Baking and math

Little known fact: I was an advanced math student all through high school. I didn’t necessarily want to be, but I was there.

But I almost wasn’t. In 8th grade, I took high school-level Algebra with Mr. Cobb at Great Bridge Middle School South. He was an ex-military hard ass whose breath stunk. He wore old man pants and told me after I got a 74 (a D in the Chesapeake, Va. school system) on my Algebra mid-term that I “would never be good at math.”

My average in that class? A “B”, which I pulled up to an “A” in the 3rd quarter because I sat behind Ben Harris and he was a hottie. On the final I also got a 74. Nonetheless, Mr. Cobb recommended me for Geometry, in which I was at the top of the class and tutored other students. By the time I was a sophomore I was struggling through Algebra II but acing Trigonometry. Yeah, I was that kind of math student.

Ray says I have math anxiety, and I agree. Stuff beyond basic arithmetic confuses me, and I get upset about the possibility of getting things wrong (thanks Mr. Cobb) and potentially hosing a recipe. But for baking, you need to be comfortable with math because sometimes you need to scale a recipe up or down beyond 50%. Like I had to do last night.

I have a recipe for vanilla bean cupcakes that yields 24, but I only wanted 16. Ray explained how I would find the ratio:

Yield desired / Current yield = Ratio

Then to get the new ingredient measurements:

Original recipe measurement * Ratio = New recipe measurement

So that meant 16 / 24 = 0.6667 and the new measurement for butter ended up 0.75 cup * 0.6667 = 0.5 cup

This may seem simple to some, but breaking it down into a couple of equations I can refer to helps. I know Ruhlman has a whole book and app on ratios, which I’ll definitely need to check out as I write more of my own recipes from scratch.


  1. I was trying to find a way to suggest a personal challenge to yourself to start working from ratios rather than recipes, because that would free you up quite a bit creatively. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to do it without sounding like a douchebag (as the kids say).

    Yes, pick up ratio. Also, start working from weights rather than volume measurements. You can’t scale baking easily with volume measurements, partially because of the weird fractions, and partially because volume measurements aren’t a direct measurement of material, so the scaling sometimes causes problems.

  2. I feel like I just need a master breakdown for cakes (in weight, not volume). Then I could just run with it.

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