Sep 4, 2013

The Building Blocks of Baked Goods Part 2: Spotting a Bad Recipe

Recognizing a bad recipe
This is the second installment of Building Blocks of Baked Goods.  This post is about using ratios to analyze a recipe.  Otherwise known as, if a recipe goes bad, it's not necessarily your fault.  If a recipe comes from a famous chef, or a famous site or book, it doesn't mean that the recipe has been fully tested for anyone to make.  So before you proclaim that you can't bake, and that everything you make is horrible (unless, of course, you're trying to get out of having to ever bake again), take a closer look at the recipe itself.

In the last section, I talked about ratios, and problems that I had with Paula Deen's zucchini bread recipe. Today I want to walk through it, and try to figure out if I just failed somewhere with my baking, or if it was a problem with the recipe.  Before I get started, I need to say that I don't know how Paula measures her flour.  It is not stated in the recipe, and the actual amount used can vary widely depending on how that happens. So I am going to start with weight averages, and move on from there.  As I am just using this to give me a rough guide of whether or not this recipe is balanced, these variations are not going to create major issues.  If the measurements are close, then I will assume that the recipe is fairly balanced, and then just work off of my weight measurements for the next go round.

The first step is to convert the structural elements to weight measurements. By structural elements, I mean the flour, eggs, sugar, fat, and liquid.  These are the elements that create the form and the texture of the bread. Ingredients like cinnamon and nutmeg, which only provide flavor, we can leave alone for the moment.

I tend to use Wolfram Alpha for doing conversions, just because it's easy to use.


3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour = 447 grams


3 cups sugar= 916 grams


4 eggs, beaten= 200 grams


1 cup vegetable oil= 218 grams (204 grams fat weight)

Wait, why are there two seperate measurements?  Because vegetable oil is not a pure fat.  Therefore, we have to reduce the weight a bit here.  I am using calculations based on what I found in Bakewise for this.


4 eggs, beaten= 200 grams

1 cup vegetable oil= 218 grams
1/3 cup water= 79 grams
2 cups grated zucchini= 340.2 grams (170 liquid weight)

Total Liquid weight: 667 grams

Just like we had to adjust for the amount of fat in the vegetable oil above, here we have to adjust for the amount of liquid in the zucchini.  Some zucchini can be up to 95% water weight.  Just for the sake of giving the recipe the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to peg it at 50% (since I may have already done the math on this, give me the benefit of the doubt on this one that it will still work out right).

Quickbread Ratios

There are 3 steps that I'm going to take to look at the balance of this recipe.

First, I am going to take the ratio for a quickbread from Michael Ruhlman.

1 parts flour
1 parts liquid
.5 part egg
.5 part fat

So let's see how our recipe stacks up on this measure. My flour is 447 grams, and I'm going to peg my calculations on that.  So 1 part equals 447 grams.

Flour: 447 grams * 1 part/447 grams= 1
Liquid: 667 grams * 1 part/447 grams= 1.49
Egg: 200 grams * 1 part/447 grams= .45
fat: 204 grams * 1 part/447 grams= .49

The ratio for the egg and the fat look pretty good, especially considering that I said all of this is a rough estimate.  But look at the liquid! It's 50% higher than it should be. No wonder I noticed all my precious bubbles escaping.

Second, let's look at the sugar.  There are 916 grams of sugar to our 447 grams of flour.  That is more than twice the amount.  Even when making a high ratio cake, the sugar should only be slightly higher than the weight of the flour.  So I know that there is way too much sugar here.

Third, let's look at leavening. There should be about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour, with a little extra to account for the weight of the zucchini. That would mean that there should be somewhere around 1 teaspoon of baking soda, instead of the 2 teaspoons found in the recipe.  But considering that there is only 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to activate the baking soda, it may not all be activated to begin with.  Either way, I think we can reduce the amount of baking soda in this recipe as well.

Lessons Learned

Yay, it's not just me!  I know, if it had been just me, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing this up. But where do we go from here?  I could just ditch the recipe and try a new one.  However, I don't want to do that.  First, validation for my math tastes oh so good.  Secondly, I really liked the general flavor profile of this bread.  Re-balancing it will be much easier than tearing it down, I promise.

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