Scoring Bread made with high-hydration dough
Scoring hearth loaves made with high hydration doughs is a challenge. Expressions of frustration with this in TFL postings are not rare. Much good advice regarding how to accomplish nice scoring of wet, sticky dough has been offered, but it is scattered. So, I thought I would share my own advice on this subject in one place.
These two bâtards are San Joaquin Sourdoughs. (For the formula and procedures, please see San Joaquin Sourdough: Update . Today's bake was different only in that I used just 100 g of 100% hydration starter.) The effective hydration of this dough is 74.5%. It is a sticky dough and a good test of one's shaping and scoring abilities. Yet, as you can see, it is possible to get nicely shaped loaves from this dough with cuts that bloom nicely and form impressive ears.
The key points in achieving this are the following:
A Key Point
Gluten must be well-developed by mixing and fermentation. Good dough “strength” is important for crumb structure, but also for successful shaping. It is even more critical in wet doughs, because these tend to spread out and form flat loaves if their shape is not supported by a good, strong sheath of gluten.
Pre-shaping and shaping can add to dough strength through additional stretching of the dough in the process of forming the loaves. A wet dough like this needs to be tightly shaped. This is a challenge, because it also has to be handled gently. Rough handling will result in excessive de-gassing and a dense loaf. It will also tend to make the dough stick to your hands more. When it sticks, it tears and makes weak spots in the loaf surface which are likely to burst during oven spring. The goal is to form the tight gluten sheath by stretching the dough and sealing the seams while avoiding downward pressure on the dough pieces being shaped. “An iron hand in a velvet glove.” Dough sticking to your hands can be decreased by lightly flouring your hands, wetting them or oiling them. However, the most helpful trick is to touch the dough lightly and as briefly as possible each time.
The loaves need to have lateral support during proofing. This is to prevent them from spreading out. Support can be provided by a banneton (proofing basket) or on baker's linen or parchment, where folds in the couche material, sometimes reinforced with rolled up towels or the like under the material, provide the support. (I suppose the “ultimate support” is provided by a loaf pan.)
The ideal material to support proofing loaves is absorbent. Baker's linen, cloth-lined bannetons and floured, coiled cane brotformen all absorb some moisture from the surface of the loaves in contact with them. This makes that surface a bit less sticky and easier to score without the cut edges sticking to the blade excessively. (I do not want the loaf surface so dry it forms a “skin.”) I like to proof loaves with the surface I am going to score on the absorbent material. This means baguettes and bâtards are proofed smooth side down (seam side up). Note that baking parchment is not absorbent, so, while advantageous for other reasons, it is not ideal for this purpose.
Loaves should not be over-proofed. A greatly over-proofed loaf may actually collapse and deflate when scored. Short of that, it will still have less oven spring and bloom. This is a relatively greater problem with high-hydration doughs which are more delicate to start with. I find the “poke test” as reliable as any other criterion for when a loaf is ready to bake. However, it is not quite as reliable with very wet doughs. Neither is the degree of dough expansion. You just have to learn through experience with each formula when it is perfectly proofed.
Loaves should be scored immediately after transferring to a peel and immediately before loading in the oven. Letting high-hydration doughs sit too long on the peel is asking them to spread out, especially if they have been scored ,which disrupts the supportive gluten sheath.
The wetter the dough, the shallower the cuts. This is not as critical for boules, but, for long loaves like baguettes and bâtards, if you want good bloom, and especially if you want good ear formation, The cuts need to be very shallow (about 1/4 inch deep) and at an acute angle (30-45 degrees). A deeper cut creates a heavy flap that will collapse of its own weight and seal over, rather than lifting up to form an ear as the cut blooms open. The cuts made on the loaves pictured here were barely perceptible on the unbaked loaf surface. Resist the temptation to re-cut!
Minimize dough sticking to the blade and getting dragged, forming a ragged cut. The cuts need to be made swiftly and smoothly, without hesitation. A thin, extremely sharp blade is best. Some find serrated blades work well for them. I find a razor blade on a bendable metal handle works best for me. The cuts are made with the forward end of the blade only, not the whole length. Some find oiling or wetting the blade lessens sticking. I have not found this necessary.
Humidify the oven with steam during the first part of the bake. This delays firming up of the crust which would restrict the loaf from expanding (oven spring) and the cuts from opening (bloom).
Most of these points apply to scoring in general. I have indicated where there are differences or special considerations applying to high-hydration doughs.
Finally, a mini-glossary:
Scoring refers to the cuts made on the surface of the loaf prior to baking. The primary purpose of scoring is to create an artificial weak spot and direct expansion of the loaf to it so the loaf doesn't burst at some random point. Secondarily, the scoring pattern influences the final shape of the loaf. And lastly, the pattern of cuts can be decorative and, if unique, can serve as a “signature” for the baker.
Oven spring is the expansion of the loaf when exposed to oven heat.
Bloom refers to the opening up of the scoring cuts during oven spring. The French term for this is grigne.
Ear, when pertaining to bread, is a flap of crust that separates from the surface during oven spring and bloom.
For additional information regarding scoring and a more basic introduction to this topic, please see The Scoring Tutorial  Also, excellent examples of shaping and scoring can be found in videos on youtube.com, particularly those made by Ciril Hitz, and on the King Arthur Flour web site. I have not found any that address the peculiar challenges presented by higher-hydration doughs, however.