Your bulk fermentation is now complete, and you’re ready to start shaping your dough into loaves. Before you pull out your banneton, you need to pre-shape your dough to help tighten it up before the final shaping.
Pre-shaping helps to even out the structure of the bread after bulk fermentation is completed. It also acts to train the dough to hold the proper tension. This will help with oven spring and the overall shape of the loaf once baked.
There’s not many tools you need for a successful pre-shape. Gather the following and have them ready on your work surface:
To start pre-shaping, take your bench knife, and get a little bit of flour. Divide the dough into the desired number of loaves, and sprinkle the tops with a light dusting of flour. You only want to flour the top of the dough, not the work surface. We need a little bit of sticking action, so the dough doesn’t slide around too much while we are shaping it!
With the bench knife partially underneath the dough and with its edge flat against your work surface, push the dough forward (away from you). Then turn the bench knife 90 degrees and bring it back towards you, in a gentle “U-turn” motion. This will encourage the bread dough to start tucking under itself to create tension across the top.
Keep repeating this action until your dough has formed a gently domed circle. The surface should be smooth, and you might notice some bubbles trapped under the surface. These are good signs that you are creating the right amount of tension. Use your free hand as a guide to encourage the dough to take the proper shape. Your dough should have enough tension that the edges are not flat, and it springs back when poked.
Once all your dough portions have been pre-shaped, cover them with a lightly floured towel, and let them rest for 15-20 minutes before the final shape. This is called the bench rest.
Yes: there is such a thing as too much tension! Pre-shaping is a helpful step in getting an even structure, but it is important not to over do it. You want to stop pre-shaping as soon as the dough has a smooth, taut surface and is holding its rounded shape. It should be domed at the top, but not so rounded that it has a lot of height.
Over-handled dough will begin to tear, and will feel bumpy and appear ropey. It will feel very tight, and in extreme cases, will begin to fall apart. This is from the gluten getting overworked and over-tightening. If you notice this happening to your dough, don’t worry! Just let it rest on the bench for 20 minutes until it relaxes again before continuing to shape.