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

Home » 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 techniques

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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 (for example, 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.


The best time to shape dough:

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

If you are using a bread machine, choose number one or number 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 phases, 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.

logo for saladinajar
Join our community of adventurous cooks, and you, too, can create homemade food worth sharing.

If you want inspiration and exclusive tips, add your email and press the button. (Don't worry. I won't sell your email.)

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 back 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.
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.
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 texture in the middle was unorganized.

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


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.

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.

One reason why the crust of bread baked in a bread machine is tough and thick is that the dough has not been shaped. When you stretch out the gluten strands during shaping by hand, the crust will be thinner and more pliable.


📌Kitchen Tips for shaping dough📌:

  1. Use a bench knife or scraper. This instrument is valuable for working with sticky doughs because it keeps your fingers from touching the dough quite so much. The edge is not sharp like a knife but thin enough to portion dough.
  2. Use a non-stick silicone mat 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 and loaf pans 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
Start with light kneading (4-5 times). Next, fold the dough onto itself while pressing the bubbles out of the dough.

If the dough is bouncy and rebellious, walk away the same way 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 rectangle
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 size of the pan you’re using.
rolling the rectangle of dough into a dough cylinder.
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.
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 pan
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. When the dough peeks over the top, bake it in a preheated oven according to the recipe directions.

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

Parting Words:

When the dough is shaped correctly, the final proof may be slower than expected. 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. As 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 to Paula at saladinajar.com. Hope to see you again soon! Paula

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

11 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.