How to Read a Bread Recipe
(a well-written one, at least)
Just like my evolving collection of recipes here, this post is something of a work-in-progress, and maybe a bit of a mess, so forgive me while I play around with the format of it. My goal here was to diagram one of my recent recipes in order to both explain and explore its various elements in more detail. I’ve done it by annotating a recipe you’ve all already seen with footnotes.1 I hope that what follows makes both the things I choose to include in my recipes and the way I choose to present them more clear.
Please let me know if a) you remain still confused by any of it, or b) if there are aspects of these recipes I haven’t covered or you think could be made even more clear. My goal is to provide recipes that are comprehensive, while still being easy to read, which is a difficult balance to strike, especially when readers come to them with varying levels of experience and expertise.
At some point, I hope to find the time to go back through the archive of recipes and edit them to match the format that I’ve been working toward, though given the number of recipes, that could be a ways off.2
Chocolate-Sour Cherry-Cardamom Sourdough
Makes one 900g loaf3
Any type of rye flour will work here, as will gluten-forming whole-grain flours like wheat or spelt.4
If using high-extraction flour, increase the hydration to 103% (i.e., add 20g more water in step 2.)
Since the initial proof takes about 12 hours, the best approach is to start the dough in the evening, shape the bread in the morning, and bake the loaf late in the day or the following morning.
In step 1, use levain that has been recently refreshed and refrigerated; the recipe should work with older levain, but it might take longer to proof in step 8.
Because the recipe uses such a small amount of levain, its hydration doesn’t really matter.
If your kitchen is cold (below 70˚F), you can increase the amount of levain in step 1 to 10% (50g); in the heat of summer, reduce it to as little as 1% (5g).
The loaf can be refrigerated in step eight for 8 to 24 hours, depending upon whatever timing is most convenient for your schedule (it will get more slightly more sour the longer it proofs).
The lower-than-normal oven temperatures in step 9 & 12 are deliberate, in order to prevent burning.
Because the loaf is so dark in color, it can be a challenge to know when it is “browned” and crisp, so use the internal temperature as a marker here.
The cherries and chocolate on the exterior of the loaf can get very dark or even burn; they can be removed after baking if desired.
90% bread flour6
10% rye flour
9% cocoa powder
1.25% ground cardamom
30% chocolate chips or chunks
20% dried, sweetened sour cherries
5% levain (2.5% prefermented flour)8
35g rye flour
4g (1 1/4 teaspoons) ground cardamom
100g boiling water
all the rye scald (from above)
210g cool (70-73˚F)11 water
300g bread flour
30g cocoa powder
8g (1 1/4 teaspoons sea) salt
100g chocolate chips or chunks
70g sour cherries
FOR THE RYE SCALD13: Combine the rye flour and cardamom in a large bowl. Add the boiling water and stir with a dough whisk or spatula until uniform. Cover loosely and let sit for 20 minutes.
FOR THE DOUGH: Transfer about 10 grams (~2 teaspoons) of the water to a small bowl and set aside. Add the remaining water, honey, and levain to the rye scald and whisk until uniform. Add the flour and cocoa powder and stir with a dough whisk or wooden spoon until uniform and no dry flour remains. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle the salt and reserved water over the dough and knead gently in the bowl until the dough is combined. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Desired dough temperature: 70-75˚F.14
Add the chocolate chips and cherries and knead gently in the bowl until the dough is evenly mixed.15
Bulk Fermentation: 11-13 hours at 75˚F16, until the dough is domed, lightly bubbly, and increased in volume by about 50%. A peek at the underside of the dough along the edges of the bowl should also show a web of fine bubbles. (Try not to overproof here—shape the loaf as soon as this stage has arrived if possible. That said, there is probably a 1-2 hour window before it’s too late, at least when ambient temps are below 77˚F.)
Dust top of the dough lightly with flour and invert onto a lightly-floured countertop. Preshape into a round and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Shape the loaf17 and transfer to a floured banneton or lined basket. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes, then transfer to the refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours.
One hour before baking, adjust an oven rack to the middle position, set a covered heavy-bottomed Dutch oven on the rack, and heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Lay a 12- by 6-inch sheet of parchment paper on the counter. Remove the loaf from the fridge, dust the bottom of the loaf with flour, and invert onto the center of the parchment paper.
Carefully remove the Dutch oven from oven, place on the stovetop, and set the lid aside. Score the loaf as desired, then, using the parchment as a sling, carefully lower it into the Dutch oven. Carefully cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the lid, reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees, and continue to bake until the crust is crisp and a thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads at least 195˚F18, 15 to 20 minutes longer.
Transfer the loaf to cooling rack and allow to cool for at least three hours before serving.
This is either a clever way to avoid cluttering up the actual recipe with notes, or a horrible way to illustrate things, I’m not exactly sure which.
The Yield section should tell you how many products the recipe yields and the total weight of the dough.
So for recipes that make multiple products, it would say something like “Makes 900g dough, for twelve 75g rolls”
The divided weight (“75g rolls”) refers to the raw dough weight—so you know how to cut up the dough—not the baked weight of the product. (That is true for any of the numbers in this section. A “900g loaf” is 900g before you bake it, not after.
This is the Headnote, also known as the “notes” section.
It can appear before the recipe, or after it (I like having it up top, since it encourages you to read it before you get into the recipe itself)
It details all the “extra” information you might need, whether things that are not obvious but might be confusing if inserted into the recipe, like:
“Since the initial proof takes about 12 hours, the best approach is to start the dough in the evening, shape the bread in the morning, and bake the loaf late in the day or the following morning.”
Or ways one can vary the recipe while still ending up in a similar place, like:
“Any type of rye flour will work here, as will gluten-forming whole-grain flours like wheat or spelt.”
The notes should always be ordered in the same sequence of the steps of the recipe (i.e., first things first!)
The Overall Formula is a breakdown of everything that goes into the recipe, expressed as a set of percentages (and sometimes also the total weight of each ingredient).
Too many bread recipes skip presenting the overall formula, which drives me crazy, because it is an extremely useful shorthand for making sense of a recipe, and without it you have to calculate the percentages by adding ingredients together and comparing their ratios to one another.
I like to show the percentages only here, because it clearly shows the baker’s percentages/ratio, and because it is less confusing. (In other words, you never weigh anything out based upon the overall formula, so including strict amounts is superfluous.)
The items can be listed in descending order by weight, or by the sequence of their appearance in the recipe. (Though the flours usually come first and are generally clustered together.)
The flours in the recipe should always add up to 100% (i.e., 90% bread + 10% rye = 100%).
The water percentage listed here is also known as the hydration, which represents the ratio of water in the recipe, relative to flour, by weight.
This is a key number, because it tells you a lot about what to expect from the consistency of the dough.
Too many bread recipes—including those written by an extremely famous American baker with multiple books under his name—“fudge” this number by not counting the water contained in pre-made ingredients (a porridge, for example) in the hydration. I cannot tell you how much this irks me, not only because it is wrong, but also because it will confuse someone new to baker’s math.
This describes the weight of the levain (5% relative to the total weight of flour) and the amount of flour in the recipe that is in the levain (2.5%, because this levain is 100% hydration or 50/50 flour and water.) This tells you a lot about the fermentation strategy being used and possibly about the flavor of the bread (more prefermented flour generally means more acidity).
Every subsection here represents a distinct stage in the process, listed in order of occurrence.
In this example, the “Rye Scald” gets made first.
Though the scald gets “used” later on, the ingredients it contains are separate from/in addition to any identical ingredients listed further down.
The ingredients in an ingredient list should always appear in the order they are needed when making the recipe. (For ingredients that are needed at the same time, they are listed in descending order of amount, then alphabetically if in identical amounts.)
In my recipes, volume amounts are listed parenthetically only when the quantity is too small to be measured on a standard digital kitchen scale (<5g).
The Final Formula is everything that goes into making the final dough, including or in addition to anything that gets made beforehand.
It is helpful when a recipe includes something like “all the rye scald (from above)” as an ingredient, but it is not always the case that it does. Usually the recipe steps will make it clear even without it. (Though I am moving toward including this for clarity.)
The amounts of any ingredient listed here are separate from/in addition to any identical one that is listed earlier. This is a common point of confusion for beginners. In other words, if it says 10g rye flour in one section and 100g in another, the total weight of rye flour in the recipe is 110g.
If the water temperature is listed in the ingredient list, then achieving a precise desired dough temperature (DDT) is not crucial to the recipe. (In this case, the dough proofs so long that it is okay if the dough starts out cooler than its ‘ideal’ temperature.)
If the water temperature is not listed here, then the DDT should be included in the steps below, and you are expected to calculate and set the water temperature based upon it.
This is a key part of bread recipes, especially sourdoughs, since dough temperatures have such a strong influence on the progress of fermentation (and success with the recipe).
But DDT is complicated and something that most beginners do not yet understand, so including it can be confusing. The best approach is probably to suggest a ballpark water temperature in the ingredient list, while also including an exact DDT in the steps. (Which I will probably do from now on, though I haven’t sorted out how to make it clear that you have two options, ballpark or precise.)
In this case the amount of levain is so small that its hydration doesn’t really matter. If it did, it likely would get its own “Levain Build” section, which would spell it exactly how to make it.
These bolded/CAPS headers delineate the various stages of the recipe, each of which has its own ingredient list above.
Though you need to know the DDT before you start mixing the dough, the mixing method has an impact on the final dough temperature, so the DDT is typically listed at the end of the mixing stage, so that you know what number to use for the “friction factor.”
This requires you to look ahead in the steps to find it, which can be confusing to beginners.
This dough does not get any folds during the bulk fermentation. In those that do, I struggle to know whether to keep things simple by saying “fold x number of times over y hours” or to list each fold as a step, with instructions for performing it. I find the former more legible, while I know the latter is more approachable for beginners. This is why I am drawn to providing “recipe templates,” each of which follows an identical sequence of steps. I really only work with a handful of recipe templates myself.
Many recipes leave out the ideal ambient temperature for proofing, which I think encourages users to think it doesn’t matter. On the contrary, just like DDT, temperature has a strong influence on the rate of fermentation.
Similarly to footnote 13, given that there are an infinite number of ways to shape and score a loaf, I prefer to keep things generic here, but I realize that doing so leaves beginners without useful guidance.
As I mention in the headnote, this is the rare instance that I provide an internal temperature for breads, since it’s a challenge to know when dark loaves are fully baked. The other instance I provide it is with delicate enriched breads, which can look baked on the exterior while still remaining soft within, which can cause them to cave in upon cooling. Otherwise, I find giving internal temperature a distraction, when your eyes should be the best judge of doneness.