, and it is not always necessary to preshape, despite what you hear or see in recipes. In this article, we’ll cover:
- What preshaping is
- Why it’s a good idea to preshape
- When and how you can skip preshaping altogether
- How to preshape (including some tips and tricks!)
First, let’s discuss exactly what preshaping is and why we do it in the first place…
What is Preshaping Sourdough?
Baking sourdough bread is a little different to baking bread with ordinary yeast. The sourdough process uses a long fermentation to help it rise and develop gluten rather than traditional kneading, and tends to be made using a wetter (high hydration) dough rather than a firm, lower hydration dough.
This means sourdough tends to be much more delicate to handle and requires a gentler process to help it take shape.
As they tend to flatten out far quicker and easier than a lower hydration dough, it’s usually worthwhile to preshape your dough, because it will help to keep it ‘upright’ and standing taller than if you were to skip this step (I have some pictures of a test I did later in this article where I skip the preshaping step and you can see the difference in the result).
In fact, in some cases, leaving out the preshaping step could result in a completely shapeless loaf, which is disappointing when you’ve put all that work in!
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not always necessary to preshape (which we’ll get into later), but it’s helpful to know a little about the science of sourdough baking in order to understand why preshaping might be better to do in many cases. (And of course, this’ll also help you understand when you are able to skip it too!) Let’s take a quick look at the science…
How Does Sourdough Form?
A sourdough starter is created by fermenting flour and water, cultivating the natural yeast in the air around us. You then use some of this starter as the leavening agent in bread (leavening agent is basically the thing that helps it rise).
When you make your bread, you combine the sourdough starter with flour, water, and salt. The natural yeast in the sourdough starter feeds on the flour and creates tiny pockets of carbon dioxide in the gluten proteins of the flour, which stretch to form the dough.
The kneading, folding, preshaping, and shaping steps in the dough-making process all contribute towards strengthening these gluten proteins to become strong enough to hold the shape of a loaf and form bread. Without strong gluten strands, the bread will collapse, and you will be left with a flat, heavy loaf.
However, any handling of the dough has to be done carefully, or else the gas built up during rising will be destroyed in the final dough, and your hard work wasted.
NOTE: If you’d like to learn how to master sourdough bread baking, check out my video course “Path to Sourdough Mastery“. It takes you from complete beginner, to mastering sourdough bread and working with high hydration doughs.
Now that we understand some of the science, let’s take a deeper look at the preshaping step and why it might be important…
Why Preshape Sourdough?
As I mentioned earlier, preshaping is one of the later steps in the sourdough bread making process needed to help build gluten, the stuff that holds your bread up.
You will have already kneaded/folded the dough and started to build that gluten, but preshaping is essentially your last chance before baking to incorporate strength into the gluten before baking. Yes, you do have the final shaping, which also helps build strength a little, but the final shaping is focused more on the actual finished look of the bread rather than about building and strengthening the gluten.
In addition to building strength in the gluten, there are other things that preshaping does too. In fact, there are 4 main reasons why preshaping is a valuable step in the sourdough baking process.
#1: Preshaping Helps To Strengthen the Dough
We’ve already discussed this one, but simply handling dough, also known as ‘agitating’ it, for example, by kneading, folding, or preshaping, strengthens and aligns the gluten in your dough.
A strong dough means that your loaf will hold its shape or structure while baking and rise proud and tall. Preshaping gives you the last chance to strengthen a weak or slack dough that would otherwise be difficult to shape and could collapse and spread during baking.
#2: Preshaping Helps To Create Surface Tension on the Loaf
One of the preshaping (and shaping) processes’ main goals is to create a robust and uniform surface for your bread, called surface tension. Basically, a smooth, tight outer surface that holds the inner bread together.
Preshaping ‘pre-prepares’ the surface of the loaf, making the final shaping easier with a higher chance of success in staying as upright as possible.
Having good surface tension on your loaf helps develop a good crust, and preshaping is the initial step towards developing this.
#3: Preshaping Makes the Final Shaping Easier
Preshaping transforms the bulky risen dough into manageable and uniformly sized and shaped pieces of dough that you can shape into your desired loaf, be it circular (a boule) or a longer loaf (baguette).
Think of preshaping as a kind of ‘rehearsal’ for the final shaping. You make a rough shape in the preshaping phase that then makes it far easier and quicker to do the final shaping.
Since the preshaping has also strengthened the dough, refining the dough’s shape during the final shaping will be easier.
#4: Preshaping Helps Give an Even Crumb Texture In the Loaf
Preshaping the dough evenly distributes the gas bubbles throughout the dough. Once the loaf has been pre-shaped, the gluten strands have some time to settle, reorganize and become more uniform within the shape that has been formed, giving the bread a much more uniform texture inside.
Some fermentation also occurs during the rest after preshaping, allowing for further gases to developing in crucial areas of the loaf in its new shape, developing a pleasing texture or ‘crumb’.
What Happens if I Don’t Preshape my Sourdough?
Having gone through all the benefits that preshaping brings, what happens if we don’t preshape? Is it something we can potentially skip out of the process altogether and still get a half decent result?
Contrary to popular belief, preshaping is not always necessary in sourdough bread baking.
Yes, you read that correctly! I have tested skipping out the preshaping step as an experiment and I learned loads about when it does and doesn’t matter.
But first, let’s take a look at potentially what can happen if you don’t preshape when you should have…
Spreading Can Occur When you Don’t Preshape your Dough
A lot of the time, the final shaping alone doesn’t build enough tension on the surface of the dough to stop the loaf from spreading out into a flat pancake. There needs to be enough surface tension to hold the whole loaf in an upright shaped position and skipping the preshape could potentially cause your dough to spread out rather than grow tall.
Not Preshaping Can Produce an Uneven Texture in Your Bread
Without the manipulation through preshaping, the air bubbles created during the bulk fermentation process will not be evenly distributed throughout the dough. Poor distribution means that there will be big and small air bubbles in the dough, creating an uneven texture.
The rest period after preshaping allows for additional fermentation in its preshaped form, allowing the gluten strands a chance to even out in its new shape, so that the final shape can simply finalise the surface tension and allow the crumb to be nice and even throughout the loaf.
When Can You Skip Preshaping Sourdough?
From my experience in baking sourdough (and my desire to always be making my process as simple/lazy as possible!) I have found that preshaping is only necessary when working with dough that has a hydration higher than 80%.
Many sourdoughs are made at hydrations of less than 80%, and I have found that preshaping becomes less important as the hydration is less.
In fact, even when working with higher hydration, if my dough seems to have enough strength in it already, I don’t bother preshaping and simply make the final shape before leaving it to rise for a final time before baking.
Granted, this does take some experience to figure out, and as a general rule, if you are after a picture perfect sourdough result, then best practice is to always preshape.
But don’t assume it is always a necessary part of the process. Especially when working with lower hydration doughs, I have found that skipping the preshaping step has still given me really great results.
Here’s a table for quick reference of when preshaping may or may not be necessary, depending on how important the result is to you: (‘oven spring’ refers to how well the bread rises when baked)
|65 – 70%||-Good oven spring|
-Slightly more even crumb
|-Good oven spring|
-Fairly even crumb
|70 – 80%||-Good oven spring|
-Slightly more even crumb
-Slightly weaker crust
|-Good oven spring|
-Fairly even crumb
|80 – 100%||-Better oven spring|
-More even crumb
-Stronger, crispier crust
|-Flatter loaf shape|
As you can see from the table above, the higher the hydration in the dough, the more important the preshape becomes in the whole process.
REMEMBER: Hydration is not the only factor in how ‘wet/lax’ the dough is. It will also depend on the type of flour you are using, how strong it is, how absorbent it is, etc. For more information about the types of flours and how they affect the result of your bread, check out my flour guide here.
If you are working with a very loose, lax feeling dough that tends to fall flat quite easily (this tends to happen with higher hydration doughs), then you should definitely preshape. Because it will make a difference to the end result.
In fact, in these cases, assuming you haven’t over stimulated or over fermented the bread, you can even preshape more than once. And each time you preshape, you help the loaf to stand a little taller each time.
TOP TIP: Preshaping more than once gives the bread an opportunity to stand even taller and hold its shape even better when baked! Try preshaping twice with some rest after each preshape to get an even better oven spring.
At What Stage Do You Preshape Sourdough?
Preshaping takes place after the long bulk fermentation or rise. I’ve detailed out the VERY basic process for making sourdough here to give you a better idea of when it should be done, but if you’d like a more detailed recipe to follow, check out my beginner sourdough bread recipe here.
NOTE: If you’re ready to master sourdough bread baking at a higher level, check out my video course here for a full path to sourdough mastery from beginning to end!
Here are the basic steps, where preshaping is included in step 4:
Step #1: Autolyze
- Combine the wet ingredients (water, sourdough starter, oil, etc.) with the dry ingredients (flour, salt) to form a shaggy, dryish mixture.
- Cover your mixture with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap and leave it to ‘rest’ for 30 minutes to an hour.
- Resting will allow the mixture to autolyze, which means that the flour will start absorbing the liquids, which kickstarts the fermentation process.
NOTE: For more detailed information on the autolyze process, check out my article here. I go into detail about the how, when, why, of autolyze, and when it is or isn’t necessary when making sourdough.
Step #2: Kneading/Folding and Rising
- Keeping the mixture in the bowl, use your hands to form or roll the mixture into a rough ball.
- Once again, cover your dough with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap and leave the dough to rest for 15-30 minutes.
- At this stage, different bakers approach their bread differently. Some bakers knead the dough. Others repeatedly fold, stretch and rest the dough over a few hours to slowly develop the gluten.
If you’d like to see how I do it, check out my beginner friendly recipe here.
Step #3: Bulk Fermentation, Proofing, or Rise
- Cover the dough as before. The dough needs to rise in a warm room for a few hours or in the refrigerator overnight.
- The dough is ready when it has risen a decent amount no longer looks dense. This proofing process can take anything from 3 to 12 hours, depending on the environment, much longer than bread with commercial yeast. Remember that sourdough is a natural product and will be variable. Generally, the warmer the environment, the faster the rise.
TOP TIP: Deciding when the dough has finished rising is generally the trickiest bit for most sourdough bread bakers. Here’s a guide I wrote to help you understand what signs to look for when deciding if it is time to preshape/shape the dough.
Step #4: Preshaping
- Lightly flour a board or surface.
- Tip your dough out. It will be pretty sticky, so you may need to use a scraper.
- If you want to make more than one loaf or several rolls, divide the dough now.
- Fold and stretch the dough using your preferred preshaping method so that the dough forms your desired shape.
- The dough needs to ‘bench rest’ for about 30 minutes.
Step #5: Second Rise
- Preheat the oven during this rise.
- Shape the dough into its final shape.
- Many bakers use a proofing basket, colander, bowl, or Dutch oven to hold their sourdough loaves for the final proofing. You will need to line your container with a damp cloth, baking parchment, and flour to stop the dough from sticking.
- Allow the dough to rise. Again, this will depend on the environment and can take a few hours.
NOTE: For information on what kind of equipment you might need to bake sourdough bread, check out my article “What you Need to Bake Sourdough Bread“. I go through what you do and don’t need to start you off.
Step #6: Score and Bake the Dough
- Place the dough onto the prepared baking stone, tray, or into a Dutch oven.
- Make a slash about 2-3 inches long down the top of the dough. This slit will allow steam to escape during baking and allow rising.
- Place the dough in the oven and bake for about an hour.
NOTE: For a more detailed guide on scoring your sourdough bread, check out my article here.
How to Preshape Sourdough: 3 Different Methods
There are as many ways of preshaping dough as there are sourdough bakers. If you’d like to see how I do it, you’ll find details in my beginner friendly recipe here. You’ll need to practice and gain experience to find your method. But what’s important is that with preshaping, you’re not aiming for a perfect shape; that comes later with the final shaping process.
What you’re aiming for, is a rough initial shape, and to tighten and smooth out the surface of the dough, and let it rest for a while. This will help:
- The surface to dry out a little
- The gluten strands to settle into its new shape.
Here is a simple approach to preshaping sticky sourdough. And then we’ll get into 3 different methods for you to try out:
- Very lightly flour your work surface – use no flour at all rather than too much flour, which will prevent your dough from sticking together.
- Tip out your bulk fermented dough – The dough will be very soft, bubbly and fragile, but will have some stretch. If it is too sticky, use wet hands or VERY gently use a dough or bench scraper to pull it away from the bowl’s sides.
- Divide the dough – Into as many pieces as you require using your scraper to ‘cut’ it. This must be a quick motion not to degas the dough and lose the bubbles that have developed during the rising process. Begin working with one piece of dough and set the others aside, covered with damp kitchen towels.
- The dough should be rough-side up.
- Preshape the dough using one of the methods below. (The first two methods are best for creating round loaves).
Preshaping Method #1:
- One side at a time, use your hands to gently pull the sides of the dough upwards and towards the center of the dough to create a ‘package’ with a ‘seam’ on top.
- Lift the package and turn it over, seam side down. You may need your dough scraper to help you.
- Once it is turned over, slide the scraper under the dough to neaten it up, and allow to rest.
Preshaping Method #2:
- Using your bench scraper with your hand as a support, gently lift one side of the dough, and fold it towards the middle.
- Repeat this with the other side, then fold over from below.
- For the final fold that is from above, you fold it over enough to turn the whole dough ball over, making the seam fall under and the smooth side on top.
You can see an example of this in my video here (it’s the method I use the most):
Preshaping Method #3:
- This method is an excellent method for very sticky or well-hydrated dough.
- Gently stretch and press the dough into a rectangular shape.
- Divide the dough into three imaginary sections. As if folding a letter, fold the left third of the dough over the middle section. Then fold the right third over that.
- Roll the dough down from the top.
- Turn the dough so that the fold or seam is on the bottom.
TIP: You can use any of the methods above and repeat the technique until you have a smooth surface and shape, with no bulging sides.
Resting Sourdough After Preshaping
Once the dough is preshaped, set it aside in its basket or on a floured board to rest for 30 to 60 minutes before final shaping. During this time the surface of the dough will dry out and the gluten within the dough will reorganise itself into its new shape.
After resting, the dough will have spread and flattened a little, which is completely normal. The final shaping will prop it back up to its original shape.
Tips for Preshaping Sourdough Successfully
As with any skill, learning how to preshape sourdough takes practice; this is the best tip a baker can give you. When you see it being done, it looks super quick and easy, but that’s because the baker has had many years of practice!
Here are some other helpful tips I can give you from my own experience that’ll help you preshape sourdough successfully:
Tip #1: Work with Wet, Rather than Floury Hands
Sourdough usually has high hydration, which means it is very wet and sticky. Many people make the mistake of adding flour in order to prevent the stickiness, but this is counterproductive! Use wet hands to manipulate and handle the dough, rather than using flour.
Why Use Wet Hands Rather Than Floured Hands to Handle Sourdough?
There’s a couple of reasons:
- Wet dough is very ‘thirsty‘, so it will absorb the flour, upsetting the dough’s hydration level and composition.
- Flour will create dry outside surfaces on the dough, which prevent it from sticking together as you fold and rotate it during preshaping.
Tip #2: Work Quickly, Lightly, & Gently
Remember that although you are creating robust gluten and surface tension, you must work gently so that you do not squash all of the air out of the dough. Sourdough is a very gentle beast when compared to regular bread dough, so working gently is important to prevent tearing and/or snagging the.
Preshaping is a quick process, so don’t overthink it. Work as quickly and as gently as you can.
What Happens If I Don’t Work Gently/Quickly when Preshaping Sourdough?
Heavy handling can actually result in a poorly risen, tough loaf.
Tip #3: Stop As Soon As the Dough is Shaped
There is a danger of over preshaping the dough. It’s tempting as a beginner to try and make the dough ‘more smooth’ or ‘more round’. Stop preshaping as soon as the surface is smooth and uniform.
What Happens If You Over Shape Sourdough?
If you over shape sourdough you run the risk of over stretching the tension you have created on the dough surface, potentially tearing it and deflating the dough.
The resulting loaf can also end up quite dense if it has been handled too much.
Tip #4: Allow the Preshaped Dough to Rest
The bench rest after preshaping the dough is as vital as the preshaping process itself. During the rest, the preshaping benefits take place:
- The strengthened gluten relaxes
- The gases settle
- The dough comes to room temperature
What Happens if You Don’t Rest Dough After Shaping?
It will be challenging to create your loaf’s final shape without resting, as the gluten haven’t had time to relax and settle, so it may be resistant. You will also lose the benefits of the preshaping process, which helps keep the loaf more upright and gives it a more uniform shape and a more airy texture. .
Preshaping is a short but beneficial step in the process of baking sourdough bread.
Once the dough has had its first long fermentation or rise, the dough needs to be divided and given a basic shape.
However, this preshaping also has the advantages of strengthening the gluten and distributing air in the dough, resulting in a better structure and better crumb in your final loaf. It is worth taking the time to reshape and rest the dough if you want a better sourdough baking result.