Cook Like a Chef: Use Ratios, Not Recipes

Use Ratios, Not Recipes

Recipes are invaluable to cooks who are just starting out, but what if you want to get to the next level? Then it's time you learn how to apply simple math to food. In other words, learn how to cook using ratios, not recipes.

Fortunately, there's a great book by cookbook author and blogger Michael Ruhlman on just that topic, aptly called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. His goal? To give the home cook the knowledge to cook like the greats.

The very yellow cover of the book "Ratio" by Michael Ruhlman. Image via Put An Egg On It

Ruhlman was inspired by Uwe Hestnar, a celebrated chef and teacher at the Culinary Institute of America, who distilled the fundamentals of most Western dishes to a two-page cheat sheet of ratios. According to Ruhlman, it drove Hestnar crazy to see students stuck on cooking only from books, which he thought limited their ability to learn and create.

Check out those food stains. This cookbook did not sit on the shelf. Image via Goodnight Gram

The beauty of the ratio system is that once you learn it, you can cook freestyle (i.e. without an exact recipe), add endless variations, and learn to scale recipes automatically when you only have a certain amount of one ingredient on hand.

A handy ratio chart for doughs and batters, inspired by the "Ratio" book. Image via A Tuscan Foodie

More fun charts and illustrations of Ruhlman-inspired cooking ratios can be found on Don't Fear the Kitchen, Chow, and Tuscan Foodie. You can also purchase a chart for doughs and batters directly from Ruhlman, or save the image of Ruhlman's book cover below on your computer.

Click on the image above for higher resolution. Image via Simon & Schuster

According to Ruhlman, bread dough's ratio is 5-3 (5 parts flour, 3 parts water, plus a little yeast for leavening and salt for flavor). Meanwhile, the ratio for pie crust is 3-2-1: three parts flour, two parts fat (butter or shortening), and one part water (or ice-cold vodka, which I think produces a flakier crust).

Don't know if she used ratios or recipes, but good Lord, those mini-pies look tasty. Image via The Crafting Foodie

You can listen to Ruhlman talk about cooking with ratios on NPR's All Things Considered.

And while Ruhlman strongly advocates that all cooks worth their salt start using a scale (and get really sharp knives, which I wholly advocate), I have to say that one thing I love about cooking with ratios is that it frees you from measuring cups and spoons.

No measuring cups = fewer dishes to wash, huzzah! Image via Apples to Applique

For example, when I was in the process of moving, I wanted to make a loaf of bread, but I'd already packed up all my measuring implements. I still had an empty yogurt container, though, and using that plus the ratios from Ruhlman's book as my guide, I was able to whip up a 5:3 bread dough in no time flat. I had to bake it in an old metal bucket lined with tinfoil, but that's a story for another time.

If you've got an Android or iOS device, Ruhlman even has a few mobile apps for you where you can create your own custom ratios, here and here, respectively. The Android app is a little outdate, but still very helpful. So what's stopping you? Get cooking!

And if you're interesting in cocktail ratios, there's a great book by Brian Murphy called See Mix Drink: A Refreshingly Simple Guide to Crafting the World's Most Popular Cocktails, which is Ruhlman-approved.

The ratio layout of the Between the Sheets drink from "See Mix Drink". Image via Michael Ruhlman

To be honest, I'm perfectly fine with better-than-average champagne, vodka, and wine by themselves.

Cover image via At My Kitchen Table

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