The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Weighing/Measuring Ingredients

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Tony M's picture
Tony M

Weighing/Measuring Ingredients

I dived into bread baking a few months ago. I read all the books I could get my hands on, sought out videos on technique, made some terrible breads....And I'm now actually starting to get a feel for it. But my comment is this: at first I assumed that much of successful bread baking was precise weighing of stipulated recipe ingredients. I have a great balance beam scale that will weigh to the fraction of a gram and I would look with disdain at any recipe that did not specify in precise metrics. I

ve seen others do the same on this Blog e.g. comments on the recipe errors in Leaders book, etc. Now I think differently...I've learned through some hard experience that a bread that may take 450 grams of flour one day with one batch of flour in the Winter in the midwest, may only be able to absorb 380 grams come Spring with a different flour...even if it's the same brand of flour as you used in the Winter. So what does that say about all this focus on recipe ingredient precision? Yes, I still weigh the various flours, S.D. starter, etc. But no longer the water. Now I like making a well with the flours and starter/poolish/biga and then slowly add the water until it gets to the point I feel is enough. To do otherwise could very well invite disaster regardless of the recipe. Now my strong focus on weighing/recipe precision has largely been replaced with a concern and focus on developing a feel for things like just when I've added enough water, when I've kneaded enough, when the first fermentation and final proofing should be ended, etc. That's why I now have shelved my mixer and really enjoy manually kneading...because it enhances that very important feel vs. throwing in the mixer. I still feel that precision is important e.g folding during fermentation, autolyse, defering the addition of salt, etc. And I've learned a lot from books like Hamelman's Bread on matters/techniques such as that. But even from the best books, I've learned to to replace my focus on following recipe ingredient precision with feel.

I'd love to see comments from fellow bread bakers on this.



Pmccool's picture

Tony M,

While I agree that numbers alone don't make for successful bread, I'd be uncomfortable with leaving so important a component as water unmeasured.  My approach is to measure the ingredients, then fine-tune the consistency with small additions of either flour or water to get the desired result.  In the end, my gauge is how the dough feels/looks/behaves, so my approach isn't that much different than yours.  My confidence that I'm achieving something close to what the formula's author intended is greater than it would be if I were winging it.

That said, I can and have made good bread with no other measuring tool than a Mark 1 eyeball.  Still, if I didn't have lots and lots of practice with the type of bread I was freelancing, the outcome would have been much less enjoyable.  Your experience appears to be similar.  And it is experience that allows either of us to know more about the dough than what the scales tell us.

The same can be said of proofing times.  Yeast activity is variable with temperatures, so the author's recommended times may or may not be reproducible in my kitchen on a given day.  Still, knowing the recommended times gives me an indication of what to expect, even though I know that the dough will tell me when it is really ready.

I guess I'd capsulize my thoughts by saying that measuring each ingredient gives me a higher probability of achieving my goal, even though I know that I cannot substitute numbers for judgment.

Just my two cents.


*With thanks to Rod Stewart

proth5's picture

Not to be argumentative (but I gotta be me) but I do believe that Mr Hamelman puts a great deal of emphasis on paying attention to the way the bread feels (looks, smells, tastes, and/or sounds...) at all phases of production.  Unfortunately the correct feel is difficult to communicate in writing.  Perhaps you glossed over those parts of his book.  They tend to be disguised by his sometimes poetic approach and are easy to miss.

I am reminded of my internship experience where I made a math error and weighed out the wrong amount of water.  Even though I was mixing in a machine - I put my hand to that dough, knew it was not right, and went back to my notes.  Because I keep accurate notes (even if I can't add) and because I had the discipline to "weigh to the formula", it was easy to apply the correction to my mistake.

Even if I am mixing in a spiral, my hand (or my eye, or my ear, etc.) is the judge.  I enjoy doing hand mixing and that's what I do at home - but it is not the mixing method that determines whether or not I judge the feel of the dough.  I must always judge the feel of the dough.

That being said, I've not experienced the large differences in water weight that you report.  This could be because of my climate or the particular flour that I use, or how I store my flour.  My winter 65% hydration feels pretty much like my summer 65% hydration.  I do know that professional bakeries do have the issues that you describe and do need to make hydration adjustments with changing flours.

I consider that it is valuable to stick with the measurements so that you can have a baseline to make adjustments to future batches.  This is particularly important in a production environment, but is also useful for the home baker.  If I know this batch of flour requires more water, I can be alert to the need to adjust all of my formulas.  Again, for a professional baker, the consistency is all important and weighing ingredients supports this consistency.  Home bakers have been baking great bread for centuries by feel alone - but their work has a different emphasis. I have a rather buttoned down mind and I find that using the measurements makes the work move more efficiently.  Others would find my quantitative emphasis stifling.  That's one great thing about being a home baker - you are your own boss.

I also think that sometimes we insist on precision in our measurements that is greater than the process requires.  I've gazed upon 0.1 oz of flour.  Even in a small batch of bread, being off a couple of these will not make a big difference.  Being off 0.1 oz of yeast or salt, will, though.  One needs to take a common sense approach to precision in measurements.

So, those are my thoughts.  Hope they are helpful to you.

flournwater's picture

Well, Tony, if it works for you I endorse your approach to bread making.  Most of the bread making books I've read cover, in one way or another, the difference between the engineering approach (baker's percentages) and the freelance approach to the art.  But I'd suggest that the novice focus on the engineering approach until they get the "feel" of the dough for any given type of bread before venturing into freelance methods.

I was a failure at bread making for over a decade.  This web site and a few good books on the subject brought me up, but not necessarily out, of the abyss of bread making failure I was living in.  Because each of them, and this forum, recommended I learn to read the dough with my eyes and hands I focused on developing that skill.  I'm still learning, but today I have the ability to make some types of breads without a formula.

My advice to anyone trying to learn how the ingredients affect one another, why certain ratios are important, how something as seemingly unimportant as humidity can dramatically change the results, and can look at their finished loaf and determine what (if anything) is wrong with it, is to rely on very careful weighing of ingredients.

jeb's picture

When trying new recipes, I like the precision of measured ingredients. I can alter things from there. I also like the precision of measuring the internal temperature when it's time to take the bread out of the oven, as I never developed the "ear" to thump the loaves. But I also agree that "feel" can be important.

When I first learned to make bread, several years ago, I only measured the water and yeast. The salt was estimated, and the flour was added until it "felt" right. It always came out OK (or so I thought at the time).

ehanner's picture

The problem with not measuring the water is that after your initial mix, you won't know if it needs an adjustment for 15 minutes. It takes a while for the flour to absorb the water. The best chance to make an adjustment is after the first 15 minutes when you know if you have what feels and looks like a proper consistency. I prefer to start with a measured amount that I know worked last time and make very minor adjustments. Paul and Proth5 are correct in my view. It is judgment that can be trained.

Depending on the flour types used, some dough feels slack, sloppy or dry right after mix. Any judgment you make at that time will be akin to "I know it looks bad now but in 15 minutes it will be fine". Careful measurements get me much closer to where I want to be than eyeballing this process.


Tony M's picture
Tony M

First of all, thanks you all for your excellent replies. It may help if I get a bit more specific. The main thrust of my question came from came from one bread I made out of Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread a Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes book....Vermont Sourdough (page 153). And let me preface by saying, I learned more from reading this book than any of the over half dozen excellent others I've read. I'm aware he's a Master baker and I have tremendous respect for him. The flours I used were Hodgson Mills 100% whole grain rye and KA unbleached bread flour. I converted my KA bought dry SD starter to a 125% wet one per Hamelman's instructions and fed it daily for several days. I then followed his Liquid-Levain Build instructions going the full 16 hours. I converted all his ingredient measurements (under the "Home column) to metric. Perhaps that is where I went wrong. Per my calculations it converted to the following: Bread flour 810 grms, Whole-rye flour 96 grms, Water 585 grms, Salt 18 grms (added half way through the kneading process). I wasn't quite as exacting on the liquid levaid addition adding 2 measured tablespoons. As I said earlier, I added the water slowly after all else was placed in a very large bowl. And here's the crux of my issue and the point I added just 460 grams of water, it seemed apprropriately hydrated. As I said in my original question, I'm a relative newbie to bread making but I've been making scratch pizza for years so I'm no newbie to working with dough. That said, I couldn't fathom 125 grams short of the recipe on water...that's way over the 5% mentioned above!! Now I will say this: Hamelman staes "the douh should have a medium constistency". I'm not sure what that means. But I will say that the bread turned out great. I made it into  one boule and one batard. My bread afficiado friend told me it was the best bread he's ever had. It had great oven spring, nice crisp bite to the crust and a very appealing, tasty, and not dry crumb. Let me ask this...Nancy Silverton, in her excellent "Breads From The La Brea Bakery" states 'water added too late won't absorb as it would have earlier'...would adding more water after the autolyse have been okay and taken properly? Perhaps I could have added more at that point. But 125 grams more??? I doubt it. Because again, the dough felt fine with a god degree of stickiness causing me to scrape up small shreds of dough from my board that lasted about about 2 minutes into my kneading process.

So there you are. Maybe I erred in my measurements. Maybe my original starter was a bit too over hydrated. I'm definitely going to try it again in the next few days. Because I myself have a problem reconciling the water I used being over 20% short. By the way, the bread was made in Columbus, Ohio one week ago in late November.

Thanks again for your advice and comments.


proth5's picture

is the protein content of the flour.  I've been seeing this included in many of the formulas I have been seeing as of late.  "Bread Flour" is a nebulous term that could mean anything from a specific brand of flour that is marketed as "All Purpose" to another brand marketed as "For Bread."  The variations in these flours may well cause variations in the amount of water.

Another good point brought up in this discussion is that initially, following the amount of water given in a formula, may cause your dough to be a little "wetter" feeling than you are used to.  I baked for decades at lower hydrations and when I started out with these newer formulas, they felt wet (of course, I stubbornly insist on working at lower hydrations just to prove that high hydration dough is not required for open crumb, but that's another story), but as the dough develops and is folded, it will gain strength.  This is the problem with books - they cannot teach you what things feel like.  Mr Hamelman's formulas are generally very reliable, but when properly done may feel a bit different than the doughs that you have made in the past.  You might try his measurements and accept the difference in the feeling of the dough and see if you get good results.   If not, then you can adjust.

But here's where understanding baker's percentages really helps.  As written, the formula has about 65% hydration.  That's not excessivly wet, but is higher than most of the formulas I baked to "back in the day."  Per your adjustment, you pulled the hydration back to 44% (still a workable hydration) - which might be your comfort zone.  You say you've been doing pizza dough for a long time.  You might want to translate your favorite formula into baker's percentages and understand its hydration.  Then you have a starting point when you read a formula to think "this is going to be wetter than I am used to."  Of course, if you bake only by feel this option is not open to you - which is why I claim some advantage to using the measurements.

Something to think about.  Hope it is helpful.

mcs's picture

The final dough calls for 420g of water.  The measurements you're giving are for the overall formula and include the water added to the levain build.


proth5's picture

Well, there you go.  Not following instructions...  That will get you every time.