Culinary Maths: Why it’s important and how Chefs use it.

Maths is essential for a chef and forms part of a chef’s training. Every aspirant chef needs to understand the role that maths plays in a chef’s career and hence the question:

Why is it important to learn maths in culinary studies?

Culinary maths is taught in culinary school, so chefs can apply basic maths like addition and multiplication to make simple to complex calculations when measuring ingredients, portion sizing, menu costing and budgeting in their daily work to ensure quality cooking and a profitable kitchen.

As you can’t cook without maths, a firm grounding in maths is critical if you want to pursue a career as a professional chef or run a kitchen or food establishment. Understanding the significance of maths in a culinary career helps students be more open and willing to master culinary maths to build a successful career.

Why culinary maths is important and how chefs use it.

Maths in the kitchen is critical to run a profitable kitchen both in terms of calculating the costs of the overheads needed in running a kitchen and using maths to ensure that good, quality food is produced.

There are three main reasons why chefs need maths to cook and run a kitchen:

1. For daily cooking, baking and food service operations.

Basic maths concepts are needed to apply to daily cooking operations to:

Measure and weigh ingredients for cooking and baking.

Accurate measuring and weighing ensure that liquids and solids are measured accurately to ensure consistency in the quality of a dish, as too much or too little of an ingredient can spoil the taste of a dish.

Accuracy in measuring ingredients also prevents wastage and keeps costs in line. Inaccuracy can lower the profitability of the kitchen if this regularly occurs.

Given, of course, that chefs use discretion and judgement, especially in cooking rather than baking, to approximate the right amount of ingredients when seasoning food, for example. When measurements are entirely out, wastage of ingredients occurs and expenditure increases.

Convert measurements in recipes.

Chefs need maths in cooking and baking, as they often must make calculations to convert units of measurement from one to another.

For example, if a recipe is in Fahrenheit and the oven gauge is in degrees Celsius, the chef needs to use maths to convert from Fahrenheit to degrees Celsius.

Calculate proportions when scaling recipes up or down.

This is important in cooking and baking.

In cooking, a chef often must scale a recipe up or down. Recipes are a guide of the number of portions that will be produced when you follow its measurements.

If the recipe is for two people, it may need to be scaled up to cater for four people by multiplying each ingredient by 2. If the recipe caters for ten people, it may need to be scaled down to 2 people by dividing by 5.

Of course, these are simple enough calculations, but accuracy is critical when larger yields are necessary.  

In baking, a recipe may yield two dozen and a patisserie chef would need to scale it up according to orders being placed, be it to 12 or 50 dozen or even only 10.

Ensure quality and consistency in the food produced.

Maths in recipes guide the proper preparation of meals to ensure that food is prepared with the same quality and consistency each time the same meal is prepared.

This is critical in the restaurant industry, where patrons return for a particular menu item because they enjoyed it on a previous occasion. Accurate measurements ensure that the same quality of the meal is produced and the customer stays satisfied.

Calculate the cooking, rest and thawing time of food.

As recipes for commercial cooking come in ratios, chefs need to use the ingredients for the numbers they are preparing food for and work out the cooking time according to the mass and volume being cooked.

Proteins need to rest after being cooked to allow for time to restore the juices lost during the cooking process, and a chef needs to know how to calculate the length of this rest period.

A chef also needs to be able to calculate the thawing time when scaling a recipe up or down. If the recipe gives the thawing time for a 2.5kg duck and the chef is using a 6kg duck, they need to be able to calculate the increased length of thawing time.

To make food supply predictions during food service.

Application of basic mathematical concepts is essential during service time, especially during peak service times; chefs need to monitor food supplies, make accurate calculations about available food supplies, and assess if the needs of patrons can be met.

For example, if grilled steak is a popular menu choice during a hectic service time, a chef needs to assess what supplies of steak are left. With 8 being grilled and 17 in the fridge, they need to use basic addition to know that grilled steak can only be served to 25 patrons.

2. To ensure the profitability of the kitchen.

The chef in charge of running the kitchen, usually the executive chef, must ensure that the kitchen is making a profit, and maths is critical in this role.

Maths is needed to keep track of overhead costs like labour, water and electricity, food costs, wastage and expenditure and balance these with prices charged to ensure the kitchen is sustainable and makes a profit.

Below are some examples of where maths is critical for ensuring the profitability of a kitchen. Maths is required for:

Costing menus.

To make a profit, correct pricing must be done for meals served. A chef needs to know how to do so and use maths to calculate the final cost charged to a patron for menu items.

To do this, a chef must know how to calculate the cost per serving of menu items and then add other fees like labour to arrive at a final price for a meal. Inaccurate pricing can cause a food establishment to run at a loss.

Making decisions in the interests of profitability.

Running a kitchen profitably means making many decisions to ensure profitability, and maths guide this decision-making.

For example, working out whether it’s more cost-effective to use frozen rather than fresh vegetables when catering for 200 people or whether it’s best to buy a whole fish from a fishmonger and have it cut and pay more when labour costs are included compared to buying it and letting your staff prepare the fish.

Ordering the correct amounts of food needed.

Ordering correctly prevents wastage, and making accurate calculations ensures that you do that.

For example, if you had to order 100 kg of mushrooms packed in 250g punnets in boxes containing eight punnets each. You would need to know that by multiplying 250g by 8, each box contains 2kg of mushrooms, and you will have to order 50 boxes of mushrooms.

A chef also needs to know how to accurately calculate the edible and waste portion of food items to order the suitable amount of food required.

For example, if a head of broccoli weighs 500g and the bits of the stalk that can’t be used are 100g, the total % waste must be calculated, and the chef needs to know how to do this. If the yield percentage of the head of broccoli is 80%, then the wastage is 20%. 

Calculating the yield % of food ingredients in a recipe informs decisions on the correct amounts to be purchased. Incorrect calculations can lead to having too much or little of a menu item.

3. To give you the edge in a culinary career.

Mastering culinary maths and being aware of how it can help your career can give you an edge in your culinary career. Here are some examples of this:

It prevents errors and ensures better cooking results.

Knowing mathematical and scientific principles helps you know which kitchen tools are best for achieving a task when making recipe conversions.

For example, knowing that one of the scientific properties of flour is that it is packed with air helps you understand that the best practice is to weigh out the amount of flour you need using a scale rather than a cup, as that will be more accurate. Operating here is the packing principle.

Not knowing that it’s best to weigh flour can lead to creating a flop in the event of a recipe requiring 1kg flour and you make a kg to cup conversion when for some reason or other, you don’t have a scale, without taking the packing principle of flour into account.

Creating new recipes.

Using maths, you can calculate the number of nutrients in menu items and create healthier meals that fulfil the recommended daily allowance for healthy eating.

You can, for example, create a meal with the correct proportion of protein food items like eggs and chicken to formulate a new food item that is healthy and meets the recommended daily allowance of protein.

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