Bakers Percentages or Arbitrary Percentages
Recently a Bread Boss user contacted us with concern that they didn’t understand how their formula can be accommodated within Bread Boss. It seemed every time they tried to enter the formula, warnings were flagged in Bread Boss. Incidentally, warnings are built into the app as Bread Boss has a specific method of calculating ingredients using underlying principles. Of course these warnings can be ignored but it’s good to have the warning in case something is overlooked. More on that later.
It eventually came to light that although the user used percentages in his formula it was inconsistent with the “bakers percentage” method. This got me thinking about the most common methods used in baking to express formulas.
The Tale of Two Cities
As far as I can tell it appears there are two main methods, but not limited to these two, prevailing in the world of baking. For want of accurate designations I call them:
- European method (although by no means all European bakers use it)
- American method (again by no means all)
For the sake of expression or labelling, the European method could be considered a “metric” system and the American method could be labelled or considered an “imperial” system, akin to measurement of length (inches and feet). It’s true to say that each method has its adherents as naturally we get accustomed to what we’ve been taught from the beginning as the most comfortable.
Perhaps a bit of explanation on why I’ve chosen these two labels as my differentiators is appropriate. American, because by far most of the bread formulas I’ve seen in well regarded baking books from the US express formulas the way Fig. 1 is expressed below.
Again, by far most of the European formulas in German and central European books I’ve seen are expressed using what I call true “bakers percentage”. The paper tables I use in my teaching on how to calculate and understand formula construction are my own layout but the principles are the German method.
So what are the differences and how do we develop a framework to understand each from their respective utility?
The main differences are these:
- the European method is transparent and consistent in showing the true relationships each ingredient has to the flour weight and to all other ingredients.
- the American method is less transparent in respect to ingredient and flour relationships on the basis of percentages.
How can this be so…! I hear people gasp.
Hamlet Act 1 – scene 5 came to mind….
“there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
Let me give you some examples and try to explain my point. First, we will start with a basic formula then graduate to more complexity which is where the diversion starts.
The most basic formula would be a “straight” dough. The word “straight” denotes all ingredients in at the same time. However, I’ll start with a single flour type. In the case of a straight formula of a single flour type, both methods are in agreement, as there is the agreed convention that flour is designated 100%. This then also has the feature that all other ingredients are a designated percentage of that 100%. For example water in this case is + or – 70%, salt is 2% etc.
So, if we go further with the straight dough example and introduce two types of flour, wholemeal and bakers flour, we can then decide which flour will be designated the 100% or we can designate them in total as 100%. For example:
Wholemeal flour 70%
Bakers flour 30%
In this example all subsequent ingredient quantities are derived from both flour types, as together they make 100%.
So lets go one step further: consider a formula where the flour is divided into two separate dough stages. For example a sourdough or a sponge preferment.
In these cases the method we prefer is the one that allows the formula to be the most transparent. In order for this transparency to exist, we should consider the flour in the preferment or the sourdough as part of the 100% or part of the total flour weight.
In fact, the same is true of all other ingredients that make up that preferment or sourdough stage – water, diastatic malt flour, etc. All these must originate from the base percentage and base weight.
So to illustrate with another formula:
Although we are imposing a separate stage, it’s clear that everything in the preferment or sourdough originates in the base percentage and/or the base weight. In order to remain consistent the flour in the sourdough stage is expressed as a percentage of the total flour weight – part of the 100. This can be seen clearly in the assembly of the final dough’s Actual – the ingredients are discounted so that the final dough will balance with the Base % and Base weight (it may be helpful to see an earlier post on “Bakers Percentage” for more details on yields and multi stage formulas).
It should be noted that the percentage relationship that each ingredient has to the flour is still consistent even though we’ve imposed an earlier sourdough stage on the dough.
To contrast this, the other method referred to above as the American method, treats the preferment and sourdough as purely an “ingredient”.
This may seem like trivial semantics but it’s a fundamentally different approach.
So how does it make a difference? To answer that let’s look at a typical formula so I can show the difference.
On first viewing, it’s immediately clear that the flour weight in the final dough isn’t 100% at all. In fact even the other ingredients have misleading percentages in the strictest sense since, although they are based on the flour of the final dough, it misleadingly gives the designation 100%. They are not based on the total flour weight. They are based only on the single largest portion of flour. Which is a completely different matter!
If we analyse this formula we realise that although the formula for the sourdough ingredient is present, it’s somewhat detached. How do I mean that? By that I mean the sourdough is a percentage of the largest portion of flour, not the total flour and it’s expressed as a “wet ingredient” so it’s effectively adding flour and water in the form of a dough but not accounted for in the total flour weight. This is not entirely consistent or transparent.
Complexity opened up
If we were to subject this same formula to the rigours of the ‘European’ method and recalculate it by designating all the flour – even the flour in the sourdough as part of the 100% we will see the real relationships each ingredient has to the total and to each other. This will show us a different picture.
So here we have the same formula subject to the discipline of true “bakers percentage” rules. Expressed this way, it doesn’t show a disconnect between the sourdough and the final dough. The sourdough is an integral part expressed clearly within the final bread dough. No longer is it just another “ingredient” .
When we see it this way, it’s clear that the flour weight is significantly more than in the first and the true percentage of the salt and water is clearer.
- Rather than 3% salt it actually contains 2.218%
- The water is not 72% but 67.56%.
These may seem trivial differences, but to a baker they are significant in terms of the dough character and the final bread character.
This will mean the dough will be significantly tighter and less challenging to handle and shape compared to a dough that is truly hydrated at 72%. The resulting bread will exhibit, among other things, less crumb openness in character. These differences are significant.
It’s also immediately obvious that the more complicated a formula is – more steps/stages – the greater will be the discrepancies between the true percentages and the expressed formula using the method in figure 1.
In the last two figures there are a differences in the two formula totals although they are the same formula, albeit expressed differently.
- in its original form the total equals ~ 23.549 kgs dough
- in it’s revised form the total equals ~ 23.021 kgs dough
- The difference is the .528 of stater that isn’t included in the total.
Not including the starter in the revised formula using the European Method is deliberate as it’s not accounted for in the calculations of the base %. Prior to the sourdough being incorporated into the final dough the original weight of starter used to infect the batch of flour/water mix is removed. It’s at this point mature and put aside to be used to infect another batch in the future.
Removing the starter also has another function. It allows us to “cycle”, “feed” or “refresh” the starter to bring it up to its most extant state without consuming it. It’s now able to be put aside in the fridge until it’s needed again since we will make bread the following week. This has the benefit of cycling the starter every time bread is made, keeping it fresh.
Needless to say Bread Boss calculates the formulas using what I call the European method. This means I don’t need to do all the paper set out since the calculating rules are built into Bread Boss. This makes it easier and faster as I was again reminded the other week, is less prone to human error. The warning message built into the app forces us to check that we have a balanced formula. Of course there will be minor decimal differences based on how Bread Boss rounds out fractions but we can see they are the same.
I hope that cleared up a few issues for those who happen to get their hands on formulas expressed in either form. So remember, the most transparent way to use percentages is based on the [total] flour weight, not just the single largest portion.
Good luck with formula construction and tweaking existing formulas.
Stay tuned as we are going to write a post with a video on how to enter an existing recipe into Bread Boss. This may answer many questions for some regarding the ingredient categories and other useful features.