Baker’s Percentages, Hydration and other “Secrets”
OK, it was a bit unfair to call this page Secrets, but in a sense these really are the more sublime aspects of bread. Learning to use baker’s percentages and weighing ingredients rather than measuring them will allow you to guide the outcome of your work every time. And when you get to the point that you begin to experiment with recipes, you’ll be able to get where you’re going because you know where you are starting.
The idea behind using baker’s percentages is really very simple, but somewhat confounding at first, especially if you can’t envision a world where there is more than 100% in a whole(!). Let go of that notion. For our purposes there are as many percentage points in a whole as the recipe calls for!
As a general principle, if you have a recipe that is given in percentages, and you know you need a certain amount of bread, say 1000 grams, then you now know exactly how much of every ingredient you need! Don’t believe me? Well don’t take my word for it.
Notice that the total percentage for all the ingredients is 177.9% and the total weight of the ingredients is 1000g. How did we get the ingredient weights? Well, flour is always 100% in a bread formula, and the ratio of flour weight to total weight in this recipe is 100:177.9, or 100÷177.9 which equals 0.562. Multiply that (0.562) by your desired weight (1000g) and you have just figured out how much flour to use: 562g. You can do this with all the ingredients or just multiply each ingredient’s percentage by the flour weight, ie., for the water, 0.75 x 562 = 421.5 (but I rounded up) For the salt its 0.02 x 562 = 11.24 (I rounded down).
A final note: sometimes we’ll use so little yeast that it is impractical to weigh it as our scales are probably not that precise. In those instances we’ll resort to fractions of teaspoons. For instance the dough I’m making as I’m writing has the note “scant 1/16th teaspoon of instant yeast”. My scale won’t even see that.
So you see, it doesn’t matter how much you’re going to make, whether 1000g or 1000 pounds (!). Since you know the percentages, or ratios of the ingredients, you can scale any bread formula to any final quantity. Brilliant – wish I’d made it up.
The Hydration of bread is a simple idea, and it refers to the weight of the dry ingredients divided by the weight of the wet ones, usually just water. And as you begin to work more, you’ll know that higher hydration doughs have a different quality than lower ones, but also that lower hydration doughs are easier to handle.
For instance, the recipe for “24 Hour White Bread” generally has 80% water and 100% flour, making it nearly an 80% hydration bread. This is what contributes to its open crumb and rustic presentation, but also renders it nearly impossible to knead in the traditional sense. On the other hand, bagels have a low hydration. This would affect your process by first your having to proof your yeast in water before you use it, and requiring you to knead it longer to develop the gluten. In a sense, hydration is as much an ingredient as any other. When you can make pizza dough that borders on batter as it ferments, you’re going to start tasting something that you only expect to find in pizza restaurants that people throw superlatives like “the best” at. But it does take time to trust you can handle wet dough.
The Windowpane Test
The term “…pass the windowpane test” is going to come up again and again. It’s a simple and crude test. It doesn’t not require safety glasses or chemicals.
Take a piece of dough about half the size of your thumb, and begin stretching it while turning it in a circle like a steering wheel. Don’t stretch it so quick that it will obviously tear, but you should be able to stretch it such that there is a pretty thin membrane in the center that you can almost see through (no, you can’t see through it but you’ll start to say “wow, that’s thin”). If the dough tears easily, you’re not done kneading (or mixing if you’re using a mixer). When the gluten is sufficiently developed, the dough will pass the windowpane test!
In the end, plastic bags are best. Bread is really at its best right after it cools. Some sourdoughs are best a day or two later, but if they’re left out they go stale fast. I use gallon plastic bags and I reuse them and reuse them. One thing. Don’t store your bread in bags in the sun. The bags will form condensation on the inside and it will rain on your work. Kind of ruins the whole thing.