Pandemic-induced cabin fever has kickstarted the sourdough baking hobbies of what seems like everyone on Instagram. If you’re one of these newly converted bakers, by now you’ve probably gotten the hang of feeding your starter, as well as some basic shaping techniques and are hungry for a new challenge. Why not try tweaking a recipe to create a bespoke loaf? In my humble opinion, that’s the perfect time to get comfortable with baker’s percentages, an essential tool in any aspiring bread baker’s arsenal.
There are dozens upon dozens of guides to baker’s percentages out there, but too many are overcomplicated or difficult to understand, even for me—and I’ve been using them for over a decade. The concept is not complicated in the slightest: A bread recipe that expresses each ingredient as a percentage of the total amount of flour. To do this, take an ingredient’s weight (always use weight, never volume—so you’re going to need a good scale), divide it by the weight of the flour and multiply the resulting number by 100. Repeat for every non-flour ingredient. Done.
This is easiest to understand via an example. To start, I’ll convert the volumes of the ingredients in my favourite no-knead peasant bread into weights:
3 cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (about 6 grams) instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons (about 9 grams) table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons (about 6 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups (275 grams) lukewarm water (32º-37º C)
(For quick and dirty volume-to-weight conversions, just Google how much a teaspoon or cup of each ingredient weighs; that’s what I did for the yeast, salt and sugar here.)
Most baker’s percentages start with the proportion of water, referred to as the “hydration percentage” or “per cent hydration.” Here’s what that calculation looks like for the peasant bread recipe:
275 grams water ÷ 375 grams flour = 0.73
0.73 x 100 = 73% hydration
Do this for the rest of the ingredients and you get a list like this:
There are several good reasons to use percentages instead of individual measurements, starting with recipe scaling. Baker’s percentages apply to any and all amounts of flour; if you want to make a double batch of peasant bread—which I do all the time—double the weight to 750 grams of flour and work backwards from there. Another huge perk: Over time, you’ll get so used to thinking in percentages you’ll be able to predict how a dough will behave before you even mix it up.
To explain what I mean, let’s consider the ingredient ratios in two other Lifehacker bread recipes:
Stuffed crust pizza dough: 69% hydration (nice), 8% olive oil, 3% salt, 2% sugar, 1% yeast
Overnight no-knead bread: 95% hydration, 2% salt, 0.5% yeast
These numbers tell you almost everything you need to know about a given recipe. The more water a dough contains, the stickier and wetter it is when mixed and the less kneading it requires. Lower yeast proportions require longer rise times, which usually result in a more pronounced fermented flavour. Sugar encourages fermentation to some degree, but overwhelms the yeast in high proportions—especially if combined with salt and fat. Looking at the numbers above, you start to see why the overnight dough is gloopier and requires a longer rise than either of the others.
Scaling and instinct development are great, but I think the best argument for baker’s percentages is that, eventually, they can free you from the confines of recipes altogether. They provide a framework for changing one of the only variables you can control—the proportions of ingredients in the dough—in a systematic and reproducible way. If your loaf came out a little too dense, upping the hydration percentage next time could help encourage gluten formation; if it rose too quickly and collapsed in the oven, try dialling back the hydration and/or yeast. Take notes and repeat.
As you hone your dough-handling instincts, you’ll get a feel for what percentages you can change, and by how much. You may not have much say over the temperature or humidity of your kitchen, but by strategically manipulating the ingredients, you’ll eventually zero in on your perfect bake. Until then, don’t be afraid to experiment—with baker’s percentages as your guide.