Updated February 2019 – to include new images, plus composite breads and bread sticks.
I’ve taken a little time to look into the myriad and diverse range of bread shapes that can be created. I’ve looked at the most commonly found ones that you can create with your own fair hands from a standard (or close to standard) bread dough. There are many more of course, but this list comprises those I think you’ll see or make most often.
What I mean by ‘standard’ is that I am rather loosely lumping together all bread created with the basic flour-water-yeast-salt only combination and allowed to rise. Some of these will be made with doughs that have the addition of a little oil or maybe an egg, and they can be made with wid yeast, fresh or instant. These breads also need some (or a lot of) shaping by hand before a second prove.
What I’ve left out: I have purposely kept out enriched breads that have a different combination such as a lot of extra oil or butter or an unusual method or prove, such as brioche or ciabatta (which is exceptionally wet and can just about be shaped into its traditional slipper form), filled breads and things like focaccia or schiaciatta (where oil is drizzled on top to purposely retard the rise and create a flatter bread). This is because they warrant separate coverage. I originally omitted grissini/bread sticks and composite breads – but I’ve just added these in (so they weren’t included in my original illustration, below). I’ve also omitted flat breads, as they’re mostly encompassed by a few shapes, usually (but not always) don’t contain yeast and there are so many different flat breads so I felt they also merited a separate category (and maybe a post) on their own.
These shapes can all be made with a wide variety of flours; not just white. Actually, I do really like white flour but I rarely use it on its own; I tend to mix it with another flour type or add in some extras like malt flakes or seeds.
Also, some of the simpler shapes can be made with dough that includes a certain amount of sourdough starter (added to your traditional dough to liven it up). Complex shapes aren’t feasible with proper sourdough because they spread and merge during the longer rise. Also low gluten-producing flours aren’t that great either – as again you don’t get a discernible shape and it would be very tricky to mould or plait. I have successfully braided brioche, though, and bread where low-gluten flour is mixed 50:50 with strong white.
I’ve only given cursory instructions on how to physically shape the dough apart from I have a short clip of me plaiting a seven braided loaf right at the end.
I’ve listed the bread shapes in a rough order of complexity: from the simplest boule down to multi strand plaits.
All the breads shown here have been handmade by me (plus I’ve also styled and photographed them myself).
Cob or boule
Here’s where to start when shaping by hand! These can be hand shaped and raised or set for their second rise in a banneton. Cobs care most often plain topped (ie not slashed) but don’t let that stop you experimenting with covering them in seeds or malt flakes for example or to slash them (as the flower slash above – or in a Coburg shape). The simple cross-hatch slash will have been the basic historic bread shape from when leavened bread started to be baked in ovens rather than just on a stone and is a feature of soda bread, to help the loaves cook thoroughly.
Basically a cob with a crown-like slash, said to have been done to celebrate Prince Albert of Coburg, Queen Victoria’s consort. Can be with either three slashes/peaks or four.
Bloomer or bâtard
This is a longer, larger loaf where it is impractical to make into a round (would be difficult to slice that large or fit into an oven). Typically with diagonal slashes, but experiment with leaf and scroll shapes.
A real old traditional British shape. Potentially this developed to get a little height and spread (if slashes are used) without support during the rise. These are hand shaped entirely. Split your dough into 2/3 and 1/3 pieces and roll both into a ball. Place the small ball on top of the larger one and using one or two fingers push down, dead centre, to the table so that you are fixing the top to the bottom. This can have vertical slashes all the way round or left plain.
This is less shaped by hand and more by the tin: putting the dough into a loaf tin ensures straight sides, ends and bottom. The most common way of doing this is to let the dough rise as normal then the second proof is done in the tin. Following the second rise, draw one large, long slash across the top prior to putting it in the oven. I have read old recipes though where the dough is split into two and the first rise is done separately. Then, after knocking back the two halves are rolled into fat sausage shapes and lain side by side in the tin. I’ve not tried this, but I suspect the bread would tear in half easily.
Less a shape and more just an elaborated set of slashes. Shape as for a rounded cob loaf, then after the second proof draw at least three parallel slashes, evenly space out across the top of the bread. Turn the loaf 90˚, and do an equal number of slashes, so creating a set of squares, or the chequerboard effect.
Pullman – baked in a special tin with a lid to create a perfect block shape. Named after Pullman train cars as they mimic that shape. I have never made one of these – you need to own this specialist Pullman tin and I don’t like the square shape enough to buy one (I’d rather buy another banneton or couch cloth). I can imagine that you would have to stick rigidly to the correct volume. I assume that if you did anything other than a plain loaf where you can easily measure the total loaf size and predict the rise, you’d have to try to calculate the effect on the final size of the loaf. For instance, if you added a lot of inclusions it may be too big for the tin and if you used a flour with less gluten it would be too small – perhaps not reaching the lid.
Milk roll shape – similar to the Pullman in that it is baked inside a completely enclosing tin. However, the milk roll tin is two semi circular halves, clipped together.
Pouch or ear
A change on the cob shape. This is shaped into an oval after knocking back and one long slash is made holding the blade at a shallow angle, digging in to the dough. That is hold the blade at about 30* to the loaf. This is usually easier with a curved lame/grinette with the concave part of the blade facing the top of the loaf. This creates a large tear which the steam from the bread forces into a ‘lip’ or ‘ear’ of crust on one side during the bake. You should be able to get your fingertips under this lip to lift the loaf up – or it may curl over completely, fully opening up the loaf and exposing more crust and allowing more rise (as above).
This shape dates back to its massive popularity in Victorian times and was particularly eaten as breakfast bread rolls. So named, as it mimicked the rolls served in Viennese tea houses. It is shaped with softly tapered ends like a very short baguette. After proving, roll out to a sausage shape and tuck the bread over on itself lengthways once or twice and pinch the bread together at the seam to seal. The seam should be baked on the bottom. Apply a long slash either straight down the length of the bread or slightly at an angle. It can also be dusted with poppy seeds or linseeds etc before the slash is made (as in the above picture of my breakfast rolls).
Bread sticks or grissini
You may think I’ve added these little crispy sticks havea bit far down the complexity list. However, bread sticks are deceptively difficult to get looking good. Producing a straight and even bread stick is quite a skill – your first few attempts at making them will no doubt leave you with some awesomely delicious bread sticks, but you may or may not be that pleased with the results on how they look. Weighing your dough and dividing into exactly equal pieces will help with creating bread sticks that are all the same length, but it’s the practice of rolling the dough out into a long sausage that’s tricky. That’s because you’re dealing with quite a thin stand of dough and if it catches on your unfloured hands or the table, or you drag your palm across one area with greater force it will not be a nice long tube but a bumpy, bending caterpillar. It just takes practice. Bread sticks can be scattered with seeds, plaited, twisted, have a scrolled end or shaped – they’re quite fun to play around with.
We all know this one! An extra long slim loaf, its ends are pointed or rounded depending from baker creates them. Traditionally it is slashed several times at an angle across the top (such as with my spelt sourdough baguettes above) – here the top of the second slash show overlap the first to stop the loaf spreading strangely and putting bulges into the bread (the overlap is supposed to counteract the bulging). I’ve seen some baguettes though with slashes at all sorts of angles and single long slashes – some of these have been gorgeous so it’s worth experimenting yourself.
Now we’re getting into more detailed shaping and slashing. Fougasse is a flattish loaf, similar to foccacia but is traditionally shaped into a large leaf shape. This leaf is then peppered with small short cuts (all the way through, not just top slashing) so that the cuts resemble the veins on the leaf. However, I rarely produce a leaf shape fougasse: I’ve made spookgasse/boogasse in the shapes of ghosts and ghouls for Halloween, letters, rings/circles, flowers etc. Have fun with this one and it’s a particularly great bread to give to children to produce as they can have fun with the shapes.
Pain d’epi /wheat ear bread
This is a long stick of dough, prepared similarly to a baguette with is then cut and splayed on alternate sides. It’s easiest to snip the cuts with scissors rather than use a blade. It is supposed to resemble an ear of corn. It’s a lovely tear and share bread – each ‘ear’ forms an individual roll. I personally love this loaf shape and make it often.
Spiral/snail – normally these are made with very large amounts of dough and creates a very large loaf – 600g or above, although it is often used in individual rolls. A long roll of dough is shaped and is shaped so one end is gently tapered. Start with the fat end and coil the spiral around itself, tuck/pinch the end of the coil onto the rest of the dough to anchor it together otherwise it may start to separate during baking. I have to say I don’t like this shape (it looks rather like a giant poop – but don’t let me put you off! I don’t like cupcake toppings piped in this shape either…) but it is quite traditional for some European breads, like potica.
Very similar to the spiral but keep each end of the long tube of dough a little slimmer than the middle. Take one of the ends and roll it round until it reaches the mid point of the dough, then take the other end and wind it in the opposite direction to meet in the middle. Produces an elaborate S shape. Common in roll shaping too and is one of the typical shapes in Scandinavian St Lucia saffron buns (such as Swedish/Norwegian lussekatt).
Wreaths can be made in many ways. As long as it results in a ring of dough, it’s a wreath, even by just joining a long plain strand of dough together or using balls of dough. Kringles and slashed plaits, a circular pain de epi and 3+ multi strand plaits are all elaborate and fun wreaths to make. Other special festival wreaths include those with fillings but I won”t include those here (as I’m excluding filled breads). A wreath is usually cut into individual portion sizes and used as you would a roll or chunk of bread rather than finely sliced. Alternatively, the whole thing can be sliced in two horizontally and filled like a giant bagel, from which individual portions are taken. Typically a celebratory or show-off bake.
Layered, tiered or composite loaves
These are great, fund breads to make [I’ve added this category Dec 2018 as I’ve changed my mind on it being a filled bread. Most commonly these are made with fillings, but they can be made with just a little butter or oil, or plainly, so I’ve decided to posthumously add them here].
These include monkey breads, where balls of dough are gathered together usually in a ring shape, fantans and layered loaves including my own ‘bookshelf bread‘ recipe.
Now we’re into the plaited section and I’ve only included three to cover the multitude that can be done. the simplest you can do is to twist two strands of bread together and affix them at each end, but a typical simple plait uses three braids. Three plait braids make lovely little dinner rolls too. Make sure you really press the ends together or it will unravel. Above are three and four plait examples.
If you come across a ‘zopf’ loaf this is German for plait (which should actually be thicker at one end, representing a plait of hair), and likewise the French term is tresse.
Instead of plaiting you can knot a single strand of dough into what looks like a complex shape. This is much easier, and more common, to do with rolls but can be achieved in a loaf. Knots include a simple overhand knot (ie the first over-and-under that is used in a reef or bow) or where the strand of dough is looped then wound round itself. The post below shows me making overhand knotted rolls. Please also see my recipe for these knotted pesto dinner rolls.
This is one of my favourites. Not only is it highly attractive but it serves to keep the bread in a lovely shape as it goes through its second rise. At first this looks a complex plait but you get used to it very quickly. Four dough strands are used to create this. The ends of the dough strands can be tucked under after the plaiting is done to help lift the top of the bread upwards and keep the nice dome shape. I also like to double up sometimes when making this shape, by which I mean I use two strands together as if they were one – ie I roll out eight strands and use them in pairs. This makes a real showstopper of a loaf.
Any number of strands of bread can be made into a plait, although I’d suggest nine is an utter maximum or you’re getting really silly and into finger-knotting territory to complete, and the loaf will be as wide as it is long. I most often pick five or seven strands to plait for a complex large loaf. There are a number of set patterns which can be applied to plaiting – I was going to write these in here but I think this merits an entire post on its own. So bear with me and I will write one. Above is a video clip of me braiding a seven strand – and a photo of the outcome loaf (below).
If you want to create a showstopper of a braid but you think you can’t do a multi strand plait, you can actually always ‘cheat’! Divide your dough into two uneven pieces, one being 2/3rds of the dough, the other 1/3rd.
Divide each of these pieces of dough into three. Roll out the dough so that the smaller three balls of dough become thin strands nearly as long as the larger three pieces. Make two plaits: a larger and smaller one. The smaller braid can be placed directly on top of the larger braid, giving the illusion of a complex plait.
Top tip: the best advice I can give on making a neat multi strand plait is to make sure your strands of dough are as even and smooth as possible before you start. Any lumpy strands will result in a (still lovely but) mishapen plait.
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