Why Shaping Dough Is Important (Even for Bread Machine Users)

Sneak Peek: Shaping dough is important, even when using a bread machine. Read why and learn how to shape a simple sandwich loaf.

comparing shaping techniquesPin

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Are you a stuffer or a shaper when making a loaf of bread? Do you plop the dough in a loaf pan and give it a couple of love pats, or do you show it love with gentle discipline, patience, and guidance?

Whether you mix and knead your bread dough using a bread machine, a stand mixer, or by hand, shaping the dough improves the crumb texture, the crust, and the overall appearance.

I wrote this post primarily for bread machine users looking for a way to make fabulous bread, as seen in good bakeries. However, the benefits of shaping as described here apply to most yeast dough recipes. Exceptions include Classic sourdough bread made without commercial yeast (more complicated) and no-knead bread.

If you want to shape dough for something other than a loaf pan (a braid, a boule, a batard, etc.), I have included pictures and instructions for shaping inside most of the 65+ bread machine recipes on this website.

Happy Cooks Speak Up

“Thank you for this article. I’m always afraid of messing with the dough too much after removing it from the machine. Not any more. … Your method makes total sense. Again, thanks for this article and all your great recipes. The honey wheat is our go to every week for sandwich bread.”–KATHY

The Best Time To Shape Dough

Follow the instructions in your recipe. Normally, you will shape after the first rise and before the final rise.

If you use a bread machine, choose number one or two below.

1. Shape after removing the dough from the bread machine at the end of the DOUGH cycle. (My preferred method)

The DOUGH cycles of various bread machines come in many configurations. For example, your bread maker may include a preheat phase, a resting phase, mixing phase, a kneading phase, an add-in phase, and at least one or two proofing phases.

Regardless, let your machine process through all these phases until the DOUGH cycle is complete, with one exception. Bread dough should be double the original size at the end of the DOUGH cycle. During hot weather, check the dough with the “poke test” before the end of the DOUGH cycle as you may need to remove the dough early to prevent over-proofing.

Other times, your dough may rise slowly. Leave it in the machine until it doubles in size, but not more. Over-proofing is undesirable but fixable.

2. If using your machine for baking the bread, remove the dough and shape before the final proof.

After you pull the dough out of the machine onto a floury surface, shape it, and replace the shaped dough into the bread machine.

Figuring out the best time to remove the dough can be tricky. Read your bread manual to figure out when is the right time.

Before you put the shaped dough back into the bread machine pan, pull out the paddle(s). Unfortunately, small holes will remain in the bottom of your baked bread because of the nonremovable posts.

You can see an example here of bread dough pulled out of the machine, shaped, and replaced back into the machine to bake.


How Shaping Dough Makes an Amazing Difference

1. Shaping compresses gas bubbles, introduces surface tension, and encourages a better oven spring.

Compressing the gas bubbles affects the final appearance and the crumb (more about the crumb below).

Surface tension refers to the tightness of the dough at the surface of your loaf. It helps the bread retain a pretty shape as it bakes.

Finally, the oven spring is the burst of expansion that happens when the loaf hits the high heat of a preheated oven. Without much oven spring, you will most likely have a dense loaf.

Three loaves: one unshaped, one partially shaped, and one shaped are shown in bread pans.Pin
The unshaped dough on the left has no surface tension. The dough was not stretched. Instead, the dough was stuffed into the pan directly from the bread machine.

Also, the gas bubbles created during the bread machine’s DOUGH were not deflated. The dough should have been gently pushed down to compress the air bubbles. The large air bubbles at the surface may result in uneven browning.
Partially shaped loaf with a tear on the underside.Pin
The dough in the middle was lightly kneaded then shaped like a big dinner roll. You are looking at the underneath side. I pulled the outer surface from the top to the bottom and pinched it together.

Because I didn’t let the dough relax and stretched the dough too aggressively, the gluten tore on the right side in the picture above. This bread had a good oven rise due to the surface tension. However, it blew out on the left side (see the top picture), and the middle texture was unorganized.

The loaf on the far right was correctly shaped after a short relaxation period. Keep reading to see how I do it.

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2. Shaping creates a structured and cohesive crumb and reduces large holes or tunnels.

Comparing the crumb of 3 loaves with various amounts of shaping.Pin

Compare the three loaves of bread in the picture above. Do you see the swirl pattern in the shaped loaf on the right? Compare that to the loaf on the far left, where the crumb is random and uneven.

After removing the dough from the bread machine, I lightly knead the dough 4-5 times. Kneading is my method of “punching down” the dough.

When you use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectangle, the rolling action compresses the carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the yeast during the first rise. Be sure to roll over the edges, too. Rogue bubbles often hide at the perimeter.

3. Shaping produces a beautiful crust that is smooth, thin, and uniform.

Examining the crust of 3 loves of bread.Pin

One reason why the crust of bread baked in a bread machine is tough and thick is that the dough has not been shaped. Shaping stretches the gluten strands, resulting in a thinner and more pliable crust. It also creates tension in the outer layer of the loaf which causes the crust to retract slightly as the bread cools after baking. This makes it easier to remove the loaf from its container or pan.

📌Kitchen Tips for Shaping Dough 📌

  1. Use a bench knife(paid link) or scraper. This instrument is valuable for working with sticky dough because it keeps your fingers from touching it quite so much. The edge is not sharp like a knife but thin enough to portion dough.
  2. Use a non-stick silicone mat(paid link) as a work surface. Clean-up is a breeze. Throw it into the dishwasher when you’re done.
  3. Allow the dough to relax if it seems uncooperative. Don’t forget to cover it with a tea towel. You don’t want dry “skin” to form on the dough surface.
  4. Use a rolling pin to reduce rogue bubbles, especially on the perimeter of the rectangle.
  5. Choose the correct size loaf pan for the quantity of ingredients. The dough should not fill the loaf pan more than halfway full.
  6. I like USA baking sheets(paid link) and loaf pans(paid link) because my bread browns beautifully in them. They don’t usually need any oiling or greasing–the bread will fall out on its own.

    NOTE: The small USA loaf pans you see in the pictures come in a set of four and make the perfect size loaf for giving to neighbors who enjoy a treat but don’t want or need a 1½ or 2-pound loaf.

How To Shape Dough for a Loaf Pan

first stage of shaping and folding.Pin
Start with light kneading (4-5 times). Next, fold the dough onto itself while pressing the bubbles out.

If the dough is bouncy and rebellious, walk away like you would with a toddler having a temper tantrum. Give it time to calm down, relax, and find a more compliant mindset. 15-30 minutes should do it.

using a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rectanglePin
Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rough rectangle. See those bubbles around the perimeter? Roll over the edge to get rid of them.

The size of the rectangle depends on the pan you’re using.

rolling the rectangle of dough into a dough cylinder.Pin
Use your hands or a bench scraper to roll the dough into a cylinder. Try not to stretch the dough. Excess flour on the dough can result in unattractive tunnels where the dough is rolled together.
pinching the seams and turning the ends toward the seams.Pin
Pinch the seams to seal the dough and prevent it from splitting apart as it bakes. Sealing the dough securely provides the all-important surface tension you need for a good oven spring and a beautiful loaf.
dough is placed with the seam side down into the panPin
Place the unbaked loaf into your bread pan with the seam side down.

Use a flat palm to press the dough down so that the ends of the dough cylinder are equal in size. This action results in more uniform slices from end to end for sandwich loaves.

Cover the loaf and allow it to rise. Bake the dough in a preheated oven according to the recipe directions when it peeks over the top.

Beautiful cooked loaf that was shaped as shown above.Pin
The shaping produced a beautiful loaf. A small amount of wrinkling is normal.

Parting Words: The final proof may be slower than expected when the dough is shaped correctly. The yeast is producing more carbon dioxide to refill all the tiny “balloons” you smooshed in the shaping process. Your reward for patience is a more uniform texture and better taste. I often say, “the longer your bread takes to rise, the better the taste.”

This is how you make bread that you’ll be excited to share with your family and friends.

If you have questions or suggestions, email me privately for a quick answer: Paula at saladinajar.com. Hope to see you again soon! 

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  1. Making bread today (dough cycle)
    I checked the consistency n it was forming a ball n slightly tacky n looking good… I checked on it on the second rise n it was quite sticky n when I pulled it out it was sticking to my fingers… like it felt quite wet.
    Humidity or??

    Soo kneaded in more flour before putting it into the pan…
    This is the second time it’s done that….
    It’s 1/2 whole wheat 1/2 white flour

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      Great to hear from you. Yes, it could have been humidity. It also could be the flour. Different brands vary. I don’t know if you were using my recipe, but it could have been a mistake in the recipe. Did the recipe include eggs? Maybe they were a tiny bit bigger than the ones used by the author of the recipe. Did you weigh your ingredients precisely as written in the recipe?

      Nevertheless, it’s fixable if you check the dough about 5-10 minutes before the kneading phase ends (so that you won’t have to knead the flour in with your hands—although that works, too.) You want the dough to be tacky but not terribly sticky (although that is the norm and expected with Ciabatta, Brioche, and a lot of rye recipes).
      You can read more details in this post: A Surprising Secret for Making Better Bread with a Bread Machine

      Hope this helps. Did you sign up for the free Bread Machine Course?

      Write back anytime.

  2. ElisabethL says:

    Hi Paula. Thank you for doing all the hard work so we can bake good bread using our bread machines. I’m still in learning mode with your process. I’ve made several 1.5 pound loaves, and although delicious, I find the slices too big – a sandwich is just too filling. I could reduce the recipe quantities to make a smaller loaf, or use a longer baking pan such as 12”x4.5”, or use the 2 pound recipe and split it into two 8.5”x4” pans. Which would you suggest?

    1. Any of your ideas are fine if you are OK with loaves that look a little squat. (Can’t think of a better word.) Some bread machines don’t do well with a smaller recipe, but many are fine. You may have to experiment.

      Sometimes, I like to use one 8.5 x 4.5 inch pan and make mini loaves with the rest of the dough. They are perfect for giving to my neighbors who live by themselves and are overwhelmed with a whole loaf of bread.

  3. Ray Hernon says:

    Hi Paula,
    I’m a 66 yr. old bachelor and retired in September, anyway been using my bread machine for bread for about 2 years now off and on, including baking. 2 friends said so much better baked in oven, so why not try! Yesterday did a loaf of 100% WW with some flax seed for dough and removed and shaped. Mine was like #2 and #3, I rolled out rectangle and folded it to size, tastes good and looks good for first time. Next loaf will be rolled to size instead of folding and less flour on surface, thank you, #3 coming up next, will let you know! PS I used the WW cycle instead of dough cycle because dough cycle is only 1.5 hrs. and thought needed more time with 100% WW and flax, the time was 2:05 until final rise and bake and I removed it from machine and so on! I’m gonna prove you can teach old dogs new tricks! Thank You Paula 🙂

    1. Thanks for writing, Ray. Glad to hear you’ve learned a new trick with your bread machine. I predict there will be more wonderful bread in your future life.

  4. Hi Paula, my dough has completed the dough course and I am supposed to shape them into buns for final rise, then bake.

    But, I have an emergency and cannot do the shaping, final rise and baking in oven.

    Question: Is it ok to put the dough in a plastic bag and put it in a fridge until I return to work on it?
    Once I remove from the fridge, let stand until it goes back to room temperature, then shape, final rise, and bake?

    Thank you. Always appreciate your valuable tips and recipes.

    1. Yes, Miles. You can do this. You don’t have to wait for the dough to return to room temp before shaping. Shaping will help warm it up faster. Of course, if it’s too hard, you might have to wait until it softens and becomes pliable.

  5. Christine kokkeler says:

    We’ll hello Paula from here in australia. Your emails are wonderful and so informative. I’ve only really just started experimenting with different breads and your advice is fabulous
    I thank you for making it seem that little bit easier. Cheers Christine

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Christine. I’m so happy you find the emails informative. That is my goal. Have a great week.

  6. Dora Harrison says:

    Thank you, very informative, my granddaughter is getting into bread making, so I will share your knowledge and this info.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Dora. I can tell that your granddaughter is a lucky gal to have you in her life.

  7. Greeting from Austin,

    Thank you for this article. I’m always afraid of messing with the dough too much after removing it from the machine. Not any more. As I read the article my mind went to the old term, “punching it down” and then there it was. Most recipes tell you to roll or press the dough out to a certain size. Always seemed to big for me. Your method makes total sense. Again, thanks for this article and all your great recipes. The honey wheat is our go to every week for sandwich bread.

  8. Kathleen Ashe says:

    good morning, Paula! yours was the first email i opened this morning…and can i just say WOW?! i really am blown away by the all encompassing information and well done visuals you packed into this article! your midwestern can-do approach to all your topics is such an inspiration for me, Paula…thank you so much!

    1. Hi Kathleen,
      Thank you for the wonderful encouragement. I hope this helps you in your bread baking adventures.

  9. Good morning. It was so nice to read your new post this morning. Never used a rolling pin, just patted out the dough with my hands. Can’t wait to make a batch for Sunday dinner. Hope you have a wonderful week.

    1. Connie,
      So good to hear from you again. I haven’t always used a rolling pin, but the texture improved after I started doing it. Hope my trick works for you.

  10. This is so helpful to me. I have just started baking bread within the last year. I very much appreciate this. Thanks!

    1. Hi Lori,
      Thank you. I was specifically thinking about people like you who haven’t been baking bread very long. In the future, if you have ideas for a topic I should write about, don’t hesitate to write.

      1. Hi Paula
        You’ve turned me into a bread junkie! I love your website and all the effort you’ve put into the recipes. I swear I saw at one time something about Pullman pans but I cannot find again.
        I’d like to try using one but not sure what I should buy and if I do what should I look for quality wise. Then once I get it/them what fun things can I do?
        I tried your condensed milk bread this last weekend, and it is fabulous.
        Thank you!


        1. Hi Teri,
          Yes, I’ve written about Pullman pans on several of my posts, especially my Cinnamon-Raisin Loaf. I recommend the USA pans, which you can buy from my Amazon store if you like. I have the 9x4x4-inch pan. It’s perfect for a 1½ lb recipe (around 3 cups of flour). IF you need to make a bigger loaf, buy the 13x4x4 pan.The USA pans are truly the best in my experience and worth the extra money. They make a beautiful crust, and you might have noticed I’m a fanatic about getting a perfect crust.