Baking by the Numbers

This weekend I needed to check out a recipe I’d concocted awhile back, a bread recipe that I’d adapted from various sources and while it worked, I wasn’t 100% happy with it. Thinking the blame might lie equally with the method as well as the ingredients, I decided to just start over and then compare the two recipes.

For the second trial I went back to my Professional Baking textbook from school. Deceptively thin, this book has just about everything you need to know about baking in it, but the recipes aren’t exactly what you’d call standard.

Baking is, for the most part, chemistry. All cooking is, to an extent, but while you can thicken a runny soup or bump up the seasoning of a stir-fry at will, baking is one of those things that if you’re ratio of wet to dry or leavening to mass is off, then you might very well end up with hockey pucks instead of rolls.

And no one wants hardtack on their plates.

So there’s math involved. Especially if you only want to make 1 small loaf of bread and not 12 of them.

Professional Baking is pretty much geared towards a production kitchen, after all.

But because baking is chemistry and science and math all rolled up into a tasty loaf of fresh bread, it’s fairly easy to figure out how much of everything you need if you use baking ratios.

Ratios, for those whose math skills are a little more than rusty, are a way of comparing items based on a single unit of measure. Think 4 parts flour to 1 part sugar, where part can be grams, ounces, or pounds depending on how much of something you’re trying to make.

Baking ratios are determined be considering the total weight of the flour as 100%, and all the other ingredients in relation to that. So if you only want to make a loaf of dough that uses 2 cups of flour, you can use the ratios to find out that you then need 1.2 cups of water, .075 cups of yeast and so on and so forth.

White Pan Bread baking ratios from Professional Baking with lots of margin notes

Granted, having to figure out what .075 cups is equal to in the real world is a bit of a pain (.6 ounces or, roughly, 1 Tbsp + 1/2 tsp), having a scale with a metric function is incredibly helpful when doing any sort of baking conversions. Just weigh the flour you want to use in grams and base the rest of the ingredients off of that (also in grams, very important!).

Of course, it’s not a perfect system, mostly because there’s plenty of opportunity for human error.

Like when I figured out I needed 56% of something only I wrote it down in the wrong spot, thought it was the total grams needed of flour and ended up with a 3 oz “loaf” of bread dough. Oops. But, hey, if I ever need to make only 1 or 2 dinner rolls, now I can!

And that’s kind of a neat trick in and of itself.

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