I’ve written posts in the past about the ingredients used in creating new bread recipes, and about the standard skills that I apply to each of my loaves. There is, however, a step before all of this that needs some attention: planning.
When I started baking a few years ago, I relied on fairly simplistic recipes with reliable outcomes. I began with recipes like Jamie Oliver’s foccacia, which produced a good result every time. As my own baking skills developed, the recipes I used became more complicated, leading to sourdoughs and enriched, sweet breads.
Along the way I came across a book that I have mentioned on here before: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and one part in particular has changed the way I plan and bake bread: The baker’s percentage.
The Baker’s Percentage
The purpose of a baking formula is to place all of the ingredients in relation to the flour used in the recipe. The reason for this is that, with a few simple calculations, it is possible to work out not only how much of each ingredient to use, but also to predict the outcome of the bread. As Reinhart himself writes,
“possession of this knowledge will strengthen your ability to control the outcome of your baking.” (p. 40).
So, how does it work? The total flour weight, or TFW, is always represented as 100%. From this, the other values are calculated. Using my most recent recipe, for beetroot sourdough, this would mean that 1000g of all purpose flour + 200g rye flour from the starter would equal 100% in the formula.
- 1kg all-purpose (plain) flour
- 670g water
- 400g rye starter @ 100% hydration (200g starter + 200g water)
- 18g salt
- 430g raw beetroot, coarsely grated
From this, the rest of the ingredients can be converted by dividing the ingredient weights (I) by the total flour weight (TFW), and multiplying by 100. So, for the water: (I/TFW)x100 = ((670+200) / 1200)x100 = 72.5%.
As a start, this not only gives the amount of water, but also the hydration of the final dough. Applying this to the rest of the ingredients gives the following:
Total Flour (including flour from starter): 100%
Total Water (including water from starter): 72.5%
Some other aspects of this bread can now be worked out from the formula. 72.5% hydration is fairly high, but still not as high as, for example, a ciabatta. This dough will probably be fairly wet, but will hold its shape. The high amount of starter means that the total bulk ferment and proof time will be relatively short for a sourdough, and unless the dough is refrigerated, it will need to be made and baked on the same day or it will overproof. The amount of salt (1.5%) is appropriate, as most breads will have between 1.5 and 2%.
A knowledge of this basic formula has many applications. If you find a recipe you like, but feel that it is perhaps a little dense, then you can increase the hydration and experiment. Similarly, if you wish to manage the proofing time, you can alter the percentage of starter or yeast. If a bread is too bland, you can safely increase the amount of salt, but without going much beyond that 2% guideline.
I have actually slightly changed this post following a discussion on The Fresh Loaf. Originally, I was following Reinhart’s advice and treating the starter as an ‘ingredient’. However, I have been convinced that breaking it down into the flour and water, and adding those to make the total flour weight, is a far better approach. The slightly more complex approach gives a more accurate result: treating the starter as a 400g ingredient gives a hydration of 67% (670g of water to 1000g flour). Breaking it down gives 72.5% (870g water to 1200g flour). There is quite a difference between 67 and 72% hydration, so from now on I’ll be using the latter approach.
I will be following up on this post with further ones down the track, writing about how to use the baker’s percentage to scale up or down the number of loaves, to change the size of loaves, and to “troubleshoot” recipes. The topic itself can get very confusing – my advice as a homebaker would be to find something that works, and leave the fine-tuning to the professionals!
If you wish to learn more about baker’s percentages, I would highly recommend getting a hold of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.