Quick quiz: Can you “amen” all three statements?
- I rarely follow a recipe exactly as written
- I’m a pretty good cook
- I always have flour, eggs, butter/oil, and entire drawers full of spices (many of which I’ve forgotten I own) and would like some easy baking tips?
Or, ever wonder how bread, pie, pasta, and biscuits can be so different from one another yet are all made out of basically the same four ingredients: flour, liquid, fat, and maybe salt? Or wish you had the universe of salad dressings instantly at your fingertips?
Kitchen nerds, foodies, and anyone who loves a good thinking model, meet, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.
Michael Ruhlman has pulled together a kitchen magic tome: it’s equal parts fundamental ingredient ratios in cooking and baking, an anti-recipe cookbook, and for anyone searching for beginner cooking tips, this little nugget is a great place to start.
It is, essentially, a periodic table of elemental baking and cooking basics turned into a book with wildly helpful insights, all by an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America who is also a talented and engaging writer.
It’s based on the deliciously simple idea that once you know the essential ratios and a few fundamental techniques (happily supplied in his book) of any general category of food, the entire universe of flavours is yours with which to futz.
Wish I’d read it years ago… it would have saved us a ton on cookbooks. (Well, probably not… Rick is a yuuuge fan of beautiful coffee table cookbooks.) But it sure would have made my life in the kitchen easier and way more fun,
The staff of life, for instance, is essentially a 5:3 deal: five parts flour to three parts water, most preferably determined by weight, since flour density can vary widely based on local humidity.
Up until now, I hadn’t thought of our kitchen scale as one of our top ranking contenders in the home baking equipment and tools, but there is, apparently, a lot I don’t know.
Given that measuring by weight make the ratios so much easier, Ruhlman says that of all the kitchen gizmos that should have a permanent place on your kitchen counter, a good electronic kitchen scale with a tare function (meaning it can zero out the weight of your container and just weigh the ingredients) should make the short list.
The OXO Good Grips 11 lb Food Scale with Pull Out Display (above) is the current Cook’s Illustrated best rated digital scale. We have the My Weigh KD-8000, which has served us well for the past eight years, but whatever…. As long as it’s reliable, can tare, weigh in grams as well as ounces, and looks dashing on your kitchen counter, run with it.
This ability to weigh the ingredients is what allows you to cook for two or adjust for twenty (but it won’t help with the dishes). It’s the ratio, plus some standard techniques that Ruhlman explains simply in the book, that distinguishes your pizza from your pasta and allows you to easily adjust the proportions to suit your volume: 1000 grams of flour to 6000 grams of water will get you roughly the same quality results as 500 grams of flour to 300 grams of water, or 5 ounces of flour and 3 ounces of water.
In the field of home cooking tips, it doesn’t get much easier than that.
5 : 3 = bread.
You also have to add some yeast and salt, but here the amounts are determined by the technique.
No-knead overnight bread needs a long, slow rise, so use less yeast–1/4 tsp–and more salt (to inhibit rising), up to 1.5 tsp.
Regular kneaded dough has a much faster rising period, so more yeast–up to 2.5 tsp– and less salt–1/2 tsp–gets the job done.
What isn’t flexible is the ratio of flour to water for bread: 5 : 3. That’s it. And when you think about a food that has been around for thousands of years across almost every culture on the planet, it’s not surprising that it should be that simple. The infinite number of nuances on the subject, however, are what makes cooking and eating such a soul-satisfying experience. Food texture and flavour both connect us to the past and tease us into innovating the future. It’s the difference between my Granny and yours.
Hankering for a piece of homemade pie?
How to Make 3:2:1 Pie Pastry
The baking ratio for pie is three parts flour, two parts fat, one part ice water, added gently to each other in that order until the fat gets worked into pea-sized lumps into the flour, and then the water has homogeneously dampened the mixture to the point where it holds together. Start with 12 ounces of flour: sort of the right amount for a double pie crust.
Shape the dough into two flattish disks, wrap in plastic, and chill for a half an hour.
Roll each disc out on a floured surface. Fold the first circle at the center, place it in the middle of your pie pan with the edges hanging over the side, unfold the circle, and pat gently into place. Fill with something delicious, and top with second circle. Cut extra pastry from edges, pinch bottom and top together, cut some slashes in the top to let the steam out, and pop into a hot oven (375 degrees, usually) until golden brown and astounding.
Pining for pasta? 3 (flour) : 2 (eggs), Mix well, knead for about 10 minutes, wrap in plastic and let rest on the counter for half an hour. Roll out on floured surface until super thin but still even thickness across the sheet, cut in whatever width noodles appeals to you, drop into salted boiling water and cook for about two minutes.
This ratio even comes with a handy serving guide: one egg per adult at your table.
These are cold leftovers from dinner Friday night. It was so amazing that we went all “power of now” and became one with the chicken parm and fresh noodles dressed with olive oil, red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt, and some fresh parsley.
Even though I had made the noodles based on the ratio and technique outlined in Ruhlman’s book and knew I would be writing this post, it didn’t occur to me until yesterday when Rick pulled the leftovers out of the fridge for lunch that I hadn’t taken a photo.
So, this is basically a photo of cold leftovers. Imagine then, how incredible it was steaming hot and fresh?!
The bottom line is that cooking with ratios frees us to innovate successfully with fresh, local, and Muse-friendly ingredients until we’re eating like the French, with each meal savored for the singular experience it is.
Unless there are leftovers, in which case you get to enjoy it twice.