And you have absolutely been found wanting… a kitchen scale.
Measuring ingredients by weight was perhaps the most significant change that I made to my baking practice.
One afternoon I was reading an article in the Cook’s Illustrated Best Breads magazine when it finally clicked. Why would you measure any other way? Alton Brown, one my long-time culinary idols, always bakes everything by weight. At the time, I thought to myself, “eh, that’s too much work.” I’d been baking his chocolate chip cookie #10 recipe for six or seven years without a scale before I found out what I was missing. A 3/4 cup measure of brown sugar just ain’t the same each time. It matters.
I decided to conduct a simple test to see how various measuring techniques stacked up using a 1 cup measure. Three flours were tested using four measuring methods: sifting, using a scoop to put the flour in the cup, dipping the cup directly into the flour bag, and packing it in as much as possible. And yes, I did use ‘fresh’ flour for each test so as to not skew the results (note: I did not sift whole wheat due to removal of the bran):
Don’t worry! I know your grandmother’s chocolate cake, which definitely uses cups and teaspoons, is absolutely delectable. I’m not saying we should convert her recipe into metric units, although it wouldn’t hurt. The point is that volumetric measurements are not as precise due to the way in which the substance fills the cup, assuming it is a solid.
Baking bread really necessitates both accurate and precise measurements. Fortunately, the system of baker’s percentages makes this a breeze, and I haven’t looked back since. Here is an example from Flour Water Salt Yeast:
(Disclaimer: Ken Forkish only puts cup measurements in his tables for those who haven’t been converted yet).
Measuring ingredients by weight in grams makes baking bread so much less complicated. To start, each recipe is based on 1000 grams of flour. If a more open crumb is desired, one could increase the hydration of the dough from say 78% to 80%. To do this, straight-forward arithmetic tells you to add an additional 20 grams of water. Additionally, a recipe can be easily scaled to whatever size loaf or number of loaves desired!
Despite the results of the test, I find that teaspoons still come in handy at times. For example, small amounts of commercial yeast (eg. 3 grams) might be more accurately measured using a set of teaspoon measures given the limitations in the precision of digital scales that measure to the ones place (what I have), rather than to the tenths place.
A digital thermometer is also a must for bread baking. In general, warmer conditions increase microbial activity, while cooler temperatures slow down biological processes. For yeast, this is true up to the thermal death point – around 140F. Most recipes that I use call for water temperature ranging from 75-95F, but ambient temperature, fermentation time, and other similar considerations also dictate the ideal water temperature.
As a long time moderately-serious home baker, I am very ashamed to admit that an oven thermometer has only been in my kitchen for three months. That’s (gasp…) even one month less than when I started baking bread.
Ovens are like teenagers. They tell you they’re doing one thing, but they’re actually doing something else. One minute they seem to be doing just fine. Predictable, no problems. The next minute they sneak out of the house to TP a tree in your neighbor’s front yard. The point is that your oven is NOT predictable, and worse, they’re very deceiving. Enough said. An oven thermometer will tell you the actual temperature, and if you watch closely, you will learn how the temperature oscillates, and whether it runs hot or cool.
Finally, once you put the dough in the oven, watch it like a hawk. This is not the time to sit down and watch reruns of Seinfeld.
I know this is a nitty gritty post, but bread baking is all about the details. Some of you might be thinking that keeping a spreadsheet is a bit over the top, but I can’t express enough how writing down time and temperature – two very important ingredients – have helped me make sense of the process. Seasoned bakers might not do this, but given that I am still learning the ropes, it still find it very a worthwhile practice.
Finally, note that I record ambient temperature every time I do something to the dough. This is especially necessary when I put the dough and a pan of warm water in the oven (turned off) to create a proofing box during bulk fermentation. More about this and the basic bread method in another post ·