Bread Baking Basics: Baker’s Formulas

08 Feb

It’s time for a continuation of Bread Baking Basics!

So we got some of the fundamentals of bread baking down. The basic steps of bread baking have been gone over and we even baked a loaf using just those steps. In order to continue to improve our bread baking skills, we need to know how to formulate a bread recipe. Knowing how to do this introduces us to the main ingredients that go into bread and how they interact with each other, both as a dough and when in the oven.

Most like the Jeffrey Hamelman way of formulating recipes. In fact, I’ve met bakers who would wipe his butt if he asked. I have tremendous respect for his methods, but his baking style is far too scientific for me. I love the science of baking, as it helps bakers understand what is going on in the bread making process, however bread has been around for centuries without science. But hey, if you read his book and it works for you, then that’s great. The way I learned it doesn’t differ all that much from the way he does it, but there are some exceptions, especially when getting into advanced formulations (which we won’t at this time.) Hamelman’s way certainly beats Peter Reinharts, which completely eludes me. I love Reinharts books and the way he explains things, but I can’t use any of his recipes because they’re never done in weight, and I don’t understand his percentages.

As mentioned earlier, the ingredients in bread are measured in weight to provide the most accuracy and consistency in a product. A baker, after all, is ultimately a manager of variables. These variables include, but aren’t limited to, temperature of ingredients, temperature inside the bakery, temperature outside the bakery, ambient humidity, moisture content of dry ingredients, and quality of ingredients (different batches of milled flour can differ slightly, for example.) Using baker’s formula’s that are based on weight are one of the ways of ensuring as few variables as possible in the bakery.

There are four basic ingredients that make up bread: Flour, water, salt, and yeast. This is all you need to make great bread. We use baker’s percentages to alter how the final product comes out. For example, a ciabatta dough will have a much higher percentage of water than a dough for a French baguette, even though both breads have exactly the same ingredients. This results in different crumb structure and flavor.

Baker’s percentages can get a little tricky, though. When we think of a percentage, we think of a portion of a whole, i.e. butter is 15% water. It’s different with bread formulas, though. The percentages in a bread formula aren’t based on the whole recipe, but instead are based on the total weight of the flour. In every bread formula, the total percentage of flour will always be 100%, regardless of the weight of the flour or the total weight of the dough. We’ll use a French baguette dough recipe as an example:

Ingredient % Weight (lbs)
Flour 100
Water 65
Salt 2
Yeast 1
Total 168  

As you can see, the water will weigh 65% of what the flour weighs, the salt will weigh 2% of what the flour weighs, and the yeast will weigh 1% of what the flour weighs. Other ingredients, if added, will work the same way.

Now, let’s briefly take a look at the role of these ingredients in bread:

  • Flour – Like mentioned earlier, this is what we base the weight of the rest of our ingredients on. Flour is the majority ingredient in all bread. When we think of flour, it’s usually of the white, refined all-purpose flour. I always use King Arthur’s all-purpose flour for the majority of my baking needs. They offer a bread flour, as well, but I find that it is only necessary if I need a very strong flour to make a very wet dough, like a ciabatta. White flour, and it’s unrefined counterpart whole wheat flour, are both made from wheat. Other flours from different cereal grains are used in bread making, but few of them develop gluten, and none of them develop the same quality of gluten as wheat flour, which is why wheat it is most commonly used. I could write an entire blog entry with just information on flour, so I’ll save that for later.

    Courtesy Suat Eman from

    Courtesy Suat Eman from

  • Water – Water is the hydration for the dough. It determines how stiff or loose the dough will be. A stiffer dough develops quicker, is easier to work with, and produces a tighter crumb in the final product. A looser dough takes more mixing to develop, can be difficult to work with sometimes, and produces a more open crumb in the final product. The weight of the water can be between 55% (Challah) to 85% (ciabatta) of the flour weight.

    Courtesy zirconicusso from

    Courtesy zirconicusso from

  • Salt – Salt does many things to dough. First and foremost, it brings out the flavor of the wheat. The right amount of salt makes a bread taste pleasant. It also does many little things to the dough that are crucial in the bread making process. Salt is hygroscopic, which means that it draws out the water from whatever surrounds it. That’s why it is used in curing meats. The same happens in a bread. It helps to draw out the water in the gluten structure, which helps in the dough development. It also aids in crust color by interacting with the enzymes of the dough to help break down some of the complex starches into sugars, which leads to caramelization of the crust when baking. The weight of salt is typically 2% of the total flour weight, though it can be adjusted from 1.5% to 2.5%.

    Courtesy zole4 from

    Courtesy zole4 from

  • Yeast – Yeast, of course, is what makes the dough rise and gives activity to the dough. Yeast metabolizes simple sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped in the gluten structure, which gives the dough it’s rise. The alcohol is cooked off when baked. The commercial yeast strain that is used in baking is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is also a strain used in brewing ale. It is typically available in a grocery store as active dry and instant, also known as rapid rise. Sometimes it is available “fresh” in cake form, but I’ve only ever seen that once. Active dry yeast has been processed to contain half the hydration of fresh yeast. Instant yeast is pulverized active dry yeast, which dissolves much quicker in the bread and becomes active quicker and doesn’t need to be dissolved in water, but can be added after the flour. There is some argument between which yeast is the best to use in a commercial setting, but in my opinion it doesn’t really matter that much. I use active dry because it’s easier to measure and keeps for a long time in the refrigerator. The weight of active dry yeast is usually 1% of the total flour weight, but can be adjusted to suit the needs of the baker.

    Not too shabby. A little taste of home.

    I couldn't find a free yeast photo, so I got a picture of beer

Once we know what our percentages are for the dough, we are able to calculate the weights of our ingredients, based on the total weight of the entire recipe. Say we’re a small bakery that needs to make 25 pounds of French baguette dough to fill some orders. Let’s take a look at our formula to calculate our weights.

Ingredient % Weight (lbs)
Flour 100
Water 65
Salt 2
Yeast 1
Total 168% 25 lbs

Based on this, we should be able to determine the ingredient weights. To determine the weight of the flour, we take it’s percentage (100) and multiply that number by the total weight of our dough (25). We divide that number by our total percentage (168) and that gives us the weight of the flour. Here’s the breakdown:

(ingredient % * total dough weight) / total dough % = ingredient weight


(100 * 25) / 168 = 14.88 

So we know that weight of the flour for our 25 pound recipe is 14.88 pound. By using this method to find the remaining ingredient weights, we can finish our chart:

Ingredient % Weight (lbs)
Flour 100 14.88
Water 65 9.67
Salt 2 .30
Yeast 1 .15
Total 168 % 25 lbs

Remember, because your total recipe weight is in pounds, then all of your ingredient weights are also in pounds. When dealing with smaller recipes, it will be easier, and often necessary, to convert the pound measurement into ounces or grams.

Now, let’s look at that pizza dough I did a while back. Here are the percentages again:

Ingredient % Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60
All purpose Flour 40
Water 68
Salt 2
Yeast 1
Olive Oil 5
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs  

Notice that the whole wheat flour and the all purpose flour combined equal 100%. As you can see, the math isn’t too difficult (yet), but not everybody has an easy time with math. If you feel so inclined, do the math to figure out your weights.

Here is what you should have.

Ingredient % Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60 .51
All purpose Flour 40 .34
Water 68 .58
Salt 2 .017
Yeast 1 .008
Olive Oil 5 .043
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs  

See how small some of those numbers are? How are you supposed to measure .043 pounds? Refer to this conversion table to change those weights to ounces and, for the really small values, into grams. Use the “extension” column to write that down.


To convert whole wheat flour from pounds into ounces –
0.51 (pounds) * 16 (ounces in a pound) = 8.16 ounces.

To convert the yeast from pounds into grams, first convert it into ounces –
0.017 (pounds) * 16 (ounces in a pound) = 0.128 ounces


0.128 (ounces) * 28.35 (grams in an ounce) = 3.6 grams

Going back to that conversion table, we know that a teaspoon of yeast is about 3 grams. Go ahead and finish the rest.

Ingredient % Weight (lbs) Extension
Whole Wheat Flour 60 .51 8.16 ounces
All purpose Flour 40 .34 5.44 ounces
Water 68 .58 9.28 ounces
Salt 2 .017 7.7 grams
Yeast 1 .008 3.6 grams
Olive Oil 5 .043 19.5 grams
Total 176 % 1.5 lbs  

 These units are much easier to measure with a decent digital scale.

I hope that this is an easy introduction into baker’s formulas. For the next Bread Baking Basics, we will be adding another two new variables into the mix, and one of them will affect what we just learned about formulas!


Posted by on February 8, 2012 in Baking, Bread, Food


Tags: , , , ,

2 responses to “Bread Baking Basics: Baker’s Formulas

  1. Edgar

    June 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Most excellent info…Thanks for sharing 🙂



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