Chefs aren’t immune from academic standards. To be a good cook, you have to know science, math, reading and more. Culinary math isn’t necessarily like algebra, but it will take knowledge about ratios, decimals, fractions and percentages. You’ll have to be familiar with the metric system and English units of measurement.
The skills most people learn in elementary school are important for chefs. If you’re making a recipe for 50 portions, but only want 25 or need to increase the portions to 100, you have to know how to convert that recipe. If you have an unusual number of guests, it might get even trickier. Most recipes are written for 25, 50 and 100 guests. What do you do when you have 135 guests?
Knowing how to scale recipes may take converting ounces to pounds or calculating gallons from cups. There may even be times when you need to convert liters to quarts or grams to ounces. Metric measurements may not be common in the United States, but the rest of the world uses them.
Baker’s math involves weight and ratios. Instead of using a specific recipe, a baker may be given a percentage. For example, a yeast-dough formula may say flour, 100%, water 35%, milk 35%, fresh yeast 4% and salt 2%. It sounds complicated, but it’s a common language for bakers. Every ingredient is weighed, which lets bakers be more precise. Bakers are quickly able to scale a recipe. Although baker’s math can seem intimidating, once you understand that the weight of the flour determines the amount of the rest of the ingredients, it’s pretty easy.
Bakers also need to understand ratios. Pie dough consists of 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter and 1 part water. Just weigh out 3 pounds of flour, use 2 pounds of butter and 1 pound of water. Who needs recipes when you have ratios? Of course, you can mix in additions, such as salt and cheddar cheese if you’re making an apple pie. But once you understand the basic formula, you can scale a recipe to make as much or little as you need.
How Do Chefs Use Math in Their Cooking?
Recipe measurements might be one of the most obvious ways that chefs use math, but that only touches the surface. Food that comes into the restaurant often has trimmings that may not be usable in regular recipes. For example, a beef tenderloin only has about 59% edible portions. At over $10 per pound, you can’t waste the 41% that won’t make it to the table as a steak. Good chefs repurpose usable trimmings to reduce food costs. Creative chefs find ways to use trim and leftovers to lower costs for waste removal.
Some chefs are responsible for creating meals that are healthy and must count calories and nutrition. It’s just basic division and multiplication, but it can be complicated when you have a full recipe of a sauce, but only use two or three tablespoons for a dish.
Chefs also have to be able to calculate how much food is required for a party of 50, 100, or more guests. How much tea and coffee will they drink? The figure might be different for a brunch than it would for an evening dinner.
How many servers are required to serve 50 or 100 guests? Hire too many and it eats into your profits. Hire too few and you upset the host. Calculating these items isn’t a guessing game. The industry has standards that can help you know exactly how many people you’ll need and at what cost you need to charge to keep your business successful.
Don’t Forget the Business Side
Chefs who cook for their friends and family aren’t as concerned about the business side of cooking, but if you want to make a career of cooking, you have to know business math. How can you determine what to price an entrée for to make money? How will you know if you’re making a profit and what your margins are without math to calculate the food and labor costs? You’ll need math to track inventory and create new orders.
Math skills will tell you if an investment is a good decision. You can calculate and understand different interest rates. You may not actually have to calculate payroll, but when you look at the numbers, you should be able to understand how payroll is done. Maintaining enough staff to prepare and serve food while keeping payroll costs at a minimum isn’t a guessing game. You can use math to calculate these things.
Think You Have What It Takes to Be a Chef?
A career as a chef or baker can be one of the most rewarding professions. You’ll need a solid education that teaches advanced cooking techniques and incorporates culinary math to be successful. If you’re looking to take your love of food to the next level, contact Oregon Culinary Institute today to learn more about our culinary programs.