shaping dough, or why gluten is like a toddler

I like to tell people that gluten is like a toddler. It will happily go where you want it to go—as long as you let it think it’s its own idea. Also, it gets tired really quickly. If you try to keep working it once it’s hit the point of exhaustion, it will completely break down and refuse to do what you want it to do. But if you let it nap often, everything will be just fine.

The best bread shaping occurs in stages. Each step slowly increases the tension of the gluten, giving it the strength to hold its shape. It also slowly pushes the gluten into the final shape you want to achieve. As you slowly ease it into the right direction, it will follow along thinking the final shape is its own idea.

The basic sourdough recipe that we made last week is a low-hydration dough, meaning the ratio of water to flour is quite low. This makes dough that is easy to knead and quickly form into a round without too much technique in shaping. However the end result doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor and is a bit more dense than many bakers desire. It’s a great beginners loaf in order to get used to sourdough technique.

The whole wheat sourdough recipe that we made this week is a medium hydration, meaning the ratio of water to flour is not so wet that it’s scary to touch, but it is probably much looser than any dough you’ve made before. It can’t really be kneaded like the basic sourdough, it requires stretching and folding and stretching and folding in the mixing bowl. This additional water helps the yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes to get to work much more efficiently, giving the dough more flavor, more structure, and more rise. But when it comes to shaping, it needs a bit more technique to effectively build the tension that keeps the round in place.

When working with a medium or high-hydration dough, I like to allow 6-8 hours of bulk fermentation before shaping into loaves. After shaping, it gets another 3-4 hours of fermentation to rest the gluten before baking.

The wet dough prefers to stick to its self rather than your hands. If you keep your hands clean and slightly wet, and use a light touch, even a really sticky dough will maintain its shape. It can be really strange to get used to at first, but the more you work with the dough the more you will get the hang of it.

The first step of shaping is called the pre-shape. Very lightly flour the table or counter that you plan to work on and pour the dough out of the bowl. Fold the dough in half so that the top and bottom of the dough are lightly floured. This will help to form a skin on the outside of the dough without drying out the interior. The skin will help you shape without getting the dough stuck to your hands. Too much flour, though, and the dough will slide around the table rather than build up tension when you shape.

Pull the dough towards yourself in order to create tension on the front and the back of the dough. Rotate 90° and repeat. This technique takes a lot of practice, so don’t be discouraged if you have trouble at first! Watch the video below and try it for yourself.

After this preshape, dust the top of the round with a bit more flour and let the dough rest 5-10 minutes. The gluten needs to relax so that it will willingly move into the final shape without tearing.

When you are ready for the final shape, flip the dough upside down so that the floured top of the round is on the table. Pull the top of the dough down 2/3 and fold the bottom up over, like folding an envelope. Repeat from the left and the right. Finally, fold the dough in half and pinch the bottom to seal. Now repeat the same motion as the pre-shape, pulling the dough towards yourself, rotating, and repeating. Do this 2-3 times until the round feels strong, then place it upside down in your banneton or in a bowl lined with a floured dishtowel.

Again, this technique takes a lot of getting used to. Remember that the dough is much stronger and more resilient than you think. It can stretch quite far without breaking, so don’t be afraid to stretch it! Watch the video below and try for yourself.

As you shape today, meditate on Psalm 139. Thank God for carefully crafting all of creation in such remarkable ways so that we can even see God in making and shaping bread. Examine the places where your communities, mentors, and most importantly God have slowly pushed you into the directions you need to go, allowing you to rest often so that you don’t tire out. Thank God for His patience and pray that you too will remain patient with yourself and with others as our communities are slowly shaped and formed through tension. Pray that you will be able to be a patient, shaping force in your own communities to build the interdependent strength necessary to carry on working for justice and reconciliation.