You can't escape your childhood. Ain't that the sad truth! The fact came back to bite me when I got introduced to baker's math back in January 2009 during my first Artisan bread class at the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI). Oh, don't get me wrong, I loved the class and completely understood the point of sharing formulas (what we home bakers call recipes) in percentages instead of weights. Baker's math makes it easier, among other things, to adjust dough size according to the amount of bread desired, to compare different breads and to troubleshoot problems. But even though baker's math could be more aptly described as a common language for bakers rather than real math, mastering it is still an uphill battle for someone who is number-challenged. And that's where childhood comes in: I have been number-challenged all my life. In my days, it wasn't called a disability. At least not in France. But that's what it was.
Don't you go thinking I was slouching during math classes, however! No, sirree! Never one to waste time, I took the opportunity offered by these otherwise excruciatingly boring hours to practice writing with my left hand. (To this day I can write with both hands - not as fast or as legibly with the left as with the right but still, well enough - or at least I could before I broke my wrist. Not sure I'll still be able to do it when I get my wrist back...)
As an aside and just in case you are wondering, homework was never a problem: my mom had been a math teacher and being a sweet and trusting soul, she always "explained" my math homework to me until it was entirely done and done right. My teachers never really understood how I could be such an assiduous student (appearing to write down their every word in class and always handing in perfectly completed homework on time) and still do so poorly on tests. How could I have ever guessed that one day I'd be a baker and that I'd bitterly regret not possessing the most basic math skills?
Of course you don't have to use formulas to be a baker. There are bakers out there (and I know quite a few of them) who wouldn't touch a formula with a ten-foot pole. They come up with their own recipes, do their own math and they are perfectly fine, especially if they mostly stick to the same breads and don't have to redo their calculations every day to adjust to a fluctuating market.
But the fact is that more and more, bakers are exchanging formulas, not recipes. If you take artisan bread classes, chance are you'll go home with a handful of formulas. You see formulas on the Web (there are some on The Fresh Loaf, on this tentalizing and instructive blog for instance ), on the Bread Baker's Guild of America's website or in industry publications. Knowing how do the math is really convenient if you are looking to diversify your production, whether you are a home baker or a professional.
Granted, the whole baker's math concept is simple and even I grasp it: flour is always 100% and the proportion of every other ingredient is indicated relative to flour as in the formula below:
See how the total flour percentage remains 100 even when two different flours are used? Truth be told, the word "percentage" is a misnomer. It'd be way less confusing to say "unit". In both these simple formulas, for 100 units of flour, you need to use 65 units of water, 2 units of salt and 1 unit of yeast. But still the convention is to use the word "percentage" and since we are trying to speak a common language, we better adopt a common vocabulary as well. (Sigh...)
Should you actually want to bake from either of these formulas, you first need to decide how much dough you want. If your goal is to make two 500g-loaves, your calculations need to yield one kilogram (1,000 g) of dough. Using this number as a basis, the same two formulas look like this expressed in weights:
For people who are not number-challenged, the calculation is pretty straightforward. A simple rule of three does the trick. Indeed, at each baking class or event I attend, I see fingers flying on calculators and I hear numbers called out as fast as I can jot them down. I get there too but it takes me a while and when the formula gets more complex (when a pre-ferment such as a levain or a poolish or both and/or a soaker needs to be factored in), the process becomes painfully slow. The possibility of a mistake rises exponentially and I often get discouraged.
Friends and family members have tried to teach me how to use a spreadsheet instead of a calculator but to no avail: as soon as the program opens up on the screen, my eyes glaze over and as much as I will myself to listen carefully, my mind invariably logs out.
Enter BreadStorm, a superb tool for bakers developed by Jacqueline and Dado Colussi (more on them in an upcoming Meet the Bakers post). I have been a BreadStorm tester for months and I bought it as soon as it came out of beta, a few weeks ago. Why? Because BreadStorm does all the calculations for me, and in a split second too. For the first time in my baking life, I can tackle any formula that comes my way and that, my friends, is pretty sweet. It goes a long way towards assuaging any regrets I might still harbor regarding math classes!
Jacqueline and Dado are passionate bread bakers and they love people. In fact they welcome dialogue. They have been very helpful during the testing months and just as supportive after I bought the program. I felt they were there for me and didn't let go of my hand until I was on firm ground. Because, needless to say, the first time I opened the software (still in beta, with no tutorial available yet), my brain froze instantly and the familiar glazing sensation came over my eyes. BreadStorm looked like it might morph into a spreadsheet any minute. I was paralyzed. All I managed to figure out was how to enter ingredients. But it got better. With the developers' help my mind gradually thawed and things started to make sense.
Now that I have more or less mastered BreadStorm, I use it all the time to enter favorite recipes, including from bread books I have had for years or to create my own, starting with the percentages of flour, water, levain and other ingredients I am planning to use. I can adjust any number at any time and weights and percentages are immediately recalculated for me. For someone who had trouble figuring out hydration before (unless it was 100%), believe me, it is a dream come true. A learning disability made irrelevant... Wow!
Apple-Buckwheat Boule - a bread I baked last week from a BBGA formula entered in BreadStorm
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I purchased the software at the full price and with my own money. I am not being paid for this review and I will not make a penny off future sales. BreadStorm belongs to Jacqueline and Dado Colussi and to them alone. I just happen to love it!
If you like it, you can either buy the full version as I did or download the free one which enables you to read and scale any BreadStorm formula but not to edit it nor to create your own.