This is the part where I try to scare you with math. I hope that none of this is actually scary and that it might even help you to understand things that were perhaps scary before you got here.
Bakers like to use percentages when talking about recipes, but it’s not just them trying to be confusing. The real reason appears to be as simple as being able to make essentially any size recipe without having to reinvent it. For example, if you have a recipe for a loaf of bread, it’s just as easy to make a version of the recipe that still works no matter how much flour you put in.
Before we actually get to any math, here’s the description of how it works in good old fashioned words. A baker’s percentage of an ingredient is the ratio of that ingredient to the amount of flour in the recipe, by mass. That last part (by mass) is why all of the recipes for sourdough things on this site measure everything in grams. Yes, that is really all there is to it. How about a couple of examples?
- 1000g flour
- 600g water (60%)
- 20g salt (2%)
- 10g yeast (1%)
- 25,000g flour
- 15,000g water (60%)
- 500g salt (2%)
- 250g yeast (1%)
The secret is that the two examples, are the same recipe! The second one just makes 25 loaves instead of 1. You might have noticed that I didn’t put the percentage next to the flour. That’s because it’s always 100% because the flour is how you determine the percentages of the other ingredients. In other words, there is obviously always the same amount of flour as you used. Also, as a disclaimer, I have never made the recipe in the example and I have no idea if it will work.
If you find that you want to experiment with a recipe and want to figure out the baker’s percentages, all you need to do is divide the mass of each ingredient by the mass of the flour. Do each ingredient separately and jot down the answers.
Baker's Percentage = Mass Of Ingredient / Mass Of Flour
If you don’t know the mass of an ingredient, just use a kitchen scale set to grams and put in the amount that is called for in whatever units the recipe had originally. For example, 1 cup of water will end up with a mass of about 224 grams, and your trusty kitchen scale can help you figure that out.
This brings us to another bit of vocabulary: Hydration
If you’ve explored recipes or videos on the internet, you have probably bumped into bakers talking about how hydrated a bread recipe is. I had no idea what it meant at first either. As it turns out, it’s the same thing as baker’s percentages, but it’s just the name for the water part of the recipe. So, looking back up to the examples above, you can see that they are a 60% hydrated recipe.
For reference, the lower the hydration of the dough, the drier it will be. This has the side effect that the dough will tend to be easier to work with because it will be tougher and less sticky. At the other side of the same spectrum is wetter dough (higher hydration) which will be harder to work with, in general, because it will be softer and stickier.
So that’s it. Hopefully this was as simple as I told you it would be.
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