Andrew’s 4-part adventure will be posted over the course of this week. Read all of his Wheatstalk coverage here.
This past June, I spent four days in Chicago attending Wheatstalk, a bread-baking educational conference organized by the Bread Bakers Guild of America. The conference brought 150 or so bakers to Kendall College, Chicago’s largest culinary school, to brush up on their skills and acquire new ones from some of the world’s best bakers. Most of the attendees were owners or employees of bakeries; I was among the small handful of non-professionals attending. Class sizes were limited to about 20 students each and were assigned by a lottery system; though you could specify the classes you were most interested in, exactly which classes you were assigned to was out of your hands.
On day one, I attended a short, optional refresher course in “Baker’s Math”, taught by Jeff Yankellow, director of the Guild’s board. Baker’s math—also known as baker’s ratios or baker’s percentages—is the system used by most bakeries to calculate bread formulas. Bakeries, given the volume of ingredients used and number of loaves produced, do not use “recipes” per se. Instead, they rely on formulas of weight ratios among ingredients—this many parts flour, this many parts water, yeast, salt, etc. For a given formula, these ratios remain the same regardless of the amount of bread being made. This allows for easy and reliable scaling: whether you want to make 1 loaf or 10,000 loaves, it’s simply a matter of multiplication.
I’m pretty familiar with baker’s math, but I attended the class anyway in order to observe how Jeff presented the material. Baker’s math is easy to understand conceptually, but it’s exceedingly difficult to teach. (I know, because I occasionally teach a basic bread-baking class, and it’s the bit of the class students have the harder time wrapping their heads around.) As soon as you wade into the nitty gritty of actual number-crunching, the novice student can quickly become overwhelmed. It’s one thing to take a given formula and scale it up or down proportionally; creating formulas from scratch or modifying existing ones is another thing altogether.
Here’s an example formula:
Instant yeast 1.25%
Total percentage 171.75%
By definition, the flour percentage always equals 100 percent. (It’s a ratio where all other ingredients are related to the amount of flour.)
The percentage of water in any recipe defines its hydration level. The hydration level of any recipe tells you something about how wet a dough the recipe makes (and, indirectly, what kind of bread it should produce). Most bread or pizza dough recipes have a hydration level somewhere in the range of 55-80 percent.
The salt percentage is 2.5 percent, and the yeast is 1.25 percent, both within reasonable ranges.
The total percentage is 171.75 percent. It may seem paradoxical to have a percent value greater than 100, but this number comes in handy when you want to create a recipe with a desired final weight of dough.
Creating a recipe from the formula is simple. The only question to consider at the outset is whether you are starting from a given weight of flour or with the final weight of dough desired.
If you are starting with a given amount of flour, you simply multiply that number by each percentage (expressed as a decimal value) to determine the weight of the ingredient in question. So, starting with 500 grams of flour, you would need:
500 x 1.00 = 500g flour
500 x 0.68 = 340g water
500 x 0.025 = 12.5g salt
500 x 0.0125 = 6.25g instant yeast
If on the other hand, you want to make a loaf of bread weighing a certain amount, you simply divide that number by the total percentage (1.7175) to determine the amount of flour needed.
Thus, for a one kilo loaf:
1000 / 1.7175 = 582g flour
To determine the weights of the remaining ingredients, you simply insert this amount into the previous formula:
582 x 1.00 = 582g flour
582 x 0.68 = 359g water
582 x 0.025 = 15g salt
582 x 0.0125 = 7g instant yeast
Since baker’s percentages formulas are unit-independent, converting a recipe to another unit of measure is simple. For example, say you want to make 150 kilos of dough from the above formula:
150/1.7175 = 87.34 kg flour
87.34 x 1.00 = 87.34 kg flour
87.34 x 0.68 = 59.4 kg water
87.34 x 0.025 = 2.2 kg salt
87.34 x 0.0125 = 1.1 kg instant yeast
In the end, baker’s math is one of those subjects that can be taught in a classroom setting, but only truly learned through repeated practice in real-world situations. It’s just something that you absorb over time through exposure, rather than learn through study. Jeff did a great job walking us through the nuts and bolts of the method, but the most useful thing he offered the class was this simple piece of advice: Keep at it, even if you find the math daunting, and sooner or later it becomes second nature.
Tune in tomorrow for more Wheatstalk coverage. Here’s a sneak peek of what’s to come.