### Demystifying 'Baker's Percentages'

This is a brief post to help those of you who are starting out on your bread-baking journeys and have been reading about the mysteries of the 'Baker's Percentages' or 'Hydration levels'.

Hopefully, I'm going to demystify the terms for you and also show you how working with simple percentages can be adapted for yeasted and sourdough breads as well as other baking products.

It's 52 years since I sat in an examination hall and struggled my way through an 'O' level mathematics examination. I passed, and a year early, I'll have you know! However, I wouldn't say that maths has been one of my strongest skills over the intervening years. I've estimated tiles, rolls of wallpaper and carpet, volumes of paint, rolls of turf and lengths of timber. I've often fallen short, but more often that not, have ended up wondering what went wrong.....?

My advice, if your calculations leave you feeling just a little insecure as you tip the sack of flour into the egg cup full of water, find an 'app' or a formula to offer a 'second opinion'. I never, ever, bake without double-checking my numbers.

Back in 1591, the Anglo-Italian writer, John Florio, was a linguist and language tutor at the Court of James I of England. In his book, Second Frutes, he writes, 'Alwaies measure manie, before you cut anie.'

We probably know it better as  'measure twice, cut once'.

There's an excellent app for Android at

and for Apple at

https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/percentages-calculator/id528727630

and for online at

https://percentagecalculator.net/

Baker's percentage is really a way of describing dough without having to share a recipe. It also gives a guide to the absorption rate of the liquid to the dry ingredients in a dough. Simply, put, it's a notational guide as to how wet or how dry a dough is likely to be, once all the ingredients are added.

Understanding Baker's percentage will allow you to:

1. compare recipes more easily - you'll develop a feel for whether the recipe is going to produce a dense loaf or a wet, sloppy mix,
2. you'll be able to spot a bad recipe. Some recipes look lovely, but are flawed by typos, slips or simply bad practice,
3. you'll be able to add or remove an ingredient without it affecting the overall hydration of the recipe,
4. you'll be able to scale up or down a recipe with ease, and adjust for items that are not as easy to judge - for example, eggs.
A wet dough is a loose dough. It has different characteristics to a dry, firm dough. It will produce a different type of bread and, for the baker, a wet and loose dough can be more challenging, more difficult to handle and less forgiving when it's put into the oven.

Some bakers will tell you they never work with dough that is less than 70% or 80% hydration. Others will tell you of bakes where the Baker's Percentage has gone beyond 100%. If this sounds odd to you, bear with me. Hopefully, all will be clear by the end.

Let's start with a basic yeasted loaf by way of example.

Let's imagine that we're making a white loaf.

We need flour, water, salt and yeast.

WE ALWAYS START WITH THE FLOUR.

The flour is always represented as 100%. It may be 400 gms, it may be 6 kg. It may be white flour or wholemeal. It doesn't matter. We always show the total weight of flour as 100% in a Baker's percentage.

Then, we have to decide on the degree of hydration - that is to say, the quantity of water we need.

OK, for our bread, today. let's say we're looking at a 65% hydration, just to keep the numbers manageable. It will seem low to some, but for the inexperienced baker, it produces a dough that can be handled relatively easily.

OK - so, because our hydration level is to be 65% - we need a quantity of water that is equal to 65% of the total weight of the flour. We forget gms, mls, ozs and whatever at this stage.

So, if we had 400 grams of flour - we'd need 65% of that in water, i.e. 260 gms (or mls - they weigh the same) of water.

If we had 3000 grams of flour - we'd need 65% of that in water, i.e. 1950 gms (or mls - they weigh the same) of water.

And it's as simple as that. That is the 'big sum'. After that, things become a lot easier and we work to rules.

In your bread, 2% of the total weight of flour will be salt.

So, 2% of our 400 gms of flour is 8 gms of salt. (go, on check it! I'm right!! :-) )

I also add 1.75% of dry, active yeast to my 400 gms of flour (7 gms). If I was making a 500 gms loaf, I'd still stay with 1.75% but the yeast would be increased to 9 gms (yes, I know - it's actually 8.75 gms, but, come on, give me a break! )

Now, if our recipe adds further wet ingredients, there should be an allowance made for this in the total water added. For example, if the recipe asks for the addition of milk, you should see the volume of water drop accordingly. If it doesn't, then this is a good indication that the final mix will be more loose and less easy to handle - and probably there's an error somewhere in the recipe - or at least a question to be asked.

You'll notice that some recipes use smaller measurements than can be handled on a kitchen scale. For example, ¼ teaspoon of mixed spice or similar. This is a very slight drawback when handling baker's percentages, but the quantities are so little that they shouldn't present major problems.

Let's recap slightly.

Example 1 : WHITE LOAF - USING COMMERCIAL YEAST - 70% HYDRATION

500 gms of flour (100%)

350 mls of water (70%)

10 gms salt (2%)

9 gms of active dried yeast (1.75%)

Now, the BIG mistake is to 'add up the percentages' - this way you'll get to 173.75% and you'll say - you can't have that! And I'd say - you've missed the point, go back to the top and read it again.

I saw this recently on a very high-brow sourdough science site on Facebook. Some poor baker said exactly that and received all manner of sarcastic comments from people who should have known better. Even me stepping in and saying 'Oh, come on give him a break, we've all got to start somewhere...' went unheeded.

Now I know many of you bake sourdough, so let's see how this works using Baker's Percentages.

Example 2 : SOURDOUGH - USING SOURDOUGH STARTER - 70% HYDRATION

We've got four ingredients: water / starter / flour and salt

I always make my sourdough starter with a ratio of 1:1 flour to water. That's deliberate. It means I know how much flour to allow for and also how much water. If you stick to this, it makes the maths slightly easier. Just carefully measure it out every time you re-feed your starter.

So, once again, the baseline is the flour. I have 500 gms of flour in my recipe. (Remember, that's my 100%)

The rule...my rule, is that 30% of the total weight of flour is starter.

So, I'll need 150 gms of starter. (that contains 75 gms of flour and 75 gms of water). So, my total weight of flour is now 575 gms (500 gms from the flour and 75 gms from the flour within the starter).

I now need 75% of the total weight of flour to be water. So, 70% of 575 gms (Note I'm referring to both the flour and also the flour in the starter) is 402.5 gms of water.

However, don't forget, I've got 75 gms of water tucked up inside my starter, so I need to subtract this from the 402.5. So, I'll need 327.5 gms of water on top of the water that is already present in the starter.

Also remember I still need 2% of salt - that's 10 gms.

So the recipe would look like this:

500 gms of flour (100%)

150 gms of starter (30% - made with 1:1 flour to water)

327 gms of water (70%)

10 gms of salt (2%)

If I was making a levain (mixing a small amount of water with flour before adding the starter and remaining ingredients) or a sponge, or biga or poolish (If I'm confusing you now, there's a very straightforward explanation below...)

https://breadclub20.blogspot.com/2021/01/when-is-starter-starter.html

then I would not be adding any EXTRA flour or water, merely taking what I need from the whole.

You'll find what is, hopefully, a straightforward and useful guide to hydration levels and their effect on dough at :

https://breadclub20.blogspot.com/2020/10/a-very-simple-guide-to-hydration-levels.html

Sometimes, a recipe will benefit from the addition of oil or butter.

As a rule of thumb, for a 500 gms flour mix (100%)

I'd use : a generous 2% of sugar, a generous 4% of dried milk, a generous 2% of butter or 5% of oil.

That more or less equates to a tablespoon of sugar, two tablespoons of dried milk and 10 gms of butter or two tablespoons of oil.

However, a lot depends on the recipe and the outcome you're trying to achieve. Using baker's percentages is a way of quickly checking whether your recipe looks right.

WHAT DO I DO ABOUT EGGS?

Again, we're back to rules of thumbs!

Generally - and if we're talking about fresh eggs -

75% of the weight of an egg is water.

10% of the weight of an egg is fat

the rest (15%) is protein and glucose.

So, for a standard large hen's egg weighing 50 gms, water accounts for 38 grams.

This is quite significant if you're baking brioche or challah where the weight of the water in the eggs can make a significant difference. These are, after all, enriched doughs.

The rule is the same - go back to your TOTAL QUANTITY OF FLOUR and use that as the baseline. Work out all your liquid content (water + water in eggs + milk + whatever = total water) and the total water should be 65% or 70% or 75% of your total weight of flour.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I WANT 65% OR 70% OR 75% OR EVEN 110%?

This is where a chart to the characteristics of dough at certain % hydration levels comes in useful. You'll find one at :

https://breadclub20.blogspot.com/2020/10/a-very-simple-guide-to-hydration-levels.html

Bookmark it, print it out, put it on the wall.....just have it handy for when you need it. Very soon, you'll know what you like.

That's the key. What do you like? I'm often over-awed by people's skills with a blade when scoring bread. I'm flabbergasted by the way some people turn baking bread into a scientific experiment more difficult than trying to find a cure for mortality. I'm regularly cross at the social media pedants who put down the valiant efforts of the inexperienced and the brave with comments like 'you've over-proofed it' or 'it's too flat' or 'your crumb is too closed'.

We all need a few wins under our belts. Even after all these years, I can plan to make something special but I wouldn't give to next door's cat what occasionally glowers back at me from the inside of the oven!

Like anybody else, I blame the weather, the flour, the yeast, the draughts, the phone ringing at the wrong time....but, this is not Lego. It's working with organisms and natural products. Things can and do go wrong. Eventually, you end up with a repertoire of what you know works, what you enjoy eating and bread of which you're proud.

Then, experiment around the repertoire. If it works, add it to it. If it doesn't, think why, adjust and try again. If it fails again, and again....ditch it. Life is too short!

Above all,

Happy baking...