White boule sourdough made with pomegranate molasses
I’ve been known to share more than a few images of my bread with stylised scoring and detailed plaiting techniques… it’s lead to a few comments over time asking me for hints. I’ve sidestepped this for a while, assuming that there are plenty of other out there, way better than me posting about it. I still believe that, but as I do continue to get asked I thought I’d write a short piece on slashing bread.
ALL the photos in this article are breads made by me, to my own recipes or to the tried and trusted standard loaf ratio: 400g flour, 5g yeast, 5g salt, 280ml water – or a slight variant thereof.
Some are flavoured, a few are sourdough. Notice that none of my scored loaves have large inclusions like fruit in or are of a brioche-style. A few have flavourings or malt flakes or flours other than strong white bread flour. This is because some recipes don’t really align themselves with slashing: strong sourdoughs, enriched breads, breads thick with inclusions like Bara Brith, composite breads or plaited or styled breads should all be left as they are already gorgeous and don’t slash well.
One exception is a rolled, enriched loaf with fillings which is simply cut in order to show off the fillings, such as this wild garlic scroll:
Wild garlic scroll
Best choose a ‘standard’, fairly simple loaf in a simple shape: a cob/boule, a bâtard, a bloomer, a stick etc to start off with and learn which recipes work as you progress. For a list of common breads shapes please see my article Bread shapes – making at home
So here are my top seven tips to bread scoring…
ONE: Have a sharp blade. A VERY sharp blade
A sharp blade slices through the sticky bread dough – using a blunt blade will drag and tear the ‘skin’ of the loaf. While a loaf is proving, the outer skin will dry somewhat, useful for keeping the shape of the loaf intact and for your scoring definition. This skin is minimal and your blade will cut through it and into the wetter dough underneath. If your blade is blunt it will catch and drag as you slice through the dough, causing puckering. It will also make manoeuvring the blade round corners and curves more difficult for you and can even mean you have to ‘re-cut’ the same cut over and over, which results in a very jagged and messy pattern.
White sourdough, with a minimal prove and a free-form scroll design
You can use a strop and chalk to keep your blades sharper for longer (as for keeping leather and wood working tools sharp) but even if you do this, eventually your blades will need to be replaced. If you don’t use a strop then your blades will need replacing very frequently. Be careful to dispose of them safely and correctly.
Also, the thinner the blade the easier it is to use to cut and the less likely it is to drag. So, while you can get reasonable straight cuts from a highly sharpened normal kitchen knife (forget using one unless you’ve just sharpened it especially), it will only be good for basic straight cuts, like a cross. I have a locking No. 8 Opinel knife I keep exceptionally sharp that I use when I go on a self catering holiday – I confess I try and bake even when I’m away (the pouch ear bread below was baked in a holiday let kitchen!), although that also doubles up as my foraging knife.
White and chestnut flour boule with symmetrical diamond design
Which blade to use? Craft knives and scalpel blades are effective, very sharp, cheap and easy to get hold of, store well and are my go-to blade of choice.
Razor blades – these are fab but lethal! You can get the traditional double blade cutthroat razor type (which usually are popped onto a grignette) and the safety type, which has only one sharp side. These are brilliant, but tricky to get used to employing without slicing off a layer of skin. If you’re using a double-edged blade on it’s own without a holder/grignette be careful! The best way to pick it up is between thumb and finger on the short edges only and watch out how you score as you’ll be exposing that flap of skin between your thumb and forefinger to the edge of the blade. Avoid if you’re worried and stick to a craft knife!!
Grignettes and lames: a grignette is the holder (with or without the blade in it) and a lame is just the blade. This is basically the go-to set up for creating slashes with height and forcing curvature on the bread cut. This occurs because (typically, but not always) the lame is placed slightly bent into the grignette, creating a curved blade. Using this curve opens up the cut at an angle as well as slicing downwards through the dough. This gives the skin of the loaf room to lift away from the bread causing maximum expansion. Really typical for use to create ear/pouch cuts and for baguette slicing.
Pouch slash loaf, cut using a curved grignette – notice how it’s achieved maximum expansion and ripped the ‘ear’ away from the loaf
TWO: Lubricate the blade
Another way to stop the drag on the dough is to lubricate the blade. You don’t need this every time, but it’s helpful if you have a particular dough with a high hydration level. You can lubricate with water or with oil (any cooking oil is fine). If you use water, tap off the excess (without wiping dry) as the addition of extra hydration can cause the loaf to expand in ways you’re not expecting! With practice, you can get used to the way that this adds additional expansion to cuts in the loaf – sometimes I hydrate a blade on some cuts and not others. The oiling technique is more even and reliable, but don’t have the blade dripping in oil. The way I do it is to oil a sheet of kitchen towel and then swipe both slides of the blade over the oil.
Stoneground organic flour loaf with one of my signature Union Jack slashes
THREE: Pre-plan if you’re not sure
The worst thing to do is hovering over the loaf, blade in hand thinking “What do I do?”. At least have an image in your mind before you start, or know the shape of the cuts you’re going to make (as in I’m going to make a stripy, freeform cut loaf). The best thing is to get some inspiration and to make a little sketch first.
I’ve gathered some of my own and others’ beautiful breads on a Pinterest board, which may help give your ideas or you can copy from (there are also other pretty breads that are not slashed on here).
And start with the basics, do something like a cross or a chequerboard design to begin with: it’s all just straight lines but looks totally impressive!
A stoneground checquerboard-cut loaf – simple straight cuts which are the easiest to achieve but give a totally effective and impressive slashed loaf
Graduate to something freeform and swirly (as below – no pre-planning) to get used to turning the blade, then just go for it! Make lots of lovely bread and practice, practice. Who cares if your first few are a bit wonky? It’ll still taste lovely and with each loaf you’ll improve.
A honey loaf (recipe here) for which I’ve purposely covered in flour to create a huge contrast between slash and surface
FOUR: Flouring … or not
While you can score any rounded-off loaf you’ve made without doing anything else to it, you will get the most dramatic results when there is a colour contrast between what has been cut and areas that are intact. (See the honey loaf above for a dramatic contrast example). In order to facilitate this, the easiest thing to do is to flour your proved loaf, smooth the flour into the skin of the dough. While you are doing this it helps to brush off excess flour and to ensure that flour is evenly distributed and not blotchy/patchy. White flour gives the most impact between itself and the cut marks, as they brown in the oven. You’ll get a white-ish background and a toasty-brown pattern. That said, experiment with other flours and vegetable powders.
A loaf covered in beetroot powder and scored with a cloverleaf design – the beet powder bakes very hard and can sometimes crack (as you can see). I now mix beetroot powder with a little maize flour, which helps counteract this cracking
Also, bear in mind that some doughs themselves will affect how visible the cuts are. How browned will the dough be after baking, have you added vegetables or fruit to it? Will it be very dark – or quite light?
Union Jack slash – this is pretty much my signature bread art! I’ve posted many loaves with this scoring design on Instagram
It’s similar to the consideration that the use of colours for typefaces on a web page requires where you have to think of visible accessibility: will the background help the foreground stand out or will it all merge together? Also, for some slashing this contrast doesn’t even matter – baguettes, pouch ear slashes, checquerboards and many others don’t need this layer of flour dusting as the expanded cuts are so visible the contrast isn’t needed.
Spelt sourdough baguettes – no extra flouring needed here as the slashes are wide and defined anyway (notice how the slashes ever-so-slightly overlap each other – this stops the loaf from bulging too much around the slashes)
FIVE: Make sure the loaf is ready
Your loaf needs to be almost at the point where you are going to bake it when you slash it. It should respond/bounce back when lightly depressed with a fingertip. Don’t let your loaf over-prove when you aim to score a design into it, as given longer, the yeast creates more and more carbon dioxide and the air pockets in the dough get bigger and bigger (and then also the yeast fatigues). You risk popping an air pocket if you leave the bread to prove too long, plus over-proving means the bread might not rise further or worse still, collapse in the oven. And if it collapses, that means it’s doing the opposite of what you need: you need it to expand and show the slashes to good effect. If it collapses or fails to grow in the oven then you don’t see the effect.
If you want to know more about how yeast works in your bread, creating these air pockets (and a lot more besides) then please read my popular article on the Science of bread making – how yeast works.
Leaf slash beetroot loaf
SIX: Go in with a little vigour!
Don’t faff about with your cutting – do it with aplomb! If you cut lightly and gently you risk not cutting deep enough to make any impact, making a lot of ragged cuts that need to be joined up (these produce messy slashes) or worse having to recut into a previous cut (these look a bit of a mess – I do know: I did this myself in the past). If you are nervous, again you could end up having to make many ragged, untidy cuts where one large be stroke of a blade would have been better. That all said, don’t turn in to Sweeney Todd and get all aggressive with it as this can be just as bad – see my next tip…
Turmeric starter sourdough batard with leaf slashes
SEVEN: Don’t cut too deeply
As bad as timid cuts look, at least you’ll still have a nice loaf of bread if you’re tentative. If you go in with a heavy hand you can cut deep into the air pockets and collapse that part of the loaf entirely! Sourdough and other slow prove loaves are riskier to cut than other breads as they have larger air pockets, so this increases the chance of even a shallow cut popping the air bubble and flattening the loaf. I only score a sourdough loaf where I am used to the recipe and I know that the air pockets aren’t massive. New recipes or ingredients in sourdoughs make me nervous of this and so I do not slash these – I leave them as they are to crack and expand on their own or I make a very shallow simple cut, or an angled cut (see the next tip) so that it doesn’t go too deep. You’ll get used to the heaviness of the dough and it’s number of air pockets as you bake more and score bread more – you’ll be able to judge how deep you cut and also what the effect of shallow and deep cuts will make on the expansion in the oven.
Wholemeal sourdough batard with leaf slash
EIGHT: The angle is important
How you hold the blade (whatever you’re using) matters. If you hold it perdendicular to the loaf you’ll cut straight and deep. Great for a precise and defined cut with a medium expansion in the oven. Many scores call for the blade to be angled about 30º which cuts in and under the skin of the loaf, effectively making a bit of a ‘pocket’ shape. Pouch or ear loaves are the perfect example of this on one long cut, but this technique can also be used on smaller cuts, and it creates a bulge opposite the ‘ear’ so you can use this knowledge to plan design shapes for slashing.
I used a simple perpendicular light slash for the ‘rays’ and an angled slash to create the large, open wave in the centre – an example of changing the angle of the blade to achieve different effects – you may notice I accidentally popped an air pocket with the large slash, luckily it was quite a small one and didn’t affect the rise of the loaf (a large air pocket that is popped is likely to deflate the loaf!)
NINE: Rest the loaf briefly
I’ve found that if I’m after a good expansion on the slash marks then after scoring I rest the bread for about 3 – 5 minutes before popping it in the oven. Don’t leave it longer than that as you don’t want the loaf to over-prove and fail to rise or collapse. (See point 5 above). You must factor in this additional ‘rest’ period to the length of time of your second rise on your loaf, ensuring that it does not over-prove before baking.
Extra tip TEN: a visual tip
Here I am slashing a star pattern into a white and wholemeal loaf with added malt flakes. This type of loaf recipe is trickier to slash as the blade can get snagged on the malt flakes (you can just notice it happening). Can’t believe it was nearly three years ago I posted this little video to Instagram and Twitter! Here, I’ve used a surgical scalpel blade as the pattern includes some tight curves.
Happy slashing!! Just don’t say that in public or the police may well tail you – you can always placate them with a lovely slice off your pretty new loaf though 🙂
If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer but I’m no bread guru, just an enthusiastic hobby baker (although I confess I have been baking – and plaiting, slashing and stencilling – bread for over 30 years).