Artisan Breads 1..2..3..
Techniques and Tips for your Easy Artisan Loaves
So you took the dough out of the refrigerator. Now what?
Obviously, you're going to need to shape a loaf, but before you
start doing that, get a few other things ready.
- If making a hearth loaf, place a baking stone on a shelf
located about a 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the
oven. Place another shelf right below this one and place a
shallow metal pan on this shelf to be used as a steam pan
- Turn the oven on and preheat it to 25 degrees above the
initial desired baking temperature.
- Get something ready to hold your loaf. If you're making a
pan loaf, butter or spray the pan with nonstick spray then
sprinkle the pan(s) with cornmeal or coarse flour. If
you're making a hearth loaf, place a sheet of parchment
paper on an upside down baking sheet or peel (more on
- Grab some plastic wrap or a damp towel to cover the loaf
during its second rise.
There may be more way to shape bread loaves than there are
types of bread, ranging from exacting methods passed down for
generations to just using a spatula to scrape and push. Since no-
knead and artisan breads tend to have wetter doughs, your loaf
shaping should concentrate on creating a beautiful loaf, even
though it is higher in moisture and often seems to want to spread
out like a pancake on a griddle. Loaf forming should have two
goals: First, to maximize the dough strength through
shaping, and second to create a attractive, symmetric loaf.
Traditionally, kneading is the process associated with building
strength in the dough by developing its gluten structure. In no-
knead breads, time and moisture do the work that kneading would
normally do. To aid time and moisture, a few basic steps in
dough handling and loaf shaping can help build adequate dough
strength. First, most doughs benefit from being folded a few
times just prior to shaping a loaf. Folding is just what it sounds
like; place the dough on a floured surface, lift (or scrape) up the
dough a bit and stretch it (until it feels like it could tear) and fold
it in half. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat. You could fold
the dough several times, but each additional fold will provide
diminishing returns in terms of dough strength, so usually two or
three folds is about right.
The other dough strengthening technique involves stretching
gluten over the surface of the dough. The tension of the stretched
dough on the surface helps the loaf maintain its shape and makes
for a professional look.
Two main techniques can be used. The first involves stretching
the dough down from the top of the loaf to the bottom with your
hands. With a round loaf, the dough can be worked between two
floured hands, stretching the dough down and then rotating the
loaf a bit and repeating. With other shapes, stretch the dough
from top to bottom or bottom to top on a floured surface,
keeping the smooth part on top until all the rough dough seams
are on the bottom of the loaf.
The second surface tensioning technique involves pushing one
side of the dough against a hard surface to stretch out the other
side. To stretch successfully using this method, the surface must
be free of much flour. A heavily floured surface will not allow
for sufficient traction to stretch the dough.
Types of French Loaves
Baguette: a long thin loaf, ¾ to 1 ½ lbs
Batard: An oblong loaf, typically about 1 ½ lbs and 12-14 inches
Boule: a round loaf in the form of a squashed ball.
Couronne: A crown-shaped loaf
Ficelle: A long, thin loaf weighing 1/3 lb or less and 8-12 inches
Flute: A long, thin loaf weighing 1 lb or less and 15-20 inches
Miche: a very large round loaf, weighing 4-5 lbs or more
The Floured Surface
For most dough shaping, you’ll need a firm surface to fold and
shape the dough on. This can range from a clean countertop, to
a silicone or rubber mat, to a pastry frame. A clean countertop is
an easy choice but some countertop surfaces are more prone to
dough sticking than others. Silicone or rubber mats that have
appeared over the past decade adhere well to a counter and tend
to keep dough from sticking. I prefer this as a work surface.
Another option is a pastry frame, a thick cotton cloth stretched
taut on a metal and wood frame. These were popular decades
ago, but can still be found.
Whatever surface you choose, prepare it by tossing some flour
about then rubbing it in to the surface prior to placing the dough
on the surface. Once you start working with the dough on the
floured surface, move it around a bit so that the dough isn’t
sitting on one spot all the time. Sprinkle small amounts of more
flour on the surface as needed while working with your dough to
keep it from sticking. However, try to avoid adding large
amounts of flour while working with the dough on this surface as
this can result in a dough that is too dry and tough.
Shaping a Baguette
After folding the dough a few times (see above) shape the dough
into a rectangle (around 10 by 14 inches for an average home size
baguette), with the long side toward you (and the short sides to
your right and left). Now, mentally divide the dough into thirds
and fold it like you would fold a letter for a business envelope.
That is, lift up one long end and fold it to meet up with the third
at the opposite end. Then lift up the unfolded third and lift if over
and onto the 2/3 of the dough that is already folded. By doing
this, you are starting to stretch the gluten over the surface of the
dough to create surface tension, and you are leaving less dough at
the ends so that you’ll end up with a nice tapered end. Now
alternate pulling on the dough to form a long cylinder with rolling
the dough to make the cylinder even in diameter. Continue pulling
and rolling until you have a loaf of the desired length and
diameter. Take care to keep working until the appearance is very
symmetric. Even the slightest asymmetry at this stage will be
magnified greatly by oven spring. Transfer the loaf, seam side
down, to a parchment lined peel or baking sheet.
Shaping a Batard
A Batard is shaped in a manner similar to the baguette. After
folding the dough a few times, shape the dough into a rectangle
with the long side toward you (and the short sides to your right
and left). Lift one long side up and pull it to the center of the
rectangle, pressing down the edge to seal it into what was the
center of the rectangle. Repeat this with the other long side,
pulling the long edge into the center of the dough. By doing this,
you are starting to stretch the gluten over the surface of the
dough to create surface tension. Now, roll the dough back and
forth a bit to make a cylinder. Taper the ends or fold them under
a bit (whichever you prefer) and roll a bit more. Take care to
keep working until the appearance is very symmetric. Transfer
the loaf, seam side down, to a parchment lined peel or baking
Shaping a Boule
To make a boule (French for ball), flour your hands and form the
dough into a ball by pulling smooth dough from the top of the ball
down to the bottom of the ball, pressing the dough at the bottom
of the ball to seal it. Rotate the dough slightly and repeat the
process several times until a symmetric ball shape is formed with
a well-sealed seam on the underside. Place the loaf, seam side
down, on a parchment lined peel or baking sheet.
Shaping a Sandwich Loaf
Fold the dough a few times then firm out into a rectangle a few
inches longer than the loaf pan and 8-9 inches wide. Roll the
dough up from the 8-9 inch side and stretch the dough on top of
the loaf down to the bottom on the final turn. Turn the ends
under an inch or two and roll the loaf a few times until
symmetric. Transfer to a greased pan, seam side down.
Bannetons (proofing baskets) provide the baker with the
opportunity to create an appealing and symmetric loaf. The
procedure for proofing with a banneton is a bit different than with
other hearth methods, so I'll discuss the main points to remember
To prevent sticking, thoroughly rub all-purpose or bread flour
into the inner surface of the basket prior to adding the dough.
Add in a bit of whole grain flour if you wish also. There should
be a bit of leftover flour in the banneton when you complete this
step. Enough flour should be left in to fill in the grooves a bit, but
not so much that you totally fill in any of the grooves.
- Place the dough in the banneton in between the first and
second rise. Remove the dough from the first rise
proofing bowl, fold it a few times on a floured surface
then shape into a ball (for a round baneton), oval, or
whatever shape is needed to match the basket. Place the
shaped dough seam side up into the banneton. Cover the
top of the banneton with plastic wrap and allow to rise at
room temperature for about 45 minutes while the oven
- When you're ready to bake, place a large sheet of
parchment paper on a peel or baking sheet. Remove the
plastic wrap from the banneton then flip it upside down
onto the parchment paper and remove the basket.
- Your symmetric, beautiful loaf will want to undergo rapid
expansion once it gets into the oven. Unfortunately this
will create an unsightly bulge somewhere on the loaf. To
avoid this problem, Score evenly about the base of the
loaf, so that it will expand straight up from the bottom, not
the pretty top. Another alternative would be to run the
second proof for an extra long time, say 1 1/2 hours to
limit expansion in the oven. A third alternative would be to
turn the oven down to 350 and bake for a longer period. I
think the first option is best.