Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cooking Ratios

I hope you enjoyed my series of Cook Without a Recipe and that you have used some of the information in your own kitchen. In this Cooking Tip, I want to tell you about something else that might help you to be confident in your cooking/baking without pulling out a recipe. That is the concept of Cooking with Ratios.
Ratios help you know the proportion of different ingredients you need to achieve a particular result. For example, in culinary school, I was taught that a great pie crust had a 3-2-1 ratio: three parts flour, two parts fat and one part water. Not every pie crust recipe you see will have the same ratio but I suspect they will be close. Plus, if you have a need to make a pie crust, this ratio (along with good technique) will enable you to turn out a great crust without resorting to a recipe.
Let’s discuss some other different ratios that you may find helpful. One caveat – most ratios are described in terms of “parts”. These are generally described as a weight. For example, with pie crust, one part is 4 ounces, 2 parts is 8 oz and 3 parts is 12 oz. Note that they are not described in cups. I have said this before but I want to once again encourage you to invest in a good food scale. It is just as quick (if not quicker) than using measuring cups and it is much more accurate.
Following are a few other ratios to commit to memory. If you are baking, I wouldn’t stray too far from the recommended ratio. However, with non-baked items, use the ratio as a starting point and then personalize it from there. I will just discuss ratios for some common items. For much more detail and more ratios, see the excellent book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. The cover of this book has a compilation of the ratios in a circular pattern that you might find helpful. You can even print it from this link. If you would like this info in more of a typical chart form, email me and I will send you two different formats.
Different sources list their ratios differently. I will use the format used by Michael Ruhlman. That is that the ratios are listed in the order that the ingredients are combined. So, in the 3:2:1 pie dough, you start with the 3 parts flour, add in the 2 parts fat and then the 1 part water.
Vinaigrettes – 1:3 (1 part acid to 3 parts oil)
I discussed vinaigrettes in more detail in Part 3 of my Cook Without a Recipe series. If you are just starting out making your own vinaigrettes, start with this ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. From there, make it your own by varying the acid you use and adding other ingredients such as shallots, mustard, herbs, and/or spices. After you master that, feel free to alter the oil:acid ratio.
Stock – 3:2 (3 parts water to 2 parts bone)
Have you ventured into the world of homemade stock, yet? Although it takes time, it is not difficult at all. Just use the ratio of 3 parts water to 2 parts bone. You will also need to think about aromatics and spices along with the fact that different stocks have a different simmering time but 3:2 water to bone will get you started.
Bread – 5:3 (5 parts flour to 3 parts water)
There are an unbelievable number of bread recipes out there along with numerous cookbooks dedicated to making bread. However, you can make great bread by following the ratio of 5 parts flour to 3 parts liquid, with the addition of a pinch of salt and some leavening. This is a perfect example where doing this ratio by weight is so much better than volume.
I have a recipe from King Arthur Flour for their Classic White Sandwich Bread. In volume measurements, it calls for 4 cups flour and 1½ cups water. This is far different than the 5:3 recommended ratio. However, if done by weight, the 4 cups of flour weighs about 480 grams and the water weights about 340 grams. If you do the math, this is very close to the 5:3 ratio.
Pancakes – 2:2:1:½ (2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part egg to ½ part butter)
Start with this ratio and then make it your own by altering the type of flour, liquid and fat as well as additional add-ins.
Pound or Sponge Cake – 1:1:1:1
How easy is that ratio? How you handle these ingredients and in what order will make a difference in the outcome. For example, for pound cake, it is 1 part butter to 1 part sugar to 1 part egg to one part flour. For a sponge cake, the order is 1 part egg to 1 part sugar to 1 part flour to 1 part butter.
Cookies – 1:2:3 (1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour)
The ratio of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour will give you a nice sugar cookie. However, many recipes for other types of cookies vary from this significantly.
Biscuits – 3:1:2 (3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid)
This ratio looks similar to the pie dough one but the difference is that the parts of fat & liquid are reversed.
Custard – 2:1 (2 parts liquid to 1 part egg)
For many people, making a custard sounds difficult but it couldn’t be simpler, especially when you remember the ratio of 2 parts dairy and 1 part egg. This will make a classic quiche filling but you can make it your own by other ingredients you may choose to add.
Muffins – 2:2:1:1 (2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part egg to 1 part butter)
You can make any muffin by using the ratio of 2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part eggs to 1 part fat. Let your imagination take over after that to create your one-of-a-kind muffin.
Pasta – 3:2 (3 parts flour to 2 parts egg)
Making your own pasta dough is as simple as combining 3 parts flour to 2 parts egg. In culinary school, I was taught to use 1 egg to 1 cup flour. You might be saying, “Isn’t that a 1:1 ratio?” No, it isn’t when you once again realize that ratios are based on weight, not volume. That culinary school ratio is actually about 2:1 by weight, closer to the recommended 3:2. Then, I realized that in culinary school, we never used all of that 1 cup of flour. It was just a starting point and we ended up using somewhat less to get the desired dough. That made it much closer to the 3:2 ratio.
It is great to know these ratios but, they tell you very little about technique, other than the order to add ingredients. However, once you get the technique down and memorize the ratios, this can not only be freeing but a lot of fun. Let me know if you try it!