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The Baker's Percent Explained
Information by Julia Georgallis / Image of flour by
A first step to making great bread is understanding one very simple premise: that cakes are chemistry and bread is biology. I was working as a baker when one of my colleagues imparted this bit of wisdom on me and an enormous lightbulb lit up, illuminating what dough really was -
Every cake has a separate recipe with different ingredients. These respond to each other differently, producing a different cake each time - a delicious chemistry experiment, full of different chemical reactions. Bread however, is the opposite.
All bread making is, is one almighty biology experiment. After all, bread is a made with living organisms and this experiment encourages water, flour, yeast and salt to live together, merrily, in a mixing bowl. But the ratios of these four pillars of breadmaking need to be kept, if not the same, then pretty similar, in the same way that we might keep a biology experiment under control.
We keep this experiment under control by using something known as The Baker’s Percent.
What is the Baker's Percent?
The Baker’s percent is a way of keeping the main ingredients of bread at the correct ratios. Bakers very often have to scale the amounts of dough they make up and down daily, as demand changes throughout the week, so this simple ratio ensures everything stays nice and even.
The Baker’s Percent is a funny thing - it is not quite a percentage as we would understand it. It does not refer to the total sum of ingredients, instead it centres around the amount and type of flour that we are using for each recipe. Flour is the backbone of bread making. Every flour has a different property and needs to be handled differently. For this reason, we always start with flour, so we say that flour always equals 100% of any bread making recipe.
This will become more clear as I give some examples...
Let’s say that we are using a recipe where 100% of flour equals 1000g of strong white Canadian bread flour.
Bare this in mind as we go through the next steps of the Baker’s Percent.
The next part of our Baker’s Percent is hydration. I have called it hydration, not water because sometimes we don’t use water in bread - we might use oil or milk or yoghurt, sometimes a combination of these things - basically hydration refers to something that is the wet part of bread making. Depending on the flour and how ‘thirsty’ it is (wholemeal is very thirsty for example), we can say that the hydration can range be as low as 60% to as much as 100%.
60 - 100% hydration, if we are using the example of 1000g of flour would be 600g - 1000g. If we are using Canadian bread flour, we know that we might need roughly 72% of water, so our recipe, in this case, could be 720g water.
I must admit I have never baked with 100% hydration, but I do know it exists - the wetter your dough, the harder it is to manipulate, and many bakers equate a wet dough to skill! You might hear some bakers showing off about making bread with a 90% plus hydration level.
Next comes salt.
The ratio for salt in bread has changed recently in an effort to reduce general salt intake. The recommended Baker’s Percent changed, therefore, from 2% to 1% - this means that for 1000g flour, or 100% flour, we would use 10g or 1% of salt. I have seen recipes go up to 1.5% and you might see 2% used in older recipe books, but I generally prefer to slash salt use where possible.
Lastly, we can move on to yeast - which is a little more tricky to work out as we can use three different yeasts when baking - dried, fresh or natural. For each of these yeasts we’ll need a different Baker's Percent. Dried yeast is powerful stuff, so we just need 1% of yeast - so for every 1000g of flour, we’d use 10g. Fresh yeast is a little bit slower than dried yeast, so we’d use 2%, or 20g per 1000g flour.
Sourdough starters/levens (which is just another name for natural yeast) take much longer to do their thing. I would generally use 10% of natural yeast, so 100g per 1000g flour, but I have seen recipes which can call for up to 200g (20%) of the recipe.
See below for a recap of the percentages.
How to make the calculation
To recap, the Baker’s Percent equals:
60 - 100% hydration - which could be water, or milk or oil - anything liquid
1% salt - though you might see as much as 2% in some recipes
1% dried OR
2% fresh OR 10% natural - though you could see up to 20% in some recipes.
If we start with 1000g flour, this would equal...
600g - 1000 g hydration
OR 20g fresh yeast OR 100g - 200g natural yeast
If we want to use 500g of flour, our recipe would look like this...
300g - 500g hydration
5g dried yeast
OR 10g fresh yeast OR 50g - 100g natural yeast
And so on and so forth - if you aren’t so confident with working out percentages and you want to make a loaf of bread with, say, 375g of flour for example and you aren’t sure how to do that, here’s a brilliant link to a
baker’s percent calculator
Why does the percentage change?
The most common cause for change in your Baker’s Percent will be because of the relationship between flour and hydration - as you bake more, you will learn about the properties of different flours. You might need 80% hydration for wholemeal flour and only 72% for strong Canadian white flour.
When do we use the Baker's Percent?
Now we’ve gotten over the maths bit, I’d like to talk about when we might use the Baker’s Percent in bread making.
1. It’s a really useful tool for scaling up and scaling down bread making recipes because the ratio stays the same no matter the size of the batch of dough and so quality of bread remains consistent.
2. It’s a good way of telling other bakers what the dough or bread is like. Perhaps you could give your baker chums little insights into how you made that delicious piece of toast that they’re eating by saying something like: ‘why, that delicious piece of toast has a 92% hydration using 50% strong Canadian white bread flour and 50% wholemeal…’ We use the percent to communicate with other bakers and understand what our bread might be like.
3. We use it to make mental notes about recipes. If you’re trying out a new recipe and something doesn’t go quite right, refer back to the Baker’s Percent and change one of the elements. If I am baking with a strong, white bread flour and I use 72% hydration and my bread doesn’t really rise brilliantly, I could maybe think about increasing the percentage of water and treating it like a biology experiment to see what effects this has on my next loaf.
That's it in an nutshell. If you want more information about the Baker's Percent, you can watch my videos -
What is the Baker's Percent
How to use The Baker's Percent
on Bitesized Baking. However, the best way to learn and understand is to get baking!
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The Baker's Percent Explained