Boule, from the French for “ball”, is a traditional shape of French bread, resembling a squashed ball. It is a rustic loaf shape that can be made of any type of flour. A boule can be leavened with commercial yeast, chemical leavening, or even wild yeast sourdough. There are so many different techniques and methods when it comes to making bread – none of them are wrong, but just different to one another. Firstly, it may seem unusual to use a combination of bread flour and normal plain flour. However, I find that a little bit of ordinary plain flour tenderises the dough and makes a much more soft and fluffy dough inside.
400g of strong white bread flour
100g of plain flour
2x 7g sachets of instant yeast
350ml of water – warm to the touch
Drizzle of olive oil
Weigh out your flours and place them into the bowl of a stand mixer (if mixing using a dough hook) or into any other mixing bowl. Add the salt and mix thoroughly – salt can affect yeast if it comes into direct contact with it, so always stir into your flour first.
Next, add the yeast and mix well again to ensure an even distribution of yeast throughout your mixture. Add the drizzle of oil and your water. At this stage, even if using a mixer with a dough attachment, stir your mixture together with a wooden spoon until it just comes together – its quicker than waiting for the dough hook to bring the mixture into a ball.
At this stage, if kneading in a stand mixer, simply allow the machine to knead for around 5 minutes. Ensure that the dough is being ‘slapped’ around the bowl though and not simply just riding up the dough hook, or it won’t knead properly. If it is riding up the hook, stop the mixer and pull it off and place back into the bowl. Try adding a bit of flour to your hook so the dough won’t stick so much. With this mixture, you can find it kneads beautifully in a mixer and you will never have problems.
To knead by hand, take the mixture out of your bowl and form into a ball, placing it onto a well-floured work surface. With the heel of your hand, push down and then push the dough away from you – almost like you’re stretching it. Fold the dough over itself and, still thinking of it as a ball or disc, turn it a quarter turn and repeat. It will take around 10 minutes to knead by hand and may feel a bit sticky to begin with as it is a high hydration bread – stick with it though and it should look smooth and feel tighter after the 10 minutes.
Leave the dough in a bowl covered with a dampened tea towel for at least an hour in a warm room. If you want, you can leave the dough on this first rise for up to 3 or 4 hours. Uncover the dough – so long as it’s at least twice its original size, you can punch the dough down to de-gas it. Notice the air bubble.
After the excitement of bubbles, with well floured hands, take the dough out of the bowl and form a rough ball. Now, simply try and stretch the edges/sides of the ball underneath itself, rotating it a quarter-turn each time until you’ve got a really nice ball shape that’s equally sized all the way around and smooth. The pictures below try to illustrate how to do this a bit better.
Place the ball on a floured or lined baking tray, making any final adjustments to the shape. Cover again with a damp tea towel and leave to rise for around 45 minutes to an hour. It should be double in size (maybe a bit more) but not be overly ‘wobbly’ when you go to place the bread in the oven. Knowing when the bread is the right size exactly will come after a couple of goes!
At this stage, you could preheat your oven to 230°C/Gas 8. Remove the towel and you will see that it has risen nicely. Flour the top of the bread well and using a serrated knife, make some decorative slashes in the top. Flouring the top first ensures that the knife doesn’t stick or catch to the dough and accidentally deflate it as you slash. Adding the slashes also ensures that there’s controlled expansion of your loaf in the oven – meaning the loaf should stay in shape as it cooks rather than expanding in one part and not in another.
Gently place the loaf of bread onto the bottom shelf of your oven and cook for 35-45 minutes. I run a gas oven so think this is more applicable if your oven is gas or non-fan electric rather than a fan-assisted electric oven. It’s less likely to burn on the bottom shelf and rises really nicely.
After the first 20 minutes, turn the oven down to 200C/gas 6. The loaf is cooked when the internal temperature reaches 200F on a thermometer, but if you don’t have a thermometer, simply test the loaf by tapping on the underneath – when hollow its done. Even when my bread sounds hollow though, I always put mine back in the oven for about 5 minutes upside down to ensure the bottom is cooked too. Remove and allow to cool on a wire rack.