How to Score Bread Dough
If you’ve gotten into baking bread at home during the pandemic (or any time previously), you probably have run into a somewhat vague step right before you pop the loaf in the oven: Score the bread. But what is scoring bread? How does one score bread? How does scoring work, and why would you do it?
Why Do You Score Bread
First, the basics. Scoring is just cutting into the lump of dough that you’re about to bake. It usually applies to things like crusty white bread or sourdough boules, the style of bread with a crisp, crackly crust and a tender interior. “In the heat of the oven the loaf wants to expand; that expansion is also known as oven spring. If you don’t cut the dough, the loaf will stay smaller but still have a blowout somewhere on its side,” Tartine baker Chad Robertson explained in an interview he did with Food & Wine in 2017. “If you cut it, it can expand to its full volume. So the slash is a decorative way to control how it expands.” Scoring can also be an aesthetic concern. The contrasting markings that various bakers use to score their loaves become a kind of artistic signature.
Martin Philip, a baker with King Arthur Baking Company explained scoring further to me in an email interview. “With scoring, we effectively tell [the dough] where to open. This produces a more beautiful loaf and ensures that the loaf expands to its maximum potential.” Great! That sounds like what we want, bread-wise. But how to do it?
What To Use to Score Bread
Scoring bread is easiest with a sharp implement. You can use a sharp paring knife or kitchen scissors to snip lines into the top of the unbaked bread boule. Or you can use a tool that professional bakers use to score, called a bread lame. It’s essentially a razor blade affixed to a handle, for easy maneuvering. If you have a razor blade, you can even use that without a handle, as long as you work carefully. Martin Philip prefers a simple lame with a metal or wood handle, like King Arthur’s Black Walnut Lame or Double Sided Lame.
How to Score the Bread
Now that you have your scoring tool and your lump of dough that will soon be a loaf of bread, you’re ready to go. Choose a simple pattern, like a cross or a hashtag symbol, and steadily slash marks into the bread. But make sure to really cut it. In my own sourdough baking at home, I’ve often tried to score bread only to have a little patch of crust erupt at random somewhere else on the boule. “People tend to score too lightly. While the ideal cut depth does vary by the type of loaf, as a general rule it's essential to get through the skin, cutting at least a quarter inch deep,” Philip told me.
Wondering how to recreate those super-attractive loaves you see on Instagram? Don’t worry about making fancy patterns, at least at first. “The primary purpose of scoring is to release the loaf. I see many people focusing on decorative patterns which fail to release the loaf,” Philip added. “Keep it simple, cut a basic cross, box, or cross-hatch pattern for best results.”
Once you get the hang of scoring, then you can add smaller, less functional marks as decoration, and play around with designs. “Many aspects of breadmaking are like pottery or learning a musical instrument,” Philip wrote. “Focus on the process, be a good student, try to enjoy the music of bread as it cools—eat your mistakes and try again! In time your hands will remember what works.”