Preshaping is the next step. If you’ve only made enough dough for one loaf, this step can sometimes be skipped. I only skip it if I feel like I have a nice uniform piece of dough that hasn’t been mishandled. If you’re wondering whether your dough needs a preshape, then I’d just preshape it because it can’t hurt.
The goal of preshaping is to organize the randomly shaped pieces of dough into consistent shapes. This step consists of rounding your dough into a nice tight and taut package. If you’re just beginning, I suggest rounding it tightly because it gives you a feel for how to do this. As you get better, you’ll learn to decide if your dough needs a tight or a gentler rounding.
In the order that I divided the dough, I preshape each piece. I grab a piece of dough and place it on the bench smooth side up. I use no flour when I do this because it helps in getting a tight ball. With my dough knife almost parallel to the bench, I put it under the dough between 3 and 6 o’clock. I slowly turn my knife counter-clockwise while trying to “push” the dough towards the opposite side. With the lightly floured fingertips of my other hand, I try and lightly tuck the dough under exactly opposite my dough knife. I slowly turn my dough knife until it gets between 9 and 12 o’clock. I do this 4 or 5 times (sometimes more) until I get a nice round ball. If the ball looks irregular, I’ll start my turning at that irregularity. I think this helps me get a round ball.
I then gently pick up the ball with my dough knife and place it off to my right. I place them seam side down, though as I write this, I’m thinking I should try the other way. What do you all do? It’s good to always place your balls in the same order. Then, when you begin shaping, you’ll start with the very first ball that you preshaped.
After all the preshaping, I cover my dough balls with a slightly damp towel to prevent any kind of crust forming on the outside of the dough. I set a timer for 15-20 minutes to give the dough some time to relax in its new form.