Kitchen Ratios; A Foundation for Bread (and so much more)

Rosemary Boule

At left is a picture of the first loaf of bread I have ever made.

Simple bread; the dough was comprised of nothing more than flour, water, yeast, a touch of salt and some finely minced rosemary. It was baked in a cast iron dutch oven, lid on for 30 minutes and off for 20 (the captured steam yields an amazing crunchy crust without requiring a steam injecting oven).

But that isn’t the point of this post.


Minus the yeast, add some fat. And… pie dough!

No yeast, add fat, and add sugar? Cookies. Just flour and egg? Pasta.

They are all that simple. But not that simple. The key is the ratio of the ingredients.

And that brings me to the point.

Cooking is generally about taking some foundation — some basic combination of ingredients — combining them in the appropriate ratio, adding some additional goodies for flavor (cookie dough + chocolate chips…. basic bread dough + honey + nuts…. etc.), and then changing the temperature in the right way to yield good eats.

Not just doughs, but batters, sauces, stocks, sausages, brines, custards, and many other forms of food are all based around a simple set of ratios. Know the ratio of a given type of food, and you have the foundation that will yield a basic, delicious, meal or be the carrier for more far flung culinary adventures.

This book — Ruhlman’s Ratio — describes a number of the foundation ratios, the basic science behind them and then describes a handful of recipes built upon each.

I.e. it is my perfect cookbook; light on complex, single purpose, recipes, and very heavy on the cooking algorithms that can be reused and refactored.

That the above loaf of bread — both my first and the first bit of knowledge from the book that I have applied — was consumed in less than a day is evidence of the book’s success in conveying the art of cooking as accessible science.

It will not be my last loaf of bread and, more importantly, because I have learned the ratio of bread and the foundation of assembly therein, a bit of practice is all I should need to be able to throw together breads of many styles and flavors.

If you don’t already have one, you’ll want to pick up a kitchen scale, too. The book expresses all ratios in terms of weight as it is accurate (flour can vary by as much as 50% weight by volume, depending on how packed it is!) and versatile.

As well, a good kitchen scale lets you throw the mixing bowl on the scale, zero it out, measure out your flour, zero it again, dump in your water, etc… it makes cooking easier.

I picked up the one at left from a local winemaker’s / brewer’s shop. It is what they use to measure out all the little bags of product in the store.

Works quite well. Adding the optional AC adapter means that the scale doesn’t auto power off too soon and I don’t have to worry about the battery fading out in the middle of something.

There are lots of scales out there, though. Choose whatever suites your needs and aesthetics.

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11 Responses to “Kitchen Ratios; A Foundation for Bread (and so much more)”

  1. Zachery Bir says:

    That bread looks amazing.

    I’ve been following the Forno Bravo recipe for pizza dough, and I’ve thrown enough pies now that I’ve got the recipe memorized. They go a step further and champion the recipe by weight, rather than by volume, as it’s easier to measure with a kitchen scale.

  2. Scott Thompson says:

    Bread making can be done by simply looking at the ratios. However, I’ve found that you can make a really big leap in your baking if you also throw in a bit of technique. In particular, much of bread making is about fermentation. You can make a passible loaf of bread in a day, but you can transform that loaf to an incredible one if you ferment part, or all of the dough overnight.

    I would recommend looking at Peter Reinheart’s “Bread Baker’s Apprentice”. His technique generally involves providing baker’s formulas (that is ratios based on the percentage of flour in a particular recipe) and augments that with some technique which can enhance both the flavor and texture of your baked bread.

    As someone that is a homebrewer and wine maker, I also suggest you try your hand at “naturally fermented” breads (i.e. sourdoughs). Particularly given that you live near the bay area with its particular strain of bacteria (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis). Be sure to check out . I had poor luck with some nasty bacteria before I made a starter by starting with Pineapple juice.

  3. Steve Madsen says:

    Echoing Scott’s comment above about fermented bread dough, back in 2006, the New York Times published an article with the simplest bread recipe I’ve ever seen. Our family has made it a number of times and it always turns out amazingly well. It also uses the Dutch oven trick you used to get a crackling crust, with a wonderful, almost chewy inside.

  4. Mike says:

    Ruhlman’s new book has been on my “to buy” list since it came out. I’m glad to see you’re enjoying it.

    I already mentioned to you on Twitter that I’ve been into bread-making for a little while, but I forgot to mention that the site I’ve frequented for lessons and ideas is The Fresh Loaf”. Click on “Lessons” at the top of the page for some more techniques. Granted, I’m sure books like The Bread Bible and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice are more thorough than that site by a massive margin, but the site is nice for people just getting their toes wet in the bread-baking world.

    Speaking of which, I need to get a new loaf ready, as I just finished eating my current one…

    [Ed: Link fixed… and thank you!!]

  5. NaOH says:

    Having baked professionally and in regular home-type ovens, I thought I’d share a ratio-based tip when it comes to bread recipes. My apologies if this is covered in Ruhlman’s book. I haven’t seen it yet.

    Here is the best way to adjust bread formulas if you are using weights (so, this won’t work with volume measurements which it has already been noted should be avoided). You may see this discussed elsewhere where it’s properly referred to as baker’s percentage. Note, though that the term ‘percentage’ is going to be used differently than it typically is used. Baker’s percentage is extremely helpful for two primary reasons: it allows the baker to determine the ratio of ingredients, and it provides a scalable way to adjust a recipe yield.

    Bread recipes are all based on each ingredient’s amount relative to the total amount of flour used. The amount of flour(s) must always equal 100%. I would suggest reading those two sentences again because they are the foundation of everything that will follow.

    Simple example: A recipe with 2 pounds of bread flour and 1 pound of water is said to have 50% water.

    The same would be true of a recipe with 1 pound bread flour, 1 pound rye flour, and 1 pound of water.

    Most recipes, though, only come with ingredient amounts. A 24-ounce loaf of basic white bread would look something like this (and you can also see why the precision of metric measurements is much easier to work with):

    Bread Flour: 14.25 oz./405 g
    Water: 9.25 oz./263 g
    Salt: 0.3 oz./8 g
    Yeast: 0.15 oz/4 g

    If you have the ingredient weights but lack the percentages, they can be easily determined by dividing the weight of an ingredient by the weight of the flour. Using the metric amounts, here’s how that looks:

    Bread Flour: 100% (flour is always 100%; likewise, a recipe which uses multiple flour types should add to 100%)
    Water: 65% (263 g ÷ 405 g)
    Salt: 2% (8 g ÷ 405 g)
    Yeast: 1% (4 g ÷ 405 g)

    Adding those percentages, everything totals 168%. Bizarre, I know, but stay with me. So, that recipe above makes a 24-ounce loaf. Here’s how to adjust the known formula to produce a different yield. Let’s say ou decide for a party you want to use this recipe, but instead of a 24-ounce loaf, you want 7 small loaves at 5 ounces each.

    The math looks like this:

    Total Recipe Weight ÷ Sum of Percentages = Weight of Each Percentage Point

    Weight of One Percentage Point x Each Ingredient’s Recipe Percentage = Amount of Each Ingredient to Use.

    So, we want a Total Recipe Weight of 35 ounces and the Sum of the Percentages is 168:

    35 ÷ 168 = 0.2083 (this is the Weight of Each Percentage Point)

    Now, multiply Each Ingredient’s Recipe Percentage by the Weight of Each Percentage Point:

    Bread Flour: 100 x 0.2083 oz. = 20.8 oz
    Water: 65 x 0.2083 oz. = 13.5 oz.
    Salt: 2 x 0.2083 oz. = 0.4 oz.
    Yeast: 1 x 0.2083 oz. = 0.2 oz.

    Because of rounding, this is off by 0.1 ounces, but you get the idea. You can also see again how metric is easier. Determining 0.4 ounces for salt can be problematic with Imperial measures, but it’s a straightforward 11 g using the metric system.

    If any of this isn’t clear, just post and I’ll try to clarify. Likewise, I am happy to provide tips of any sort, from how to develop and maintain a sourdough culture to how to easily and inexpensively add professional-style steam to loaves not baked in a Dutch oven.

  6. Ben Holt says:

    I’ve been using baker’s percentages in my own baking adventures and it’s very easy to work with — I now think of my loaf and pan sizes in terms of the “base” (flour) weight in grams. I, for one, would love to hear more tips and tricks!

  7. NaOH says:

    Ben, is there anything in particular that would be of use to you to learn? Or would you prefer I simply give some feedback on the post you linked to in your comment? I’m happy to share anything I know.

  8. Mike says:

    A nice crusty-looking bread you have there, my friend. I’ve attempted and failed (badly) to make perfect bread quite a few times in the past, but I’m determined to crack it one of these days.

    For now, my delights are limited to the spreading of my own homemade butter on inferior store-bought bread, which on it’s own much intensivies the pleasure of it’s consumption. Perfect, home made bread *and* home made butter seems like a dream to me. I even wrote a post about making butter at home on my blog.

  9. Dhan - Kitchen Ideas says:

    A noob chef here. Not having success with my bread yet. 🙂
    Cooking… like everything else, always be better with the right tools, proper knowledge, and a bit creativity. Personal touch obviously comes to play when the “ingredients” mixed properly and become the second nature.
    Thanks for the tips.

  10. Just Wundering says:

    When traditional recipees say to place the dough in a wrapped bowl in a warm moist spot to rise, I am out of luck. My house stays cool and no sunny windows… My electric oven only goes down to 170 degrees, Any suggestions on how to “proof” or “raise” my dough using my oven? If I do the overnight rising, does it help to put it into a crock pot on low? I might have to get better at instant math for the ratio success…maybe there is a coversion tool for the new iphone for Bread bakers…. or at least here’s a good idea someone can make .99 cents per one time app download on.
    Thanks for any and all replies.

  11. bbum's weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » Bread Revisited! says:

    […] while ago, I took up bread making. The goal being to master turning out a consistently awesome loaf of your basic bread using a […]

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