Scoring sourdough bread is a popular topic because the possibilities with scoring are endless. Scores can be simple and straightforward, or intricately complicated. Bakers tend to prefer one way or the other, simply based on their own preference and experience.
Personally speaking, I like to dust my loaves with flour and one or two deep slashes with decorative wheat stalks. I find this technique results in a beautiful loaf that has both a good oven spring and a stunningly beautiful appearance.
There’s no right or wrong way to score a loaf of sourdough. The only thing to remember is this: you need one good slash to allow the gases to escape during baking. Let’s dig into that a little deeper.
Why Score Sourdough
Scoring sourdough bread has the primary benefit of allowing gases to escape as the loaf bakes in the oven. Without a deep score, the gases would become trapped and would eventually “self-score”, or burst open unpredictably. By scoring the loaf before it goes in the oven, you take control of the final appearance of the bread.
Some bakers keep their scores simple, often using just a single slash to create an ear. Others like to be creative and come up with beautiful, intricate designs. Whichever option you choose, you can be sure that your bread will come out of the oven looking beautiful and created by you.
To flour or not?
Before scoring, you have a choice of whether or not you want to dust your loaf with flour. Without flour, the loaf maintains its beautiful golden brown color, but the score won’t stand out as much.
By dusting the top, it coats the loaf in flour so when you score, it opens up to the dough underneath that isn’t dusted. This creates such beautiful contrast for the scores to stand out, it’s my preferred method when scoring sourdough and one I use every time.
To spritz or not?
If you choose not to flour, you have a further option to spritz your loaf with water just as it goes in the oven. Spraying a light coating of droplets on the top ensures that the crust will be blistered and golden, as some bakers prefer.
To do this option, first score your dough, then spray the surface one to two times with a water spritzer. Then quickly (but carefully!) move your dough into the baking vessel and bake as normal.
If you do flour the surface, spraying the top with water will basically eliminate the contrast effect you will get from the flour, so there’s no real point in doing both.
What to score with?
The best method for scoring sourdough is inarguably the double-edged razor blade. It’s extremely sharp, very small, and inexpensive to replace once dulled.
How bakers choose to use their razor blades is a different story. When you have a tool that holds a razor blade that’s specifically for scoring bread, that’s called a lame (“lahm”), and there are many different kinds.
I personally use the UFO Lame by Wire Monkey Shop. I love how close my hand is to the dough when scoring, because it makes my scores much more precise. Plus, when I’m done scoring, the blade tucks neatly inside which avoids any unintentional injury when someone goes rifling through the drawers. This safety aspect is huge for me, as I have young kids in my house.
Primary vs Secondary Scores
In my years of baking sourdough, I’ve discovered something about scoring: if you don’t have at least one deep slash to allow gases to escape, the loaf will burst through your beautiful scoring design.
Because of this, I tend to refer to the two types of scores as Primary and Secondary.
Primary scores are the deeper, longer slashes that let the steam escape from the dough as it’s baking. This could be one single long score, or two in the shape of an X, or four in the shape of a square, to name a few. Primary scores are at least ½” deep, sometimes reaching 2” or more, and serve the function of steam release and ear creation.
Secondary scores are the more shallow, decorative scores that serve to embellish the final loaf. Designs that utilize a wheat stalk, a leaf pattern, chevrons, etc are all secondary scores. These slashes are generally short and shallow, never exceeding ½” deep.
Basic Scoring Techniques
Just because they’re called basic doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful. Single scores in the right place at the right angle have the power to create a massive ear, which is considered by some to be an achievement in sourdough baking. (An ear occurs when the dough is perfectly fermented, the score is perfectly placed, and the loaf is perfectly baked, resulting in the upper portion of the dough lifting up off the loaf during baking and creating a crest.
There’s also a simplicity to basic scores that tends to highlight the actual bread itself and not the design on top. Many professional bakers opt for basic scores, choosing different types for different recipes; for example, their basic country loaf might have a single ear and their rye might have two parallel slashes. This also helps to differentiate the loaves when selling at markets.
Below are three basic techniques for basic scoring techniques.
Single slash (The “Ear”)
This score is what creates the elusive ear, and is easily achievable with practice. Looking down at your dough, start the score at the north pole and pull your blade swiftly but carefully down to the south pole, making a crescent moon shape, at a height of about halfway between the bottom and the top of your dough. Hold your blade at a 45° angle.
You can do a single slash on a boule or a batard. If you do a batard, make sure you’re scoring it lengthwise.
Scoring sourdough using the X score is another basic technique that can have beautiful results. Simply score a large X shape into the top of your dough. The X will spread apart in the oven, resulting in more of a cross shape that is truly stunning.
There are a few variances on the simple X score. First, you can use scissors to snip each “V” of the X to help these parts rise higher in the oven and achieve more of an ear effect. Simply cut about a ½” into the dough (see photo). Second, you can push your thumb down into the center of the X. This will help keep the X shape from bursting, although I personally like the little burst that can happen inside the X!
Slicing a square into the top of your dough will ensure the loaf has four deep scores for steam to escape through, while also making a little “hat” on the top of your finished loaf. This entails doing four straight slashes to make a square; just make sure the ends overlap!
Like the X score, you can use scissors on the corners of the square to snip in a half inch deep to help those corners lift off the loaf and create little ears. You can also do some secondary scores inside the square, if you like.
Advanced Scoring Techniques
Advanced scores simply means they’re more decorative than functional. There’s still an element of functional scoring with the primary scores, but there are many more secondary scores involved.
Below are three techniques for advanced techniques for scoring sourdough bread.
Adding wheat stalks to any of the basic scores above lends a decorative touch to your loaf of sourdough. Again, it’s a very straightforward way to score but results in an appearance that looks complicated and delicate.
To score wheat stalks, start with a straight up and down line, about ¼” deep. Then make scores in a downward direction to make incomplete V’s. Do not score the middle line or “stem”, as this will serve as a primary score and will spread open.
You can make your wheat stalks straight or curved, depending on your desired result or the shape of your loaf. You can also score a single wheat stalk, or make several stalks together.
The Leavenly Technique
Currently my favorite way to score my boules, the Leavenly Technique involves a small X on the top of the loaf which is the primary score. The remaining scores are secondary scores. The first set are four wheat stalks that end inside the X, and the second set are four chevron lines that trace the points of the X down. Finally, scissors are used to snip the inside four corners of the X.
I love scoring sourdough this way because it’s much easier than it looks, it supports great oven spring, and it’s impressive when giving loaves to family and friends.
The decorative swirl only works if you’re careful to keep it ¼” deep. Because it’s a large score, if it’s any deeper, it may function as a primary score and burst during baking. If the swirl spreads apart it’s okay because it will add to the decorative factor.
I didn’t use much flour on my example loaf, so the swirl is more subtle. If you want it to pop more, simple dust extra flour on the top before scoring. This is a beautiful technique when scoring sourdough!