As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been baking bread for over a year now. Not long enough to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly long enough to have learned a few things.
Maybe it's the artist in me, but since pretty early on in my bread-making, I have been adapting and creating my own recipes for sourdough bread. I’ve joked more than once that I seem incapable of following a recipe as written, even if it is a recipe that I myself created!
Many times I’ve heard people say that improvising and trying new things is all well in good when you’re cooking, but when you’re baking you’re dealing with science, so messing around with baking recipes is just a bad idea and will probably end up with a flop.
Honestly, I think that is a pretty dumb attitude. If you’re really going to learn to make bread, you’ll learn the basic principles of how it works. And once you understand those principles, why on earth would you not do your own experimenting? Experimenting is what makes baking fun!
I will admit, I have had the occasional flop. But your basic bread ingredients--flour, water, and salt--are cheap, and I usually learn something from each flop too. So I keep experimenting.
So if you have any interest at all in creating your own recipes, or making significant adaptations to recipes created by others, here are a few things I started with early on that have helped me to do that with a reasonable amount of success. There will always be loaves that don’t live up to your expectations, whether you follow somebody else’s recipe or not, but there is an extra level of satisfaction when, not only did you make that loaf of bread, you made the recipe that made it--and that's worth a failed loaf now and then in my book.
Use weight measurements, not volume
Really, I suggest you do this whether you intend to create your own recipes or not. Weight measurements are just so much more accurate than using cups and tablespoons and such.
I still clearly remember in my middle school cooking class when the teacher measured a cup of sifted flour, and then a cup of packed flour, and then weighed them both. The weights were more different than any of us would have guessed. Volume measurements are just really “ISH”. So get a kitchen scale and use it--problem solved.
Honestly, I was skeptical starting out, and I didn’t want to clutter up my kitchen with one more thing that wouldn’t get used. So, I got the smallest, cheapest scale I could find. It is still working and I’m glad I have it, but if I could go back I would go back and get something a little higher quality. Someday, I’ll get a nicer scale, that is even more accurate than my little cheap one!
People who have seen me in my kitchen might find this weird, coming from me. I’m one of those “just toss some in until it looks right” type cooks. But as a baker it's a bit more important to know how much of each ingredient you’re working with. In a kind of backwards way, being able to know EXACTLY how much of each ingredient I’m putting in really frees me up to try new things. It helps me to feel comfortable with trying new combinations and ingredients, because I know that my ratios are still correct.
Speaking of ratios…
1, 2, 3, Sourdough Formula
Early on, all of the recipes I created were based on the 1, 2, 3 Sourdough formula. Though I haven’t depended on it as much lately, it is still my go-to when I just need a quick basic batch of dough and I want to be able to hold the recipe in my head. Thats right, no recipe cards or constantly refreshing your phone screen to put this dough together. This is all it takes:
1 part sourdough starter
2 parts water
3 parts flour
2% of the flours weight in salt
Obviously after my whole spiel above, these ratios are by WEIGHT, not volume. And they probably all make sense except maybe the salt, so let me give you an example.
Lets say I want to make a small sourdough boule. I choose 250 grams as my base measurement.
So, my recipe would look like this:
250 grams sourdough starter
500 grams water (thats 250x2)
750 grams flour (thats 250x3)
15 grams salt (thats 750x0.02)
Let me explain the salt measurement. To figure out what two percent of the flour weight is, we multiply it by .02. Our flour measurement is 750 grams, which multiplied by .02 is 15.
But there is an easier way you can do in your head, if you don’t have a calculator handy (or don’t want it to get covered in flour ;-). Just use 1 gram of salt for every 50 grams of flour in your recipe. If 50 doesn’t divide evenly into your flour number, I’d just ignore the leftover--you’re close enough. So, 750/50=15.
But how does knowing this formula help you to create your own bread recipes?
Simple. First, the water ratio can include ALL of your wet ingredients. So in my recipe above, if I want to use milk, an egg, and some butter instead of water (adding in some fat for a nice soft loaf, plus the egg white helps with rise/structure), I just make sure that the total weight of those three ingredients equals 500 grams.
(A couple of my particular favorites for moisture in dough are whey leftover from my yogurt making, or potato water from boiling potatoes, or mashed potatoes. Whey gives nice flavor, potato really softens up the loaf.)
Similarly, the flour measurement can include all types of flour or other dry ingredients you want to include. So If I want use three different flours in my loaf, or add some cocoa powder or potato flakes, I just make sure the total weight of my dry ingredients equals 750 grams. (Add-ins that don’t mix into the dough, such as seeds or chunks of cheese or chocolate chips or dried fruit, aren’t included in this number, they’re just added in.)
So you could write the the 1, 2, 3, Sourdough formula thus:
1 part starter
2 parts wet ingredients
3 parts dry ingredients
2% dry ingredient weight in salt (Don’t forget the salt!)
These are enough to get you started with adapting or creating your own recipes, I think. To really invent recipes from scratch I want to talk more about hydration and baker’s percentages, but I feel like those are concepts that seem really complicated until they “click”, and should therefore have their own post. So for now, happy adapting!
Though professionally I'm an Illustrator, I do a lot of other fun and interesting things in my life that I like to write about. This is where I'll put my posts about those things--recipes, projects, thoughts, and anything else going on in my life that is not specifically art related.