A Short Lesson on the Importance of Precise Measurements in Baking
I’ve never been much of a baker. Or a cook. I am that girl in TV shows or comic books who burns water. And oh my poor, sweet, dear reader, I am not even exaggerating. Because I have done it. I have burnt water. That was really bad. I also poured it all over myself and had to go up to Shoppers Drugmart and stock up on burn supplies with my embarrassed mother. I’ve also set fire to almonds while trying to toast them for a salad. Let’s not forget the time I blew up caramel in my friend’s microwave (not even an oven people!).
My failed attempts at kitchen finesse are the main reasons for this oh-so inquisitive blog post today. I am going to take a look at why the quantities we bake with are actually important (this coming from someone who literally throws random amounts of stuff into the bowls while baking with friends, leading to lots of mess and me not being allowed to touch anything).
Here goes nothing, hopefully we all learn something?
In general, baking ingredients can be divided into two categories:
- "tougheners / strengtheners"
- "tenderizers / weakeners"
Some examples of the two categories…
Tougheners / Strengtheners
Tenderizers / Weakeners
For a recipe to bake with all of the qualities we like (tenderness, fluffiness, chewiness, density, etc) there needs to be a balance between the two. If one quantity is increased, the other must be decreased (although there is slightly more to it than that). For instance, to make cookies that both look and taste like cookies, you need to make sure you use the right amount of each ingredient. Add too much flour and your cookies will be solid as rocks. Add too much salt and they'll taste terrible.
Recipes also vary by the amounts of each ingredient and the mixing techniques used to combine them. Professional bakers use baker's percentages to express their relationship to one another. They are formulas used to easily distinguish quantities within a recipe. In baker’s percentage, “each ingredient in a formula is expressed as a percentage of the flour weight, and the flour weight is always expressed as 100%” (King Arthur Flour Company). According to the KAF Company, there are many reasons why using baker’s percent is useful, such as follows:
- First, since each ingredient is weighed, it enables us to work with precision using only one unit of measure
- Second, it is quite easy to scale a formula up or down when we are working with baker’s percent
- And last, it allows bakers to share a common language (kinda like moles?!)
Home bakers use recipes which are written out with ingredient amounts which are better suited to the appliances we have in our standard non-fancy shmancy kitchens.
What’s Cooking America states the following in their basic baking rules:
Measure the quantities correctly: This is a baking must! One common cause of cooking failures is inaccurate measurement of ingredients. You can use the best ingredients in the world, but if you do not measure correctly, the recipe will not come out properly. Also always use level measurements (all measurements in a recipe are level).
But why is this? What about specific quantities in baking is so important? Why does Archie always blow up the oven in Home Ec and the lab during an experiment?
In baking and cooking, ingredient quantities have relationships in accordance to one another that simplify into ratios. It’s kind of like a math concept. For an example, “if a recipe calls for 1 egg and 2 cups of flour, the relationship of eggs to cups of flour is 1 to 2” (Annenburg Learner). If you mistakenly change the ratio, your resulting baked goods/dinner may not be very edible.
All recipes are written with a specific serving size in mind. For example, a cookie recipe looking to make 2 dozen cookies. But what if you want more or less than the recipe makes? There is a certain skill that comes with “increas[ing] or decreas[ing] the yield without spoiling the ratio of ingredients” (Annenburg Learner).
Below is an example from Annenburg Learner which demonstrates the math that is demonstrated through daily activities such as baking in accordance to ratios. Just like chemistry and using mass to mole conversion (etc.) to find specific quantities needed for an experiment to be successful, the same applies to baking:
Let's say you have a mouth-watering cookie recipe:
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips
This recipe will yield 3 dozen cookies. If you want to make 9 dozen cookies, you'll have to increase the amount of each ingredient listed in the recipe. You'll also need to make sure that the relationship between the ingredients stays the same. To do this, you'll need to understand proportion. A proportion exists when you have 2 equal ratios, such as 2:4 and 4:8. Two unequal ratios, such as 3:16 and 1:3, don't result in a proportion. The ratios must be equal.
Going back to the cookie recipe, how will you calculate how much more of each ingredient you'll need if you want to make 9 dozen cookies instead of 3 dozen? How many cups of flour will you need? How many eggs? You'll need to set up a proportion to make sure you get the ratios right.
Start by figuring out how much flour you will need if you want to make 9 dozen cookies. When you're done, you can calculate the other ingredients. You'll set up the proportion like this:
1 cup flour
X cups flour
You would read this proportion as "1 cup of flour is to 3 dozen as X cups of flour is to 9 dozen." To figure out what X is (or how many cups of flour you'll need in the new recipe), you'll multiply the numbers like this:
X times 3 = 1 times 9
3X = 9
Now all you have to do is find out the value of X. To do that, divide both sides of the equation by 3. The result is X = 3. To extend the recipe to make 9 dozen cookies, you will need 3 cups of flour. What if you had to make 12 dozen cookies? Four dozen? Seven-and-a-half dozen? You'd set up the proportion just as you did above, regardless of how much you wanted to increase the recipe.
So there you have it. Baking just got math-ish.
Do you think our schools should offer Home Ec. classes so that students can practice similar skills as those taught in chemistry classes for real life applications? Would you agree that baker’s have a harder job than perhaps previously thought? Are you aching to eat a cupcake as badly as I am now?!
This has been a wonderful segment on Baking with C, hopefully you found it informative and we can save the world, one oven at a time,