A number of people left comments or sent email saying that they found Part 1 of my Baker’s Percentage Tutorial helpful. Thank you for that! And now that you know what baker’s percentage (BP) is, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to do with it.
In addition to flour, most bread contains three other basic ingredients: water, yeast, and salt. One thing BP is useful for is allowing you to look at the amounts of these ingredients and get a rough idea of the kind of bread the formula will make, and whether the ingredients are balanced.
Bakers often talk about the “hydration” of a dough. Simply stated, hydration is the amount of water in a formula, relative to the amount of flour. That’s exactly the definition of the BP of water. Look at this dough formula:
- Flour 100%
- Water 66%
- Instant yeast 1%
- Salt 2%
The hydration of this dough is 66% because the amount of water is 66% of the amount of flour.
Other liquid ingredients such as milk, alcohol, and juice also count towards hydration. Although these ingredients do not consist solely of water, they’re close enough that most of the time you’ll be pretty accurate in your hydration calculation of you treat them as though they were pure water. So the following dough has a hydration of about 75% (70% water + 5% milk):
- Flour 90%
- Rye flour 10%
- Water 70%
- Milk 5%
- Yeast 2%
- Salt 2%
If you have a recipe that’s expressed in absolute amounts rather than BP, you can still quickly calculate hydration even without converting the entire recipe to BP. Just divide the weight of the liquid ingredients by the total flour weight. Consider this recipe:
- 700 g flour
- 100 g whole wheat flour
- 400 g water
- 80 g coffee
- (plus yeast, salt, and other ingredients…)
Here the total flour weight is 800 g and the liquid weight is 480 g, so the hydration is 480/800 = 60%.
Hydration of a dough is a critical factor in determining the nature of the resulting bread. One very important difference between a bagel and a ciabatta is that the ciabatta dough has a much higher hydration than the bagel dough. Of course other factors, such as additional ingredients and dough handling, are important too, but you’ll be hard pressed to make ciabatta from 56%-hydration dough, whereas this is very appropriate for a bagel.
Assuming you’re working with white flour, and keeping in mind that there are exceptions to everything, the following hydration ranges are typical, based on my observations of formulas I’ve seen and used.
- Bagel: 52% – 58%
- Sandwich (pan) bread: 60% – 65%
- French bread: 65% – 70%
- Ciabatta, focaccia, and other “wet” doughs: 70% and above
If the formula includes a proportion of rye, whole wheat, or other flour, the hydration will generally be higher for a given type of bread, because these flours absorb more water than white flour does.
The percentage of yeast in a formula depends on quite a few variables (other ingredients, fermentation time, etc.), so the following ranges are quite wide, and are just guidelines. Note that, as always, percentages are relative to the weight of the flour, and we’re talking about commercially-yeasted doughs here (not sourdoughs):
- Fresh yeast: 0.7% – 5%
- Active dry yeast: 0.3% – 2.5%
- Instant yeast: 0.2% – 2%
Now let’s say someone sends you the following recipe:
- 500 g flour
- 330 g water
- 45 g instant yeast
- 10 g salt
The percentage of yeast here is 9% (45/500). Yikes! Knowing what you now know about usual yeast percentages, you may want to check with your friend and see if that 45 g is correct. Did they leave out a decimal point, and should that really be 4.5 g of instant yeast (0.9%)?
The percentage of salt in a formula is usually between 1.5% and 2%.
As with water and yeast, noting the salt percentage might lead to some critical thinking. If you see that a recipe has 3% salt, did you make a mistake in your math? Did the baker who wrote the recipe make a mistake? Is s/he not very good at baking flavorful bread, and trying to compensate by using excessive salt? Or is there a good reason for it, which the baker should be able to explain and teach you something? Despite the cat’s bad outcome, curiosity is usually not a bad thing.
To sum up, looking at the percentages of basic ingredients in a formula doesn’t tell you everything, but it can tell you a lot. An understanding of the usual percentages is also helpful if you want to develop your own recipes.
In the next installment, I’ll talk about how use a BP formula to make a given amount of dough. For now, if you’re looking for a way to put off cleaning the garage or folding the laundry, try these exercises. Because I sincerely want these posts to be useful, I will be most grateful if you send questions via the comments or by email if I haven’t explained anything clearly enough.