Baking Like A (Mad) Scientist, Part 2: Bakers Math- Attack of the Numbers

     Good evening, friends and neighbors! 

    Last week, I talked a bit about how to approach baking scientifically. At its heart, baking is edible chemistry- a careful and calculated combination of substances with the intent of causing a series of chemical reactions that produce a different (tasty) material.  If you haven’t read the last blog entry yet, I suggest you do so- and read the rest of the blog while you’re at it. A lot of cool stuff is discussed!

     This week, we are going to be discussing one of the most vital parts of scientific baking, and also one of the most feared and intimidating parts- baker’s math.

*”O Fortuna” plays in the background*

In what has almost become a scripted discussion, when I ask people why they don’t like baking, these are the answers I get:

  • “Oh, I just don’t get it!”
  • “You have to be so careful about everything! I’m not good at that.” (This came from a nurse.)
  • “It’s so much work!”

Far and away, though, the most common answer I get is:

“I stink at measuring- all those numbers and everything.”

Ok, I get it. I’m not heartless. Not everyone “gets” math- or so they think. People use math every single day. They are so accustomed to seeing math as a monolithic wall of formulas in a textbook, that they fail to realize just how much they rely on it every moment of their lives. Here’s the big secret:

If you can count money, slice a cake, or make a cocktail- you can do baker’s math.

Wait… cocktails? Money? What?”
Hold on, stick with me. We’ll start with…

#1. Formulas, and Bakers Percentage

In the last blog entry (have you read it yet?), I mentioned in passing that in professional baking, it is more common to use “formulas” rather than recipes. This choice of words is not just to make bakers feel smug and smart. Bakers math was formerly known as “bakers percentages,” but people got confused because they don’t ACT like the percentages people understand, as I will demonstrate soon.

First of all, quick crash course- a percentage is a way of describing part of a whole. It is another way of depicting a fraction or decimal number. For example: 

1/2         =            .5                =            50%
Fraction                      Decimal                            Percentage
1              =              1.0            =           100%

This is the way percentages work in any other walk of life- demonstrating fractions in relation to 100. This is the same way U.S. currency works-

100 ¢        =              $1

Still with me so far? Good.
Bakers formulas don’t work like that.

In a bakers formula, percentages are used to show RATIOS- that is, different amounts relative to EACH OTHER, rather than to a whole. (Here’s where the cocktails I mentioned before come in.)

As a treat for reading this far, here is my personal favorite recipe for a Gin and Tonic-

The BHB’s Gin and Tonic
1 part Tanqueray Gin
2 parts Tonic Water
splash of cucumber juice
Garnish with cucumber slice

Besides a tasty beverage with which to relax on a summer day, I’ve also just provided you with a ratio- whenever you make this drink, you use twice as much tonic water as gin, whether making it for yourself (advisable!) or making a giant jug of it (inadvisable, unless you share), and it will always taste the same. 

This is a little thing called “scaling”- and it’s what allows me to make one loaf of bread or a hundred loaves from the same formula, and have them all come out the exact same without doing an insane amount of extra calculation.
Yes, using math to prevent more math. You’re welcome!

With the idea of ratios still firmly in mind, consider the following formula, borrowed from

100% Strong Flour
68% Water
2% Yeast
1% Salt

After everything about percentages above, you can already see there’s a problem here:
“100% flour?! That’s the whole thing, isn’t it?!” “That adds up to 171%! Impossible!”

Remember though: we are dealing with RATIOS. All the ingredients are in RELATION to something else- in this case, the flour (100%.) In most breads, flour is obviously the most prevalent ingredient, so it becomes the standard against which all the other ingredients are related- 100%. 
Therefore, in making this formula, you are being told that your water should be 68% the amount of your flour, your yeast should be 2% its amount, and salt 1%.

Now the astute among you might notice something else- what amount? Pounds? Cups? Handfuls? Stone? 

That’s the beauty of using bakers math: it doesn’t matter. It can be anything. As long as you apply the same unit to everything, it will come out right. 
Want to make the 100% flour equal ounces? 

100 oz. Strong Flour
68 oz. water
2 oz. yeast
1 oz. salt

You’ll come out with a LOT of dough (nearly 11 lbs), but it will work. 

That’s quite enough for tonight I think- next week, we’ll be talking about measurement: weight vs. volume, scaling, and more!

Till then…

Stay classy,

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