What Is a Baker’s Dozen? What Is the Origin of the Phrase?

What Is a Baker's Dozen?

You may have heard the phrase before, but just what is a baker’s dozen, and where does the term come from? In this post, will work to provide a baker’s dozen definition, and explain a little bit about why a baker’s dozen is 13.

What Is a Baker’s Dozen?

A baker’s dozen is a term that can be used to refer to thirteen of anything, not just baked goods. This means that a baker’s dozen is one of those things that almost always work out in the customer’s favor.

And while anyone might certainly feel excited about getting slipped an extra donut or bun, that still doesn’t answer the question of how exactly this bizarre term and practice came about.

So, the question remains, how exactly did a Baker’s dozen become synonymous with thirteen items?

First Use of the Phrase

Since way back in the 1500s, the term baker’s dozen has been used to refer to the tradition of bakers adding an extra roll or loaf to a customer’s order of twelve items. However, bakers weren’t the only ones known to throw in a baker’s dozen from time to time; all sorts of tradespeople were also known to toss in an extra item, or even sometimes two, to any order of a dozen.

Why Is a Baker’s Dozen 13?

Baker’s dozen may be a household word, but it is not exactly known why the idea of bakers turning a dozen into thirteen came about in the first place. The most popular theory is that the practice of tossing in an extra loaf or two into an order started as a way to avoid being penalized for selling short weight.

In medieval England, it was once common practice for bread makers and bakers to shortchange orders by using skimpy or “light” loaves. Keep in mind that bread was an absolute staple of the medieval diet, and therefore, bakers had a great opportunity to exploit the public due to the dire necessity of their wares. However, public outcry about bakers selling light loaves was so common that the even the king would hear about it. Apparently, King Henry III was so annoyed by this treacherous behavior that he decided to implement new laws to standardize the waves of items sold, including bread.

Bread Laws

Regulations outlawing short selling actually date back to the reign of King Henry II in the 12th century, where bakers were regulated by a trade guild called the Worshipful Company of Bakers. The original law regulating the sale of bread was called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Later, Henry III would come along and bring back an ancient statute that equated bread prices with the price of wheat. Penalties for selling light loaves could be as severe as physical torture, public shaming, or jail time. Therefore, bakers developed a practice of tossing in an extra loaf just to make sure that they stayed on the right side of the law.

This was a good strategy, since many bakers in the 13th century didn’t even own scales. Not to mention that bread is highly unpredictable in nature. Many conditions are relatively uncontrollable to the baker, such as the amount of air that develops beneath the crust. And the more air, the lighter the loaf.  In addition, because yeast is a relatively unstable ingredient, two loaves made using exactly the same ingredients might end up with different weights. Since weights were standardized, tossing in an extra loaf was a form of overcompensation that ensured that even if the loaves were light, they would still be within legal limits.

While there appears to be substantial documentation to backup this theory as to the original origin of the baker’s dozen, one of the unanswered questions is that if bread was weighed according to the price of wheat, why did the practice of throwing in an extra loaf only apply to a dozen?

Baker’s Dozen Origin – Alternate Theories

While the above theory is the certainly the most substantiated, there are at least two alternate theories as to the origins of the baker’s dozen.

The first theory pertains to profit margin and predicts that bakers would sell thirteen loaves to public vendors and only charge them for twelve. The vendors would then sell each separate loaf at full price, which add an extra 7.7% profit per loaf. In other words, the baker’s dozen could be thought of as a sort of early wholesale selling scheme. This would still allow baker’s to meet the necessary minimum weight restrictions of the Assize of Bread and Ale, which didn’t allow for bakers to sell to vendors at lower prices, while giving larger vendors an incentive to buy their product. This theory is not substantiated by any concrete evidence.

The second theory is that the thirteen loaves simply fit more easily into the standard baking tray, that tend to have a 3:2 aspect ratio. This means that by baking thirteen loaves at a time, bakers could best avoid the corners of the tray that heat up faster than the edges and cause the bread to turn out uneven. Nonetheless, this theory falls short of explaining why bakers would sell twelve loaves for the price of thirteen. However, it might be useful when thought of as a contributing factor to the origins of the term.

Regardless of how the popular practice actually came about, the law regulating the weight of a baker’s dozen no longer exists, but the tradition persists, much to everybody’s delight.

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