To my mind, most useful type of bread or pizza dough recipe is one that is written in terms of Baker’s Percentages, wherein the amount of each ingredient is expressed relative to the total weight of flour. There are numerous reasons why this method is superior to other types of bread recipe writing. First, since each ingredient must be weighed, it allows for simple, precise measuring and easy repeatability. Second, scaling a recipe up or down becomes a simple matter of multiplication, allowing recipes to be altered or adapted with a minimum of fuss. Finally, it provides a common language for describing bread recipes, one that is independent of units of measure. This enables bakers to easily communicate formulas, and allows a baker to quickly assess the features of any particular recipe by simply considering the percentages used.
Learning to work with baker’s percentages can be a little confusing at first, but once you become accustomed to the method, you’ll know why most bakers utilize it. (One side benefit that derives from understanding baker’s percentages is that with it one can quickly judge the reliability of a cookbook or published recipe by examining how its dough recipes are written. In my experience, if they aren’t given as percentages, the author either isn’t a baker or has deemed it necessary to dumb down the text for the “benefit” of the reader. In either case, such recipes should be taken with a large heaping of salt.)
Working with baker’s percentages requires having a quality kitchen scale, since each ingredient, liquids included, will be expressed in terms of weight. You’ll want a scale that is accurate to at least 2 grams and has a capacity of at least 2.2 kilos/5 pounds, though one with a maximum capacity of 5 kilos/11 pounds is better, since it will allow you to weigh ingredients directly into whatever container you wish. A good scale will cost between $25-75; as an essential tool in any well-equipped kitchen, the expense will pay for itself in no time. For useful ideas on what to look for in a scale, I highly recommend this article.
Once you have a good scale, I also recommend you start using the metric system of weights (if you have not already) rather than the English system of pounds and ounces. Once you become accustomed to it, the metric system is much easier to use, since you rarely need to consider fractions of units, as the basic unit of measure is a relatively small 1 gram. (Who the hell knows what 0.27 ounces weighs anyway? Nobody, but it’s about 8 grams).
To grasp baker’s percentages, it’s easiest to see examples of the system in use, then play around with them yourself, both on paper and in the kitchen.
Here’s an example formula:
- Flour 100%
- Water 63%
- Salt 2.5%
- Instant yeast 1.25%
- Total percentage 175.75%
There are several things to note about the above formula:
- By definition, the total percentage of flour is 100 percent. This would remain true if we were using a mixture of two or more flours; in that case the percentages of each flour must add up to 100 percent.
- 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. Most bread or pizza dough recipes have a hydration level somewhere in the range of 55-80 percent. (Except in rare instances, percentages outside of this range would produce a dough that is either too dry or too wet for practical use.) Percentages at the lower end of the range are often used for recipes using low gluten flours, which tend to absorb less water than other flours, while those at the higher end are often used with high gluten flours, which are very absorbent.
- The salt percentage is 2.5 percent, and the yeast is 1.25 percent, both within reasonable ranges.
- The total percentage is 175.75 percent. It may seem paradoxical to have a percent value greater than 100, but this number will come 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:
- 500g flour (500 x 1.00)
- 315g water (500 x 0.63)
- 12.5g salt (500 x 0.025)
- 6.25g instant yeast (500 x 0.0125)
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 (1.7575) to determine the amount of flour needed. Thus, for a one kilo loaf:
- 1000 / 1.7575 = 569g flour
Then you simply insert this amount into the formula to determine the weights of the remaining ingredients:
- 569g flour (569 x 1.00)
- 358.5g water (569 x 0.63)
- 14g salt (569 x 0.025)
- 7g instant yeast (569 x 0.0125)
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 pounds of dough from the above formula:
- 150/1.7575 = 85.35# flour
- 85.35# flour (85.35 x 1.00)
- 53.8# water (85.35 x 0.63)
- 2.1# salt (85.35 x 0.025)
- 1.0# instant yeast (85.35 x 0.0125)
Converting Recipes into Baker’s Percentages
Since many recipes you will encounter will not be written using baker’s percentages, you’ll need to know how to convert to them in order to standardize the formula. As long as you know the weight of each ingredient, the method is simple. Here’s an example:
- 1200g flour
- 780g water
- 2.4g salt
- 1.5g instant yeast
To determine the percentages of the other ingredients, all you need to do is divide the weight of each by the weight of flour in the recipe:
- 1200g flour (100%)
- 780g water (780/1200= 0.63 or 63%)
- 2.4g salt (2.4/1200 = 0.02 or 2%)
- 1.5g instant yeast (1.5/1200 = 0.0125 or 1.25%)
Standard Volume to Weight Conversions
Of course, if the recipe is written in volume measurements, you’ll have to convert them to weights before you can work out the baker’s percentages. This can be a little tricky, since you often won’t be able to say for sure what 1 unit of volume of the individual ingredient really weighs. (Yet another reason to work primarily with recipes and cookbooks that give recipes as baker’s percentages.)
Here is a table that contains the ingredients you’ll find in my recipes:
- flour, AP, sifted: 1 cup = 125g
- flour, AP, unsifted: 1 cup = 144g
- oil, olive: 1 tablespoon = 12g / 1 teaspoon = 4g
- salt, kosher: 1 tablespoon = 17g / 1 teaspoon = 6g
- salt, sea: 1 tablespoon = 14g / 1 teaspoon = 4.5g
- yeast, dry: 1 teaspoon = 4g
- 1 cup = 240 mL (milliliter)
- 1/2 cup = 120 mL
- 1/3 cup = 80 mL
- 1/4 cup = 60 mL = 4 tablespoons
- 1 tablespoon = 15 mL = 3 teaspoons
- 1 teaspoon = 5 mL
- 1 fluid ounce = 30 mL
- 1 US quart = 0.946 liter (~=1 liter)
- 1 ounce = 28 grams
- 1 pound = 16 ounces = 454 grams
Baker’s Percentages and Preferments
If your recipe uses a sourdough starter or preferment, sorting out baker’s percentages is a little more complicated. The starter is treated as any other ingredient, with its amount presented as a percentage of the total. But since it is a mixture of flour and water, its presence has an effect on the total amounts of each in the overall recipe. For this reason, such recipes are often presented twice, once with the basic list of ingredients, and again with the percentages adjusted to account for the preferment, to give the “true” percentages.
Here’s an example set of formulas:
- Flour 50%
- Water 50%
- Flour 513g 100%
- Water 372g 72.5%
- Salt 13g 2.3%
- Starter 103g 20%
- Total 1000g
- Flour 564g 100%
- Water 423g 75%
- Salt 13g 2.3%
- Total 1000g 177.3%