I have read so many bread baking books and viewed so many videos on shaping boules, but I didn't really "get it" until I saw our instructor, Miyuki, do it in the SFBI Artisan I workshop I attended a couple weeks ago.
I will attempt to show what I learned in still photos with descriptions. I hope that viewing these and then reviewing some of the excellent videos available might help others who are struggling with this technique.
Mis en place
You will need:
1. a batch of fully-fermented dough
2. a lightly floured "board" on which to work.
3. a scale, if you are dividing the dough.
4. a bench knife or other cutting implement, if you are dividing the dough
5. prepared bannetons or a couche on which to rest the formed boules for proofing
1. Weigh your dough
2. Divide it into equal pieces.
3. Pre-shape each piece gently, incorporating any small pieces of dough on the inside.
4. Rest the pre-shaped pieces, seam side down and covered with plastic or a towel on the board for 20-30 minutes.
5. Prepare your bannetons or couche for receiving the shaped boules.
6. After the pre-shaped pieces have rested, shape each as follows:
* Pick up the piece and turn it smooth side down.
* Gently fold the long ends together under the piece.
* Rotate the piece 90º in your hands, and fold the other two sides together.
* Place the piece on an un-floured board, smooth side up.
* Cup your hands around the piece, and gently drag it 3 inches or so towards you in such a way that the edge closest to you sticks to the board and is dragged under the dough, thus stretching the top of the piece into a tight sheath containing the dough.
Note the position of the markers before stretching
After the stretching, the marker at the apex of the boule is unmoved, but the one that was at about 40º North, is now about at the equator.
* Rotate the dough 90º and repeat. Do this 3-4 times until the bottom of the boule is relatively smooth and the whole boule has an unbroken, smooth sheath.
Note that there are no visible seams on what will be the bottom of the boule, after the procedure described.
* Place the boules in bannetons, smooth side down, spray with oil and place each banneton in a food-grade plastic bag to proof. (Alternatively, place the boules seam side down on a couch and cover with a fold of the couche, plasti-crap or a towel.)
Well, there it is. For me, being able to visualize the stretching of the "skin" of the boule between a fixed North Pole and a point on the side, using the board to "grab" the bottom of the boule as I dragged it towards me was the "aha moment." I hope it makes sense to others.
The goal (to form a tight gluten sheath) in forming other shapes is fundamentally the same, but the method is entirely different.
Comments and questions are welcome.