Step 8: Shape and Proof

Picture of Shape and Proof
Now, the dough has fermented for four hours. It will have expanded and will likely have a yeasty odor. This is good. Lightly flour the surface that you would like to use for shaping and move the dough from the bowl onto that surface. You will notice bubbles have formed and that the dough is quite loose and elastic.

Often, bakers will divide the dough and form it into a round pieces, called a preshape, and let it rest for awhile before they move to the final shaping phase. For a small amount of dough like this that step is unnecessary.

So, get a knife, divide your dough into two equal pieces and shape them into loaves. There are many different formed that can be created when hand shaping bread. The two pictures are the batard and the boule .

A batard is an elongated, vaugely football-shaped loaf of bread. It can be shaped by stretching the dough out, folding in the sides, and rolling it up into the batard shape. The two folds of bread that create the seam are pressed together against the shaping surface to fuse it shut. The batard is then placed seam-side down on a lightly floured baking tray.

A boule is the easiest shaping technique to learn. It is the simple round shape. One method to shaping is to fold the sides under and to push the middle outward as if you are feeding the edges of the dough into a sack. When the sack is getting full (if the surface tears it is too full!) the edges of the mouth of the sack are brought together. Traditionally, the seam-side is then placed down on a board and the loaf is quickly rotated. The slight sticking of the dough to the wood eventually fuses the seams together and the loaf is shaped. I have very large hands so I actually pinch the seam closed with a rotating motion using the palm of my hand.

There are two mistakes easily made when shaping a loaf of bread. The first is to degass the bread. The primary fermentation has built up all these lovely bubbles, do not force them out of the bread! Be as gentle as possible with the dough in this step because the gas suspended there will help to achieve a good rise during baking. The best way to avoid this is to not press down on the dough.
The second mistake is to lose tension of the dough during shaping. This is a bit difficult to explain but, imagine if you were wrapping a rubber cord around a pencil. You would get nowhere if you let go of it frequently to get a better position for winding. It is the same with shaping the loaf. When you have folded the dough and are getting ready to roll it up for a batard, do not let go of the dough! Keep a hand on it to maintain the tension or your loaf will sag and flow outward. It will end up being flat and very wide. A tightly-shaped loaf will remain tall and nearly identical to the form you create when shaping it.

In bakeries, baskets covered with floured linen are often used to allow the bread to "proof" or undergo the secondary fermentation. This object is called a couche and is very nice for certain purposes but unnecessary here.

What we will do is place the shaped loaves seam-side down onto a lightly floured baking pan. Make sure to allow a lot of space between the loaves, they are going to grow. Cover the loaves in floured plastic wrap, or another damp cloth. Keep them at room temperature and allow the loaves to rise for two hours. Try to disturb them as little as possible.

Note: When some people think of sourdough, they want a very sour taste to their bread. This recipe is not designed to have a very sour taste, but a very complex flavor. If you want to have an even tangier loaf there is an easy way to achieve this at this step. Wrap up your loaves very tightly and immediately put them in the refrigerator. Leave them there for 24 hours. When that time is up take them out and proceed with the instructions as normal.
Why this makes the dough more sour is that bacterial metabolisms operate better at lower temperatures than those of bread yeasts do. So, when you refrigerate the dough the yeast slows down to a crawl and the bacteria slows down to a slow walk. The bacteria in the culture are what produce the acidity so the yeast have been effectively put on hold while the bacteria have some time to produce the acids. When the dough comes back to room temperature the yeast start working faster than the bacteria again to produce gasses. However, the bacteria had the chance to produce all the tang that is the feature of some sourdough breads, but were able to do so without the bread overproofing.