What Is a Ratio
and Why Is It Important?
Aculinary ratio is a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients relative to another. These proportions form the backbone of the craft of cooking. When you know a culinary ratio, it's not like knowing a single recipe, it's instantly knowing a thousand. Here is the ratio for bread: 5 parts flour : 3 parts water.
This means that if you combine 5 ounces of flour and 3 ounces of water, or 20 ounces of flour and 12 ounces of water, or 500 grams of flour and 300 grams of water, you will, if you mix it properly, have a good bread dough. You need a small amount of yeast, but the exact amount is hugely variable as it turns out, so that's not a meaningful part of the ratio. You need salt for flavor, but that is a matter of taste to a large degree. And you need to mix the dough until it has enough elasticity to contain the gas released by the yeast. So while there are rules to follow and issues of technique, these are not part of the ratio.
What can you do, now that you know the bread ratio? You can make fresh bread without opening a single book or scouring a website for random recipes, and you can make as much or as little as you like. That 500 grams of flour or 20 ounces of flour with the water, a big pinch of dry yeast, and 2 big pinches of salt make a good loaf of bread. But if you want to liven it up, add a tablespoon of freshly chopped rosemary and a head of roasted garlic and stretch it out for a roasted garlic and rosemary ciabatta. Other fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and oregano work beautifully, too. Or use other intense, flavorful ingredients: poblano and chipotle peppers, kalamata olives and walnuts, chocolate and cherries, pistachios and cranberries. Caramelized onion! A sausage! Cheese! The variations are limitless because you know the ratio, 5 parts flour, 3 parts water. Eventually you'll feel comfortable using some whole grain flour in there or potato.
Of course, many, many variables contribute to the end result — how long the final rise is, how hot the oven, how well you shaped the dough, and so on — and addressing those variables can make baking feel dauntingly complicated. Indeed, baking that perfect loaf of bread every time takes practice and thoughtfulness; whole books are devoted to it. But on the most basic level, baking bread is not complicated.
Feel like making fresh pizza? Ten ounces of flour, 6 ounces of water, a pinch of yeast, and a pinch of salt will give you dough for a medium pie. Many recipes for pizza dough include a sugar of some kind — if that's to your taste, add a tablespoon of sugar or honey (you'll find this increases yeast activity). Many add a flavoring of olive oil. Go for it. Stick to the 5 : 3 ratio and you're golden.
Want an easy delicious white sandwich bread for the kids? Same ratio (and maybe add some wheat germ for additional fiber and some honey for flavor and sweetness). But still it's 5 to 3. Just cook it more gently, 350°F for an hour or so, until it's very hot inside.
This book is composed of such ratios.
Cooking is infinitely nuanced and there are ultimately too many variables to account for in any single recipe (the ambient humidity, how long a bag of flour has been sitting in the cupboard), so it's important to remember, as my first culinary instructor notes, "how well ratios work is directly proportionate to the ratio of common sense applied to them." Good technique must be used in conjunction with the ratio — which is why this is a book and not a sheet of paper. You need the ratio and the user's manual. Technique must be practiced — you can never stop getting better.
This is important: my aim isn't to make the perfect bread or pasta or mayonnaise or biscuits — "the best I've ever had." It's to set a baseline to work from, to codify the fundamentals from which we work and which we work off of. When I was writing Walk on Water, about a renowned surgeon, more than one doctor noted the common saying, "great is the enemy of good," meaning that when surgeons strive for greatness, they can cause harm when they might otherwise not have harmed had they simply strived for good. I've worked with the greatest perfectionist there is in the cooking world, and I love that hunt for the perfect sauce, the perfect custard, but here I'm after good. Only when we know good can we begin to inch up from good to excellent.
Here is another thing knowing a ratio does: it helps you to better understand cooking in general. How does bread differ from fresh pasta? Not all that much actually, except that for pasta, egg takes the place of water at a ratio of 3 parts flour and 2 parts egg. What's the difference between bread dough and pie dough? The proportions of flour and water are a little different (3 : 1), but it's the important third ingredient, fat, that makes it pie dough — fat is responsible for making pie dough unlike bread dough, tender rather than chewy. The pie dough ratio is fairly standard: 3 : 2 : 1 (3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, and 1 part water) and it's often referred to as 3-2-1 Pie Dough. It's a great ratio because it's so versatile. It's also possible to make a really bad pie dough using this ratio if you don't know the properties of pie dough and the fact that the gentler you are with it, the more tender it will be. But the ratio itself is bedrock.
The fact is, there are hundreds of thousands of recipes out there, but few of them help you to be a better cook in any substantial way. In fact, they may hurt you as a cook by keeping you chained to recipes. Getting your hands on a ratio is like being given a key to unlock those chains. Ratios free you.
Ratios are about the basics of cooking. They teach us how the fundamental ingredients of the kitchen — flour, water, butter and oils, milk and cream, eggs — work and how variations in proportions create the variations in our dishes, bread rather than pasta, crepes rather than cakes.
Doughs and batters are where ratios really shine because the proportions of the basic ingredients, the ratios, define the end result. When you get right down to it, the main difference between a sweet crepe batter and a sponge cake is that crepe batter has half as much flour.
Other kinds of ratios for fundamental preparations expand your reach in much the same way. Among the most common ratios is that for a standard vinaigrette. Couldn't be simpler: 3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar. That's it. Works great. Stir together and dress some greens. Once you have that, then it only follows that you may want to enhance the flavor a little, add some salt and pepper and, for balance, some sugar. Perhaps some aromatics, fresh herbs, a roasted shallot, brown rather than white sugar, and honey. Perhaps you want it thick and creamy, so you might emulsify it. You might want to change your fat (bacon rather than canola oil, olive rather than bacon) or the acid (sherry vinegar rather than red wine vinegar, lemon juice rather than sherry).
If you know the ratio for a mayonnaise, you don't know just mayonnaise — which is an amazing preparation when you make it yourself (see page 175 for a simple hand-blender version) — you know a creamy lime-cumin dressing for a grilled pork sandwich and you know a lemonshallot dipping sauce for a steamed artichoke. The elegant hollandaise, a thick butter sauce, becomes a stately béarnaise sauce when you pack it with fresh tarragon. Know the hollandaise ratio and technique rather than a specific recipe for hollandaise sauce, and you can infuse it with chillis, or reduced red wine and rosemary for roasted leg of lamb. There's no end to what you can do in the kitchen when you know a ratio.
Custards, of course, are ratio based and couldn't be simpler: 2 parts liquid (usually but not necessarily milk or cream) and 1 part egg. Large eggs are very close to 2 ounces each, so that works out to 8 ounces of liquid to 2 eggs. More expected for dinner? Make that 16 ounces and 4 eggs. This results in a great crème caramel, but you can go savory if you want — bone marrow and coriander, a savory mint custard for that lamb instead of the butter sauce. How do you know how much mint to add? Using ratios enables you to begin thinking as chefs do; they use their common sense and they taste as they go.
Ratios are even helpful to consider in those preparations that are typically measured by sight, such as making a stock, or thickening a stock for a soup or a sauce. Is there a foundation ratio for stock? Not really, but it's useful for gaining a sense of proper proportions, especially if you're just beginning to cook.
Because dough and batter ratios are so instructive, I'm leading off with those. That section is followed by soups and sauces, where ratios are valuable in different ways. With fat-based sauces, ratios determine the amount of fat used relative to other ingredients. For stocks, and stock-based sauces and soups, ratios are more a guide than a definitive proportion, and they also help us to achieve specific consistencies. Soups and sauces are followed by ratios for sausages and pâtés, meat-based ratios, which are in a different realm from those undergirding doughs and batters in that they primarily concern proportions of salt and fat. And I end with custards — among my most favorite things to eat — which can be savory or sweet, solid enough to stand unmolded on their own, others that are voluptuous and creamy, and finally basic dessert sauces, most notable, the remarkable custard sauce.
With the advent of the Internet, we have access to an ocean of recipes but relatively less information on food and cooking. Understanding ratios and technique is, for the home cook, a step toward becoming more independent in the kitchen. But ratios are just as important to chefs and other food professionals because they provide a launching point for the development of new dishes.
Technique will ultimately determine the quality of the end result. Ratios are the points from which infinite variations begin.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Ruhlman