Once your dough has risen, it will feel slightly billowy and much more extensible than when you first mixed it. The dough is now ready to move on to the next step – dividing. This recipe will yield two large loaves, three medium-sized loaves, or four small loaves. Just keep in mind the size of your oven and how much time you have to bake before dividing. Also, shaping a wet dough like this is particularly hard. You will get frustrated. This skill is acquired only through practice, but having the right tools helps abundantly.
To start, lightly flour a large, smooth area with white flour. Using a wet, plastic dough scraper, pull all of your dough onto the floured surface. Lightly flour the top of the dough. Using a bench knife, go around the perimeter of the dough and lightly scrape under the edges of the dough. The goal is to get the dough into an evenish circle. This will help in portioning the dough.
Take your bench knife and cleanly cut down the middle of the dough. If you plan on baking two loaves, then you are ready for pre-shaping. Portioning three pieces is a little more difficult. After you get the dough into a circle, take your bench knife and cut halfway down the middle of the dough. From here, you’ll have to eyeball it. Cut diagonally on each side so that you have three equal pieces. Don’t fret if they’re not perfect. You can cut a little piece of dough off a bigger one and add it to a smaller piece. Once you’re satisfied, you can begin pre-shaping. Portioning four pieces is a cinch. Cleanly cut down the middle of the dough and cut each half in half.
Once you have divided your dough into however many loaves you want, you are ready for pre-shaping. This step transforms the random pieces of dough into more workable shapes. The desired action is a light rounding; quickness and floured hands are your best allies. Clear an area that will hold your preshaped doughs about 2 inches apart and lightly flour it. On a lightly floured surfaced with floured hands, take a piece of dough and fold the edges into the middle. Try to incorporate as little flour into the dough as possible. Turn the dough over. The next technique executes two actions at the same time: use your fingers (mainly pinkys) to tuck the back of the dough in on itself while pulling the dough towards you. Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat. Be careful not to tear the dough. Repeat this action until the dough takes on a rounded form, and don’t worry if the seem won’t close on the bottom of the loaf. If the dough seems too wet and sticks to your hands while pre-shaping, use your dough knife in place of your fingers when tucking the dough in on itself. That should do the trick. Place the pre-shaped dough seam side up (upside down) on your pre-floured surface. Continue pre-shaping the other loaves and place them all seam side up, about 2 inches apart. Lightly flour the loaves and cover with a kitchen towel or old t-shirt.
Now that the loaves have been pre-shaped, they will need to rest for 10 to 20 minutes. This short rest relaxes the dough and makes final shaping easier. This is a good time to wash up and get your baskets ready for proofing. To assess when your dough is ready for final shaping, look to see if it has spread out, yet retained a round edge. Give it a poke with your finger. It should slowly spring back. If not, give it another 5 minutes.
Gather your baskets or bowls for proofing. Place a kitchen towel or old t-shirt in the bowl and heavily flour it. The final shaping involves a series of folds. The goal is a formed round with a tight “skin.” Proper shaping results in a more dramatic rise and decorative crust when scored.
Very lightly flour your work surface. It is better to have floured hands and floured dough than a floured surface. Take a preshaped round and put it seam side up on the work surface. Grab it at the top and bottom and pull into a rectangular shape, being careful not the tear the dough. Fold the bottom of the dough 2/3rds of the way up. Next, grab the right side of the dough and stretch it out until you feel tension. Fold this flap 2/3rds of the way to the left side of the dough. Grab the left side of the dough and pull until you feel tension. Fold this flap 2/3rds of the way to the right side of the dough. Grab the top of the dough and pull up until you feel tension. Fold this flap down until it covers the top of the dough. You should be left with a nice, neat package. The remaining movements are the same as in the preshaping. Being careful not to expel any gas, pull the dough towards you while tucking the back of the dough in on itself. Continue until you have a tight ball. Place the shaped dough seam side up (upside down) in the floured basket or bowl. Flour the dough lightly and cover with the edges of the towel or shirt.
Proofing is the phase between shaping and loading the dough into the oven. Time is the biggest influence at this point. After about 2 hours, your bread will be ready to bake. This will produce a mildly acidic bread, and it is a pleasure to eat. Or you can choose to delay the bake overnight. This is known as retarding, and the long fermentation will result in a more flavorful, complex bread. To retard, just put the shaped dough into the refrigerator, basket and all. In the morning, take the loaves out of the refrigerator right before you load them into the oven. The only hazard in retarding is overproofing, which can result in a sunken loaf with a poor crust. Retard your bread for a maximum of 8-12 hours, and you’ll be good.
As you can see, this is a lot of work in a short amount of time. Part of being a successful baker is being efficient in your movements. Don’t expect to get it right in your initial attempts. As you develop a feel for the dough, your motions will become more fluid and purposeful. It just takes practice.
The last page will cover scoring and baking. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions or need clarification (or encouragement!).