When shaping a round loaf - or any loaf, for that matter - your primary goal is to stretch the gluten and create surface tension. A taut skin helps the loaf to maintain its shape during the final rise, enabling the loaf to rise up and not collapse in a puddle on your counter. Plus, it looks prettier once baked!
There are a few different techniques for forming a round loaf (also called a boule). This is the one that we learned when we first started making artisan loaves and that feels the most natural to us.
Dust the dough and your hands with flour. So we don't get too much or too little flour, we rub our floured hands gently over the surface of the dough to get an even coating on both.
Pick up the dough with both hands, thumbs on top and fingers underneath.
Working quickly, use your thumbs and the palms of your hands to stretch the surface of the dough downwards. Meanwhile use while your fingers tuck underneath. (We find it easiest to use one hand to stretch and the fingers of the other hand to tuck, and then we switch hands to get an even surface tension all around.)
Rotate the boule a quarter turn and repeat, continuing around until you have an evenly shaped ball. Try to do this in as few turns as possible.
Flip it over and you should see a "belly button" on the underside. If this looks like it's unfolding, gently pinch the dough together to seal it.
At this point, your loaf is ready for the final rise! You can let it rise belly-button-side down on the counter or use a proofing basket for an even better shape.
Shaping a round loaf with a nicely taut skin takes some practice. Don't fret if your first (or first several) attempts don't seem quite right. Over time, you'll get a feel for it and be turning out round loaves like a pro!
Related: Good Question: How do I Store Bread?
(Images: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)