How to Shape Sourdough Artisan Bread

Shaping sourdough artisan bread is a crucial step in the baking process. When done correctly, it creates tension that traps gas bubbles and encourages the bread to rise. The result is a beautifully shaped, airy and light loaf of bread with a delicious crumb. In this article, I walk you through the steps I use to shape sourdough bread dough, including how to create tension and shape your dough into boules or batards. With these tips, you’ll learn how to shape sourdough artisan bread and be able to achieve the perfect loaf of bread every time.

You will know to begin the shaping process when your dough:

  1. Has risen (not necessarily doubled) and puffed up/inflated
  2. Has bubbles on the sides and top of the bowl of dough
  3. Gently shake the bowl–the dough should jiggle
  4. The edges of the dough should dome down toward the bowl

Divide Dough into Desired Portions

Tip your bowl of dough upside down, allowing the dough to fall onto a clean counter surface. Be gentle to avoid degassing the dough as much as possible. Use a bench knife to cut the dough into however many portions you need (a smaller dutch oven will require a smaller amount of dough). This is a wet and sticky dough. A bench knife helps make the dough manageable.

Pre-Shape Sourdough Artisan Bread for Best Results

Wet your hands and the bench knife if needed. Push the bench knife under the dough on one side and use your free hand on the other side to tuck the dough under itself. The goal is to introduce some tension into the dough. Repeat this process going around in a circle until you have a ball of dough. Repeat for each loaf of bread. Watch a video of this process here.

Use a Bench Rest

Let the dough rest uncovered for about 30 minutes at room temperature. Uncovered dough will develop a little bit of a skin on the top, which is the beginning process of the dough forming its crust. The dough will flatten a bit (like a pancake) during this period of time. This allows the gluten in the dough to relax and prepares the dough to be shaped.

Boule: Round Loaf
Batard: Oval Shaped Loaf

Boule and Batard are the French words for these type of sourdough loaves

Prepare Bowls or Bannetons

Prepare a round banneton or small bowl. Alternatively you can use an oval shaped banneton. I like both, but you will need different dutch ovens for round/oval loaves. Place a kitchen towel or hair net in a bowl. Liberally flour each bowl.

After the dough has rested for about 30 minutes it is time to shape the bread.

Shaping a Round Boule

To bake a round boule you will need a round dutch oven.

Sprinkle flour on top of the dough (I use a fine mesh strainer). Using the bench knife, lift the dough up off the counter and flip it over onto the countertop, floured side down. This ensures that the flour is staying mainly on the outside of the dough. Starting at the side of the dough closest to you, pull it towards you and fold it up and place it on the center. Repeat the process by pulling the right side of the dough out, stretching it, and then back to the center. Then pull the left side of the dough out to stretch and then to the center. Pull the opposite side of the dough up and towards you and tuck it over like a package. Use your hands and bench knife if needed to drag the dough into a circle. Place the dough into the floured banneton and stitch the dough by pulling dough from the outer circle into the middle, creating tension. Watch a video of this process here.

Shaping an Oval Loaf or Batard

To bake a batard you will need an oval dutch oven.

Sprinkle flour on top of the dough (I use a fine mesh strainer). Using the bench knife, lift the dough up off the counter and flip it over onto the countertop, floured side down. This ensures that the flour is staying mainly on the outside of the dough. Starting at the side of the dough closest to you, pull it towards you and fold it up and place it on the center. Repeat the process by pulling the right side of the dough out, stretching it, and then back to the center. Then pull the left side of the dough out to stretch and then to the center. Pull the opposite side of the dough up and towards you and tuck it over like a package. Then roll the dough up into an oval shape. Place the dough into the floured banneton and stitch up the dough taking pieces and pulling them over and into the middle in a stitching motion. Watch a video of this process here.

Once your dough is shaped it will be very smooth and have a taut outer skin that is stretchy and will expand when baked.

What to do next

Refrigerated Cold Fermentation: I almost always refrigerate this dough overnight before baking it cold, straight from the refrigerator. Cover the dough with a tea towel/shower cap/plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight for best results or up to 48 hours. Video of the process here.

Room Temperature Rise: If you want to bake the same day, you can let the dough rise for about 3-4 hours and proceed with baking. Be aware, it will be much more difficult to score the dough and it may not be quite as flavorful as dough that has undergone a long cold fermentation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is shaping important?

Shaping creates tension that allows the dough to trap gas bubbles, which gives you a light and airy bread. It also encourages a good oven spring as the dough rises in the oven. If you don’t shape your bread, it may not rise correctly and may be more dense.

Is there a wrong way to shape bread?

As long as you are creating tension in the dough, I don’t think there’s really a “wrong” way to shape. Many people use different methods to shape their bread. This post shares my method.

Do I need a bench knife to shape bread?

I love a bench knife especially when working with high hydration (or sticky) dough. You don’t absolutely need one if your dough isn’t that sticky, but I love using mine.

Sourdough Artisan Bread Guide

Want more in-depth Sourdough instruction?

Check out my online sourdough classes or take a class in person.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent ideas and hints! Thank you for passionately sharing your bread baking talents with so many! ❤️🍞👩‍🍳🙏🏻

  2. I made my first loaves and the taste was delicious and nice chew to bread! Now that I have seen this good explanation of shaping and times I will be more intentional with the dough. This is like having a new baby in my life, but I can leave it alone a few days😂

    1. So glad it’s helpful! And congrats on making g your first loaves! Thats such an accomplishment 🙌🏻