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Bread Baking, Math & Fear

Tue Jun 2, 2009

I got really excited when I heard food writer Michael Ruhlman had a new book, until I heard the title—Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. I hate math. I mean I loathe it. Math makes me feel like I have poisonous spiders crawling all over my body, like I’m in a horror movie and I know what comes next but I’m helpless to stop it. Just writing about how math turns me into the same anxious little girl who scribbled in her journal about how mean her mommy was making her try to memorize multiplication tables.

Fortunately I’ve found my math anxiety doesn’t get in the way of much. Sure, I occasionally tip the pizza guy really well, but I just chock that up to good karma instead of my inability to do math on the fly. I can pay my bills. And with the calculator and the Little Chef converter app on my cell phone, I’m pretty much good to go, even in the kitchen. Except for one thing—baking.

I’ve wanted to make bread for a few years, and I even bought Peter Reinhart’s the Bread Baker’s Apprentice to start learning. But I haven’t been able to get past the second chapter, the one where he starts talking about…ratios. All of a sudden Reinhart starts sounding like the teacher from Charlie Brown in my head—all whoa whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa. Then I have to put the book down or risk hyperventilating.

Not one to be ruled by fear, I decided to enlist in an intro to bread baking class at my local Sur La Table last Saturday, and I recruited my friend Suzy to come with me. The recipes sounded basic enough: brioche, pumpernickel raisin bread, French baguette, foccaccia and cranberry bread. They would even teach us how to make a biga, which I hoped would add the tangy complexity missing from my pizza dough. The instructor, Tina Rogers, was young and set us all immediately at ease, throwing dough on the work surface like it were a flat basketball. There was nothing delicate or precious about her presentation, which made the subject seem less intimidating. In class we moved around, mixing, kneading and shaping dough to proof and bake. She explained the biga, and how to feed it, and I felt confident, assured that I could go home and start making bread. (If you want a fun, carbohydrate-filled afternoon, simple explanations and some hands-on experience, I definitely recommend taking the class.)

And while I know I could reproduce most of the breads in class, I’m still at loss when it comes what to do next with my starter. I’ve made my biga; I even named it Lester, after the intrepid Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester, who came back from battling lymphoma to pitch a no-hitter last year. But the recipe Tina gave us was for a biga to be used in black olive bread, which I don’t want to make. And Reinhart’s books says that your starter’s ingredients have to be in direct proportion to the rest of the recipe’s ingredients, which to me means I can’t just go throwing my biga into my pizza dough willy-nilly, right? And the note on her recipe sheet says the biga will only last for a few days, but I wanted a “starter” something that I could tend to like a child, feeding and burping, feeding and burping. And every time I read another bread-baking blog post, or try to re-read Reinhart, I get further from knowing what to do.

All I can think of is the warm crumb of fresh-baked bread on my tongue, and the yeasty sweetness that will fill the air if I just make this hurdle. Maybe it’s time to call Nancy Silverton, the queen of bread and founder of La Brea Bakery, for some advice. Maybe it’s time to read Ruhlman.

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8 Responses to “Bread Baking, Math & Fear”

  1. Suzy Says:

    I thought she said the biga would last and grow for a while? …you’ll figure it out, and the results will be delicious!

  2. foodwoolf Says:

    I DEFINITELY think you should get the Ruhlman book. Once I get my $$$ in order I’ll be buying it too. Because, as you can guess, I too and HORRIFIED by math. I cringe whenever guests ask me to split a check THREE!!! ways. Dividing by three always gets me.

    Anyhoo, if we can get our minds wrapped around ratios we’ll never stop baking!

  3. Phoo-D Says:

    Leah – I share your same math anxiety and laughed at the spider description because, man that is so accurate! I picked up the Reinhart book then stumbled into a group of people that are baking their way through the entire thing. I have asked hundreds of similar questions (and we’re only on the third recipe!) yet with a twitter group and emails an answer is never far away. If you want to connect in, here’s the link: http://pinchmysalt.com/2009/05/04/the-bread-bakers-apprentice-challenge/. I’m still in shock that I’ve actually made a bread with wild yeast and bagels that tasted authentic. There is hope!

  4. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Thanks, Phoo-D. Ii thought about joining the Pinch My Salt challenge, but didn’t want to be committed to baking all summer (plus I was really nervous about Reinhart’s book). Maybe I’ll give it a second shot. Bummed to have missed the bagels.

  5. Matt Says:


    Thought I’d see if I can help explain ratios, or ‘bakers percentages’ in a nice simple way, as it took me ages to figure it out.

    Simply put, if you had a recipe that said:

    Flour: 1.0 (100%)
    Water: 0.66 (66%)
    Salt: 0.01 (1%)

    The idea is to start with a set amount of flour – say 2lb.

    Now, you simply multiply that amount of flour by the ratio to give you the amount of the other ingredients you need.

    Flour = 2lb
    Water = 2 * 0.66 = 1.32lb
    Salt = 2 * 0.01 = 0.02lb (0.3oz, or about 2 tsp)

    This means that if you wanted to make tons of bread – say with 50lbs of flour, your recipe remains the same.

    Hope this makes sense!

  6. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Wow, thanks Matt! That is pretty clear. I hope I can hold onto this moment long enough to put it to use!


  7. groundhog.judy Says:

    While growing up my mother made bread (light bread)every week and I remember watching her kneed the bread 30 minutes by the clock. When I decided to stop smoking (cold turkey) I baked bread to keep my hands busy. My poor husband ran around the neighborhood handing out bread and telling everyone to stay away until at least 2 weeks were up as I was a grouch.

  8. sam Says:

    Great getting to more-officially meet you this weekend. Ratio is my favorite cookbook!

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