The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Formulas and preferments

david earls's picture
david earls

Formulas and preferments

I'm a newbie on this forum, and probably a newbie to bread machines - had one for about a year and a half. I bake 2-3 times a week in my West Bend Hi Rise, a spiffo little double-paddle machine that makes a 2-2.5 lb. horizontal loaf. Shortly after I started baking, I departed from both direct method (where you add yeast directly to the dough) and recipes, and moved to indirect method (preferment) and formulas. I don't make many kinds of bread, so my formulas have been thoroughly tested and refined.

It turns out the bread machine is perfect for preferment. I depart again from the usual preferment - I add all the yeast and all the water to the preferment, and none directly to the dough. I'm probably doing this wrong, but I've generally had poor results adding additional yeast at the dough stage (loaves fall). But hey! It works for me.

I departed from recipes after using King Arthur All Purpose (KA AP) flour the first time - I got a salty loaf after measuring the old-fashioned way (more on this below). Now I do everything by formulas, and my bread is just right. In a formula, every ingredient is measured as a percentage of the flour. I bought a small kitchen scale and weigh everything in grams, so my measurements are very precise - much more precise than cups and spoons could ever be. Commercial bakeries use formulas for the same reason - precision and repeatability.

When I bake, I follow this procedure:

1. Weigh the flour. Calculate all ingredients as a percentage of the flour. I have a little spreadsheet that does this for me. I've done these formulas so many times now that I know the optimal amount of flour for each formula in my machine. Optimal size in your machine could be different from mine - not a problem, scaling up or down with a formula is a snap. I like the top of my loaves to rise above the bread pan so the tops brown in the bake cycle.
2. Put all the water into the bread machine (water is typically about 60-70% of the flour weight). Add an equal amount of flour. Add some yeast - 3 or 4 grams for a 2-lb loaf.
3. Using the Dough cycle, mix and knead the starter. Scrape down the sides of the pan while the starter is mixing. Turn the bread machine off.
4. Add the remaining flour as an even layer on top of the starter.
5. Add the remaining ingredients on top of the flour. The flour layer keeps salt and sugar away from the starter. The only "liquid" ingredients I use are butter, oil, or honey - everything else is dry (dry milk, dry buttermilk, rolled oats, wheat germ, etc). There's no reason to add any dry ingredients that don't contain gluten to the preferment.
6. Select the machine cycle that works best for you - I always use Basic. Set the timer on the bread machine to 13 hours (longest cycle time on my machine). Press Start. I always allow the bread to cool a bit in the machine before removing it - this makes the loaf come off the paddles more easily.

I bake my loaves in the machine. I suppose you could remove the dough after the final kneading cycle, shape the loaves for a pan and do the final rise outside the machine, but I don't.

Why does the formula work over the recipe? For precision and repeatability. My first KA AP loaf was the object lesson. It turns out that a cup of KA AP flour (11%+ gluten) only weighs about 127 grams. A cup of Gold Medal Better for Bread weighs about 135 grams. When I measured my KA flour using volume, my dough was about 10% lighter on flour - so it was salty. Now that I measure all my ingredients in grams, the ratios between the ingredients are always spot on. And the formulas make adjusting ingredients a snap. I had a couple of loaves collapse this summer and reduced the water in my formula by 1% - bingo, problem solved! When you get the formula right, every loaf turn out the same.

Why preferment? Well, for one thing both the flavor and texture of the bread is better. Instead of a loaf with every hole the same size, the size of the holes varies. That means a chewier texture and more flavor. And second, the bread keeps better, though I rarely get a loaf through its third day before I've eaten it. And third, it's way cool...

I'd be happy to share formulas if anyone is interested. I'd also love to hear from anyone who's experimented with either formulas or preferments.

jannrn's picture

David, thank you for posting this....I for some reason, seem to have a mental block when it comes to percentages...I just can't seem to grasp it. I believe it would be better and according to my husbands Chef grandson, once I get it, that will be the only way I will bake. Is there ANY way you could maybe break it down for me again? I am in a camper while we look for a farm so I use my bread machine to bake all my loaves and since I have Fibromyalgia, I use it to knead all my doughs as well. I have been baking for about 35 years but STILL have some lumps that even the birds and squirrels won't touch! When it comes to being a nurse, I can do that easy, but for some reason, I just haven't been able to wrap my mind around the way these percentages work! I have a total of 6 bread machines (5 in storage) but use my Zojirushi in the camper. I really look forward to hearing from you if you can make the time! Also, post some pictures of your masterpieces!! Do you use multi grains? I am experimenting with sprouted grains and am really enjoying them!!

Thank you!

MangoChutney's picture

100% is everything.  When you give 100%, you are giving your all.  1/100 of that is a percent.  Converting fractions to decimals, 1/100 is 0.01.  Therefore, 1% of anything is 0.01 * the total amount of that thing.  This is normal math.

Baker's Percentages are a little weird, though.  Instead of expressing everything as a percent of the total stuff in the dough, they express everything in terms of how it compares to just the total flour.  This must have some advantage for bakers in commerce, but I am not certain exactly what that might be.  Possibly it helps them when they've got some flour and want to make however much dough that flour makes, regardless of final yield.  Anyway, instead of saying that a mixture of equal weights of flour and water is 50% water and 50% flour, bakers say that it is 100% water as compared with the weight of the flour.  Furthermore, percent hydration of a dough is this Bakers Percentage of water as compared to flour, not a mathematician's percentage of water in the total recipe.  However, the mechanics still work the same when you calculate the percentages compared to the flour.  So if your recipe uses 1.5 lbs of flour, and your recipe says you should add water to make a 75% hydration dough , you multiply 0.75 by 1.5 lbs, and get 1.125 lbs of water.  Cross-checking, 75% means there is only 3/4 the amount of water present as flour, and 1.125 is 3/4 of 1.5.  1% salt means 0.01*1.5 lbs, or 0.015 lbs of salt.  This is the same as 1/100 times 1.5.  And so on.

I won't be offended if I've only confused you, by the way.  My sister didn't get percentages when we were in school together, and I never did know why not.  I'm hoping that I've gotten better at explaining it, but I may not have.

david earls's picture
david earls

Janet, happy to do so. My good old white bread formula is a good place to start. Everything is measured as a percentage of the flour. Here's the formula:

Flour = 100%

flour, 75%
water, 70%
yeast, 0.6%

flour, 19%
potato flour, 6%
sugar, 4.4%
salt, 1.8%
powdered milk, 1.8%
butter, 6.2%

Here's what that turns into for my machine. When total flour is 475 grams, it breaks down like this:

flour, 357g (475 x 75%)
water, 333g (475 x 70%)
yeast, 3g (475 x 0.6%)

flour, 90g (475 x 19%)
potato flour, 28g (475 x 6%)
sugar, 20g (475 x 4.4%)
salt, 9g (475 x 1.8%)
powdered milk, 9g (475 x 1.8%)
butter, 28g (475 x 6.2%) 

If my total flour was 450g, the ingredients would fall out like this:

flour, 338g (450 x 75%)
water, 315g (450 x 70%)
yeast 3g (450 x 0.6%)

flour, 85g (450 x 19%)
potato flour, 27g (450 x 6%)
sugar, 19g (450 x 4.4%)
salt, 8g (450 x 1.8%)
powdered milk, 8g (450 x 1.8%)
butter, 27g (450 x 6.2%) 

I just started adding a little potato flour in place of some of the bread flour. Makes the texture very soft, and the bread keeps an extra day. Have only cycled through two of my basic recipes with it so far, but it looks like a keeper of an idea. I haven't started using any exotics like fruit or nuts or seeds or sprouts. Mixing and kneading most of the flour with all the water in the preferment gets rid of all the lumps in my formulas.

I add rolled oats frequently, and have experimented with whole wheat flour and wheat germ. I'm pretty unimaginative when it comes to exotic ingredients, but with formulas it becomes very easy to tinker.

As I said, I use a spreadsheet to calculate the weight of each of my ingredients once I enter the weight of the flour. It was great in helping me expand the formula so that I could get the top of the bread above the loaf pan.

As far a s the preferment goes, I find my loaves are taller using the preferment with less yeast than direct method with more yeast.

Your Chef grandson is absolutely correct. Once you begin baking with formulas, you'll never go back. It's actually much simpler than measuring ingredients by volume, and even makes less of a mess - not as many utensils at play. And boy is it nice to start a batch of bread before going to bed and come home for lunch to fresh-baked bread.

Tell you what. Post your recipe for your favorite white bread and I'll convert it to a formula for you. Seeing one of your own recipes as a formula might help you out.

Ogi the Yogi's picture
Ogi the Yogi

preferment flour percentage? or how would you go about figuring that out?

Ogi the Yogi's picture
Ogi the Yogi

which has a sourdough starter in it, I would really appreciate it! If you build a levain of 200 gram but only end up using 184 gram of levain for the recipe which has a total weight of dough of 1800 grams, how do you modify you percentages with the modification of levain? 

I am trying to understand the build of this one particular site !