Shaping a bread dough serves mainly two purposes.
First, it tightens up the gluten structure and builds up some tension on the dough surface that will allow the bread to rise prouder when baking and thus to come out as a loaf with height and volume. This can be alternatively achieved or further enhanced when the bread is proofed and baked inside a loaf tin. In this case, the walls of the tin support the dough and let it rise mostly vertically. If shaping is poor and we set to bake the bread free-standing, the dough can collapse and spread out before/soon after starts baking.
Secondly, a specific shape gives bread its name. The name subsequently brings to bread character and personality that allows us to connect better with it.
Let me give you an example on this matter.
Many times in the past, I was trying to obtain a bread with a very soft and open crumb, full of air pockets. To achieve this, I had to assemble a high-hydration dough that tends to spread out, especially if the flour is not strong enough to make a strong and elastic gluten network that can support the dough structure.
No matter how carefully I was shaping the dough, soon after letting it rest for a while or transferring it in the oven, I was sadly observing it spreading out and coming out short from the oven, with no character whatsoever. Although the bread crumb was soft and airy, I was feeling disappointed looking my bread lacking height and pride. To circumvent this issue, I had two options. Either to look for ‘special’ flours, particularly strong and with high gluten content, or to give to the bread a typical shape for high hydration doughs, the latter being for instance a ciabatta.
So, one day, I floured very well the working surface, placed on it the sticky dough, and with a simple stretch-and-fold movement I shaped it to a ciabatta and baked it. Suddenly, my view of the bread changed completely. I was not looking anymore at a short, random-shaped bread. The bread was transmitting character and style and that made me feel satisfied and even happy.
I could proudly say that I baked a proper ciabatta!
for two ciabattas
600 gr white bread flour*
120 gr active sourdough **
480 gr water (80% hydration)
10 gr salt
* except for white flour, feel free to use also some whole grain flour for extra taste and nutrients - in this recipe, I used the slightly darker wheat flour (type1050 in Germany)
** feed in advance your sourdough culture with roughly triple amounts of both flour and water and let it for some hours or overnight to fully activate
- Mix in a bowl the flour with the water until a wet mash is formed and the flour is fully hydrated. Cover the bowl and let the dough to rest and autolyse for 1-2 hours
- Add the salt and the sourdough and pinch them inside the dough using your fingers. With wet hands do a series of stretches and folds to mix everything efficiently
- Cover the bowl and let the dough to ferment at room temperature for 2-3. Every 30 min perform with wet hand a stretch-and-fold set
- Cover the bowl and put it in the fridge. Let it cold-ferment overnight.
- Next day take out the dough from the fridge and at the same time turn on the oven to preheat at 220-240°C, with the baking tray inside
- While the oven is preheating, scrape out the dough on a very well-floured working surface. Use enough flour because the dough will be wet and sticky and difficult to handle
- Cut the dough in half with a scraper. Shape the two pieces with a simple stretch-and-fold set to the characteristic rectangular form of ciabatta and carefully with floured hands/scraper lift and place them onto pieces of baking paper
- When the oven is ready (after at least 30 min from when it was turned on), transfer the baking papers with the ciabatta dough onto the tray and bake for ca. 45 min