Yummy, yummy in my tummy… the old saying goes. Amy Hassler has been a pastry chef for more than 10 years, and just interviewing her made my mouth water. What a fun job she has!  I guess she’s a great example of someone who needs to know math to do her job and a great example of when math can be fun and have big rewards… like a tasty apple pie at the end!

Can you explain what you do for a living?

During my career, I’ve worked for restaurants, retail bakeries, country clubs and even grocery stores. I make breads and pastries, usually from scratch, decorating cakes and cookies, as well as making candy.

When do you use basic math in your job?

The math I use ranges from the very basic: using measurements like volume, weight, time and temperature, to more common: figuring out food costs in order to determine appropriate price points, scaling recipes, converting measurements when making substitutions, and determining how much of each item needs to be produced in order to meet demand.

Most professional pastry recipes are written by measuring ingredients by weight instead of by volume in order to make scaling more foolproof. For example, if you ask ten different people to measure 1-3/4 cup of flour, you will likely get ten different actual amounts of flour, due to the amount of air left in the measuring cups they used. Depending on whether someone packs the flour or scoops or pours into the cup, each of these results in slightly different amounts of flour. When you work in the small scale, like a home baker does, these differences might not be significant enough to notice. But when instead of making 2 dozen cookies, you’re making 40 dozen, suddenly that discrepancy can make a big difference in the consistency of the finished product. So instead of measuring by volume, we measure by weight. 12 ounces of flour is much easier to multiply by 20 on the fly than 1 3/4 cups!

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Calculators may be found in some kitchens, but it’s not common, due to the difficulty of keeping them free of contamination while working with food, and it’s difficult to wash a calculator or sanitize it thoroughly once it’s become dirty. We use tools like thermometers and scales for our measurements, though, and it’s very important to keep those tools properly calibrated. Often times, as ovens and other cooking equipment get older, their temperature calibrations may be off, and you need to make adjustments to time or temperature settings to offset the difference. Similarly, a mis-calibrated thermometer can ruin recipes using yeast, chocolate or boiled sugar as all of these behave differently at different temperatures. If a thermometer is off by even just a single degree, it can result in chocolate candies that won’t harden properly.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Math equals accuracy! In the food business, food costs can be the difference between a thriving business and bankruptcy. Always knowing how much it costs to produce a finished product based on the cost of the ingredients you use is necessary to make sure that the business is charging the correct price for that product. And proper measurements, including properly scaled recipes when increasing/decreasing batches, means less waste. I’ve seen enormous amounts of food go to waste because someone couldn’t bother to figure out how many trays of cookies they’ll need to fill an order properly!

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I’m very comfortable with “everyday” math. When it’s used in practical applications, it’s easy for me to grasp. Theoretical math is a whole different story!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I took an Algebra and a Geometry course in high school, and I barely passed. I was horrible at it and found it very difficult to see the usefulness of it at the time. It wasn’t until I was in college that I gained an appreciation for it.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

Luckily for me, my culinary degree included a math course designed specifically for food service. It focused on the types of tasks we see most often: scaling recipes (taking a recipe written for 2 dozen cookies and changing it to make 10 dozen, or one for 4 pies into one for just one pie), substitutions and conversions of recipe ingredients or measurements, calculating food costs, calculating supplies based on final production target, etc.
I’m pretty sure I’d have figured all of these things out on my own eventually but having the class helped and made it easier.

Anything else you want to mention?

I heard the jokes about pastry chefs a lot in culinary school, and I’ve found it to be true in the real world as well: there is an enormous personality difference between pastry chefs and the standard “culinary” chef. A chef making a soup or pasta dish, for example, can change his mind halfway through the cooking process and add ingredients, or change cooking methods (assuming the chef is skilled enough). Pastry does not work that way. Pastry chefs tend to be quite a bit more scientific and calculating because our products must be perfect before the baking process begins, or it will be ruined. A chef is able to taste his soup and add salt, but if my pie crust needs salt, I have to start over! This difference in styles means different personality types are definitely drawn to one specialty over the other.

If you have questions for Amy, post them in the comments section. In the meantime, go bake a cake… with correct measurements, of course.

Photo Credit: Canadacow via Compfight cc

Today, we interview Shayna Hartman, the cook supervisor and team lead at a retirement community dining facility.  As we learn more about the details of her job, you will see how Shayna uses math each and every day to serve meals and oversee her team.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

For the past fourteen years, I have been a cook in a retirement community.While much of my job involves measuring, another part of my job is to handle the schedule for more than 20 people. This includes conducting interviews, ordering, keeping inventory and taking care of disciplinary problems when needed.

When do you use basic math in your job?

In my job I have to use math skills to be able to convert recipes from a small amount to an amount that will feed a hundred people. Also, I have to make sure no one goes over their 40-hour work schedule.  Another facet of my job is budgeting.  For example, when a new department opened, I was in charge of the $150,000 budget.  This involved me looking at many different details.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

I use technology in my job when using math. It would take a lot longer without a calculator to add up labor, inventory costs, and many other things that come with running the department. If I didn’t use a calculator, my workload would be immensely increased.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Math helps me do my job better because I can stay under budget and adjust hours so my employees get equal amounts of working time.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I am very comfortable doing any type of math. I enjoy using math in my job and personal life. Math comes easy to me. I use it in any situation that I can. Math is what I enjoy, and I like to learn.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

In high school, I took Geometry, Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus. I feel like I am very good in math, but when I get to a huge problem, I quit. In Pre-Calculus I was doing great.  I quit trying when I had a two-page problem, and I didn’t need the class to graduate.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I went to college to learn the skills that I need to do my job. So, I learned my skills in both high school and college.

Can you imagine increasing a recipe so that it feeds 100? Shayna is more than willing to give you some pointers.  For more information from Shayna, ask in the comments section.

Photo Credit: SkyFireXII via Compfight cc

I do enjoy a good whiskey. So when I had the chance to interview a real, live distiller, I jumped at it. Bonus: Lance Winters is funny as hell. Seriously. He’s also not shy about explaining how he uses math in his work — including his background in nuclear engineering, which has nothing to do with his current work. He is a master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, where he helps create artisanal spirits, including gin, absinthe, bourbon, single malt whiskey (my favorite), rum and liqueurs.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I spend a lot of time wandering around looking busy in the hope that nobody asks me to do any actual work. When that gets too tiring, I play video games. When I do work, I crush and ferment fruit, mash in and ferment grain, then distill them. I prepare our distillates for bottling, then bottle them.

When do you use basic math in your job?  

I use math all the time! I’m not even kidding. It starts with figuring out the potential alcohol by volume in whatever medium we’re fermenting, then converting that to the total number of proof gallons we can produce from the amount of fruit or grain that we’ve had delivered. I then convert that to the number of cases of bottled product we can produce. That’s all pretty basic multiplication and division. We also use math when scaling up lab samples and bench trials of different whiskey blends.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  

I like to use calculators to check my math and be totally sure about things, but like to do as much as possible in my head, on the fly. My memory’s bad enough that I need to keep the processor sharp.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I’m able to plan my work better and make more informed business decisions because of math.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  Does this math feel different to you?  

I’m very comfortable with math, all the time. I used to think that so much of math (especially calculus) was just something that mathematicians used to show off for one another. Now, I see the poetry as well as usefulness of integrals and derivatives. (By the way, I found Matt Damon very implausible as a math whiz in Good Will Hunting.)

What kind of math did you take in high school?  

I took pre-calculus in high school, and in spite of having learned at the feet of Harold Gene Smith, greatest math teacher ever, I felt like a total hack at math.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? 

After high school, I spent two years going to navy schools to learn nuclear engineering. That totally messed my head up and made me the way I am today.

Any questions for Lance? Ask them in the comment section. I’ll let him know that they’re there, and perhaps between his daily wandering and video games, he’ll stop by to reply.

I’m on vacation! (Can you tell?) So this week’s schedule is way off. But when I saw that Lee Doyle, owner of BTO Self Serve Yogurt in Colorado had sent along her Math at Work Monday responses, I decided to spend just a few moments during a delicious hotel breakfast of Cheerios and milk to post the interview. Then I’m back in the car, headed to Cincinnati to my cousin’s wedding.

There’s nothing better than a cool treat on a hot summer’s day, and since I was a little girl, the options have expanded exponentially. From popcicles to snowballs (a Maryland-only experience) to frozen yogurt — ice cream isn’t the only sweet, cold treat available. At the Doyle’s Highland Ranch location of BTO Self Serve Yogurt, you can create your own delicious treat. But first, the math:

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I am responsible for creating and making all the yogurt at the shop, buying ingredients for recipes and estimating useage of product and toppings weekly.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use math all day, everyday. Since I create and follow recipes, I use addition, subtraction, liquid and dry measurements, fractions, estimation, equivalency charts multiplication, division, just about every kind of basic math you can think of. For example, if I am creating a new recipe, I use one cup of our basic yogurt and add a teaspoon or tablespoon of various flavors to come up with a new flavor I like. Then I have to write a recipe using a gallon of basic yogurt, because all our recipes are based on one fluid gallon.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

When I shop for ingredients, I use a calculator constantly to determine price per ounce to be sure the ingredients are within our pricing guidelines.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I always liked math and feel very comfortable using it. In high school, I took algebra, trigonometry and solids but did not take calculus.

Do you have questions for Lee and Jack? Ask them in the comments section. And of course stay cool with a sweet treat, like frozen yogurt.

Math is a chief ingredient in the kitchen, and those who make a living creating the sweets many of us crave during the holidays depend on calculations every day.

Nicole Varrenti is the chief candy maker and owner of Nicole’s Treats. Like many artisans of all kinds, she makes small batches by hand and ships to buyers all over the world through her Etsy shop.  Here’s how she uses math in her job.

Can you explain your job?

I hand make Belgian chocolate candy and other edible treats like granola, spoon fudge, and caramel sauce. I opened my Etsy shop in August 2008, but I have been making candy for more than 20 years.

When do you use basic math in your job?  

I use math DAILY! I need to measure ingredients for my treat recipes and weigh my products to ensure my customers receive the amount of product they ordered. I measure and weigh boxes to prepare them for shipment. Also, I triple check all my orders to make sure all amounts, charges and weights are correct. From start to finish, on one order, I use math at least five times.

Do you use any technology to help with this math? 

Of course I use old-fashioned measuring cups to measure ingredients, and a scale to weigh ingredients and packages. I use a calculator to calculate the price of my products and a computer is very useful to store spreadsheets so I can keep track of all my sales, purchases, expenses, shipping costs, etc.

Math helps to keep my business organized so I can see how I am doing on a daily basis. Without math I would be lost and would not know how my business is performing.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  

Math has never been my strong suit; in fact I had a math tutor for many years while I was in middle and high school, when I took algebra, calculus and geometry. However, since I use math on a daily basis I am comfortable with math and in my skills now.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? 

All of the math I learned in school has played a role in my job at some point or another. Sometimes I have had to re-learn certain math skills or just refresh my memory by practicing a bit. The only new skill I would say I had to learn was some basic accounting since I never took an accounting class.

Nicole’s blog has gorgeous, mouthwatering photos of sweets, plus free recipes.  Visit! But first, if you have questions for her, ask them in the comments section.

We’re rounding out our month of nesting today and Wednesday. What’s cozier than a cup of hot coffee?  If you’ve ever wondered where your morning cup of Joe comes from, meet John Curry, owner of Buona Caffe, an artisan coffee roaster.  

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I roast and sell specialty coffee.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use math to figure out how much coffee I need to roast for our orders. When coffee is roasted, it loses about 18% of its weight. I have to take that into account in my calculations. On my blends, I have to calculate proportions of coffees, whether it’s for a 12-ounce retail bag or a 5-pound bag for a restaurant. We also use math for brewing coffee – different brewing methods require different amounts of grounds and ratios to water.

We have to consider shipping weights when we order green coffee beans. And I use basic math for running the business – tracking sales and outstanding invoices, forecasting sales, that kind of thing.

I use math is just about every aspect of roasting and selling coffee. Math is a very important part of running your own business. Money is all numbers!

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

Yes. I use a calculator to do proportions for blends. Accuracy is very important.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without it, I couldn’t be sure of any of my measurements. Since we sell a food product, it’s very important that our product weighs what the label says it weighs and that our proportions are accurate. If we don’t do the right math every time, our coffee won’t taste as good as it should!


How comfortable with math do you feel?

I feel relatively comfortable with math all the time. I use it with hobbies as well, such  as woodworking. I also use math with spreadsheets.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

That was a long time ago! I know I took geometry. I didn’t take any higher level math. I did not like math, and I was not good at it. I was better at geometry than other kinds of math. I feel more comfortable with math now than I did then.

Did you have to learn new skills to do this math?

I didn’t have to learn new skills to do this math. I do a lot of percentages and ratios.

So what are your big questions about roasting coffee?  Ask John!

I like to cook and bake (especially pies and bread), but the idea of developing a recipe that others can use makes my hands sweat.  To be honest, I don’t really understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder (except that soda interacts with vinegar in a really cool way), and figuring out how long to keep something in the oven — and at what temperature — is a mystery to me.

So when my friend and fellow writer, Brette Sember let me know that she has a cookbook coming out, I jumped at the chance to feature her here.  It should be no surprise that math is a critical ingredient of all recipes.  The Parchment Paper Cookbook is no exception.  Her recipes offer easy ways to cook healthy meals without pots or pans. You can get a taste of her recipes at her blog: No Pot Cooking.

What do you do for a living?

I write books, blogs, and articles, and I also do indexing, ghostwriting, and copyediting.  One of my specialties is recipe development and food writing.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I have one cookbook out, The Parchment Paper Cookbook, and The Muffin Tin Cookbook is on the way. I’m finding there is a lot more math involved in writing cookbooks than I expected! When I was just cooking for my family I did a lot of dumping of ingredients, but now that I have to record my recipes, I have to do a lot of measuring. And I also have to do a lot of conversions of measurements.

Test recipes are much smaller than the ones I publish in my cookbooks.  So, after testing a recipe, I have to convert the ingredient amounts for publication. This gets a little complicated when you’re dealing with teaspoons and tablespoons.  For example, if make a test recipe with 3 tablespoons of an ingredient and I want to quadruple that to make a full batch, I would multiply by 4 to get 12 tablespoons. But I have to express that as ¾ cup.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

Yes definitely. I don’t trust myself to get it right, and it absolutely has got to be accurate.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I’m able to give readers the most convenient measurement possible for them.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I have to admit I don’t feel very comfortable with math. This is kind of funny because from 7th to 11thgrade I was in a special gifted math program where I went to the local university for math with kids from other school districts in my county. We learned a creative approach to math. Regardless, I never felt comfortable with math. So, no, I guess I would say I don’t enjoy the math aspect, but it’s essential to what I’m doing so I am careful to do it right.

Did you like the math you took in high school?

I got great grades until I took a traditional calculus class with college students in 11th grade. I got a D! I dropped out of the program then. I didn’t have to take math in college, because I had earned so many credits through that program.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do this math?

It is pretty basic, but I had to refresh my memory for some of the conversions.

Thanks, Brette, for appearing in today’s Math at Work Monday.  Readers, if you have questions for Brette, feel free to post them below.  I’ll be sure to let her know and ask her to come by for a quick response.  And if you’re looking for a great holiday gift for someone who is too busy to cook and clean up, check out The Parchment Paper Cookbook.  Or pick up a copy for yourself!

Boheme Cafe in downtown Baltimore

My friend Martha Lucius owns and manages Boheme Cafe in downtown Baltimore.  She’s also catering my book launch this Wednesday at breathe books, and so I thought it was a great time to introduce you to her — and to the math that she does.  

What is involved in owning and running a cafe?  My job is diverse; I wear many hats.  I make sure that customers can be served the food on the menu (a matrix of salads and items for the pastry case), which also means ensuring that staff follow the recipes (read: math) every time. I also make sure our catering clients get trays of food and that they receive their bill.  And my job includes marketing, artwork, and simple mechanics!

When do you use basic math in your job?  I make conversions every day: pounds to ounces or vice versa.  My entire business profile is on QuickBooks, so often I can ask the program to do the math for me, but simple percentages, and regularly noting where daily numbers are, helps me know how healthy the business is. (Healthy and profitable are actually related subjects.)

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  We do use calculators and computers; they confirm the math that we do in our heads.  Sometimes we talk about foodcost, which refers to how much we are paying for any one product.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?  I must do math on my job or I would be out of business.  Without math I would not necessarily know if there is money in the bank to do anything.

How comfortable with math do you feel?   I am comfortable with the math I use at work, and at home.  My daughter takes algebra, which I like, but I wish she wouldn’t rush me… it takes me a while to understand the topic they are discussing.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  I took  high school algebra, geometry and trigonometry, and I was comfortable with it.  As time has passed, I have come to love getting the correct answers!

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do this math? No, most of the math I do is just a reintroduction to math I already knew. I just have to reach back there and see what I did know–get back to  the page in the proverbial text book.

Do you have questions for Martha?  If so, please post them in the comments section.  And if you’re in the Baltimore region on Wednesday, make a point to drop by breathe books at 6:30 pm.  Buy a book, and I’ll sign it!  

Graham Laing is my brother, and I don’t think he’d be offended by my telling you that some of us in the family were a little worried that he might not amount to anything.  But that’s another story for another day.  Today, he’s a fish hatchery technician, which basically means he raises trout — “from eggs to eating size,” he says.  That means he moves truckloads of live fish from pond to pond (and raceway and stream) according to their size, and he treats them for parasites and other oogie things.  He also does a lot of weed whacking and mushroom hunting.  

You might not think that a guy who works outside all day long would use math, but Graham does.  And I think his approach is pretty unique.  As you read through this, see if you can figure out what he’s not doing.  I’ll share my thoughts at the end.

Graham wrestles a snapping turtle. Yes, this is part of his job (but I don’t think the turtle does math).

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use basic math every day. When we load the trucks in the morning, we’re told to load a certain amount of pounds of fish per tank on the truck. Since we can’t load all of the fish at one time, we’re handed a net of fish that usually weighs between 40 and 50 pounds. We have to keep track, in our heads, of how many pounds we have in each tank until it is loaded.

I also use basic math when we treat fish for parasites, using either salt or formalin. Salt baths depend on volume, so I find the volume of the tank in cubic feet and then multiply that by the number of gallons in a cubic foot–to get the total number of gallons to be treated. Then I have to multiply that by the number of pounds in a gallon of water to find the total number of pounds of water to be treated. Since we usually do a 5% salt bath, we find the number of pounds in 5% of the volume and weigh the salt.  Finally, we can mix the salt in the water.

When treating with formalin, we have to calculate a gallons-per-minute flow rate. We find this by counting the number of seconds it takes to fill a gallon and then divide that number into 60.  (There are 60 seconds in a minute.)  So if it takes 10 seconds to fill a gallon, the flow rate is 6 gallons per minute.  Since the treatment runs for an hour, I multiply by 60 and then multiply that number by 0.0036, which is the number of grams of formalin needed per gallon. Finally, I multiply by the parts-per-million needed for the treatment, which depends on the water temperature.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  

I use calculators for sampling and for calculating the treatments. If we’re doing a lot of samples at one time, we plug the numbers into an excel spreadsheet that has the formulas we need. Calculators reduce error. One blown sample due to error could cause us to underestimate the number of fish in a raceway. Or it could cause us to underfeed a raceway, resulting in a large size-variation of the fish.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Graham is also a master at finding little critters like this toad. Click on the picture to see it up close. (Photo courtesy of Mary Bruce Clemons)

My whole job revolves around math.  Without math, the fish would die or become infected with parisites. We would not know how many fish we have on the farm, and we wouldn’t know if we were reaching our stocking goal set forth by the state.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  Does this math feel different to you?

I feel very comfortable with math and have since I was a very small child. When I got this job, I had all the skills I needed — it just took a little remembering to become adept at using them.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  Did you like it or feel like you were good at it?

I took algebra, geometry, and trig.  I was forced to take trig, so I didn’t do so well in it. I slept through trig everyday and was still able to make 40s and 50s on the tests just by intuition.

Trust me.  If you met Graham you wouldn’t know he’s a math geek.  He doesn’t give a whit about calculus or abstract algebra or fractals.  He’s just really good at mental math.  

Here’s the interesting thing about Graham’s process: All of the math he describes above can be represented by formulas.  And when Graham uses a spreadsheet for the math, he has to use the formulas.  BUT when he uses math in the field, he unpacks each formula into a set of steps.  (First multiply, then divide, then multiply, etc.)  He doesn’t have to memorize a formula to do the work.  Instead, he thinks about the process, and he’s attached meaning to each step (“divide by 60 because there are 60 seconds in a minute”), so he doesn’t forget to do something.  This is the foundation of mental math — breaking up complicated problems into doable steps.

I’m betting many of you do the same thing.  Want to share that process in the comment section?  I sure hope you will!

And if you have questions for Graham — whether they’re about huge snapping turtles, tiny toads or wildlife management in general — post them, and I’ll be sure to get Graham to answer them.  (I am his big sister, so I can boss him around — a little bit.)