The best investment I have made in the kitchen — in a lot of years — has been a kitchen scale! It all started when I got out my bread machine a few years ago started baking bread regularly. In search of new recipes for fun I came across the “baker’s recipe” for bread, which is based on percentages. On a whim I picked up the cheapest home scale I could find for about $10.00 and I started using it first for bread, then for most everything.
As I said, it wasn’t a huge expense. For the cost of a couple Starbucks fancy coffees you can get a usable scale and aside from putting the periodic battery in them they seem to last and last and last. Look for one that changes between lbs and grams and aside from that all you have to do it turn it on, zero out the weight using the appropriate button, and off you go.
I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. Post WWII this country was booming and even though our family had some lean years it seemed as if my parents preferred giving up on other things and eating well. As a result I have struggled all my life with buying my clothes down the “husky” aisle. We never had the same selection of color or style — we had what was “practical” or serviceable. I suppose on some level that may be why I react negatively even to this day to the word “practical.” But on with the story.
When you watch cooking shows on TV you often hear that baking is scientific; you have to have the recipe just right and you have to follow the recipe. Following directions is something I’ve never been good at. I rarely make the same dish the same way twice and although I have owned a lot of cookbooks in my life they have all been “just for reference” as when the time came to put ingredients in a bowl I pretty much winged it. Until I started baking bread.
A few years ago I came across a bread baking site on the InterWebs and I was astounded. There was a “standard” bread formula that almost all commercial bakers used. It amounted to weighing out your flour and then adjusting the amount of water, yeast, salt and any other ingredients you were putting into it by percentages of the flour-weight. Most common for a handmade loaf is water is 70% of flour weight, yeast, salt, sugar, milk and other such items are each some smaller percentage — usually between 0.25% and 2%.
Some bread machines don’t like dough to be quite that wet. For my Zojirushi machine I have learned that I need to make a slightly dryer loaf otherwise the preset bake time doesn’t get the baked bread quite as dry as I would like so I use something closer to 65%. The Breadman machine that we have at our summer place seems to do just fine at 70%. Obviously, the same exact formula in 2 different machine will produce loaves with a slightly different weight as no two bread machine manufacturers use exactly the same timings or heat settings. And, to make matters even more interesting the Japanese Zojirushi machines are designed to favor a sweeter milk bread rather than a milkless European loaf.
For example, I regularly make a 1 pound loaf:
- 170 grams water
- 018 grams vegetable oil
- 020 grams sugar
- 180 grams bread flour
- 080 grams AP or Whole Wheat flour
- 020 grams powdered buttermilk
- 020 grams malt
- 080 grams salt
- 010 grams yeast
When I weigh everything out accurately the bread comes out identically every single time. When I get sloppy all sorts of things can happen. This is only one of several recipes I use but for just the two of us, geezers as we are who don’t eat nearly as many carbs as we once did a 16 ounce loaf lasts long enough not to need to make a loaf everyday but we finish them before they dry out.
A true french bread would only use four ingredients, flour, water, salt, yeast and I have made very acceptable loaves using the percentages of only those 4 ingredients.
I wish the website I found 9 or 10 years ago was still active. I tried it a year or so ago and it seems that the site had been closed down but there was an interactive live spreadsheet that you could use to calculate almost any ingredient you imagined (with a suggested range of percentages to try) and upon deciding your final loaf weight the spreadsheet would calculate out all the weights you needed to add. I’m sure the computer savvy folks out there could produce their own spreadsheets but it was a lovely, easy tool to try. Now I just adjust my own formula as suits.
However, what I discovered is that once I started weighing out bread ingredients I started paying closer attention to how much of everything I have been eating and that single factor has made a significant impact on what I eat now and how much. It’s funny that there should be a knock-on effect but I found it true.