A friend recently asked me what drew me into my bread making obsession. I shared that when I first started, I had no idea I’d totally fixate on this. All I was doing was jumping on the bandwagon and my only goal was to be able to make a decent-tasting loaf of bread. But once I made my first few loaves, inevitably, my sense of aesthetics kicked in and I didn’t want to just create decent-tasting bread, I wanted it to look good as well as taste good.
Then I wanted it to be much more nutritious than other bread. In essence, I went on, what drew me in was the nuance; those little niggling details that all come together to create a beautiful loaf of bread. As I discovered, all those little things affect how the bread turns out. And one of those little things I have found to be absolutely critical is, of all things, pre-shaping.
I have to admit that when I first started out, I kind of took the pre-shaping step for granted. After all, it seems like such a minor step: Shape the dough into a ball, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then shape. And mind you, I was learning alot of technique from YouTube videos, and none of the chefs I watched ever explained the importance of this step. But I found that the more care I put into pre-shaping, the better my loaves turned out. Let me explain why…
First, pre-shaping establishes the “skin” of the bread; essentially creating the canvas that will be presented to the world. But that skin isn’t just for looks. It plays a vital role in the overall structure of the loaf. Arguably, this is the most important item of pre-shaping’s importance. In pre-shaping, you don’t want to just create a smooth outer skin, it has to be taut, stretching the gluten strands to begin to establish the outer structure of the loaf.
Secondly, pre-shaping begins orienting the gluten strands to make it easier for the ultimate shape. It doesn’t seem that apparent when making boules or batards, but that orientation is really apparent when making baguettes. It gives the dough a little bit of a head start before shaping.
Finally, pre-shaping re-arranges the yeast and other microbes in the dough, so that the little beasties that have exhausted their food supply during bulk fermentation can be moved to a new spot to get new food. This may explain why oftentimes during pre-shaping, you’ll see bubbles spontaneously form. Pre-shaping wakes up the microbes and that’s a great thing. You want them to be active during final proof!
When I first started out and didn’t put any emphasis on establishing the skin, I believe it negatively affected my ultimate shaping in that my loaves would often collapse. But once I started making sure I’d create a nice, smooth, taut skin during pre-shaping, I had fewer and fewer collapses to the point where my loaves – which are generally 75-80% hydration – just don’t collapse unless I over-proof them.
But as I always say, this is just one aspect of the whole process; though on the surface it seems like a minor item, it really isn’t.