The Golden Ratio(s)

We’ve all been there. We want to “wow” everyone by making something sophisticated or fancy, but we don’t have a recipe. So, we go online and look one up. We may look through several recipes, print them all out, and try to compare the differences and merits of each one in relation to what we want. The problem is, most home bakers really don’t know how they’re supposed to judge whether a recipe is any good or not, short of actually making and tasting it.

What if I told you there’s a sure-fire shortcut–a way to ensure that you have a great product every single time you go into the kitchen to make a batch of cookies or muffins or whatever–without ever needing to look up another recipe again? Or, indeed, without ever using another recipe! Sounds too good to be true, but I assure you, it works.

I said in an earlier post that baking is basically chemistry with an oven. When you go to make, say, a pot of soup, you just put a bunch of stuff in it that you like, season it until it tastes good to you, and eat up. With baking, you can’t just put a bunch of ingredients together and come up with a batch of cookies. You’re actually dealing with formulas, rather than recipes. Professional bakers do this all the time, and they have a bunch of shortcuts up their sleeves that they go to day after day. Simply put, they use ratios.

The basic idea is exceedingly simple. In baking, everything works better when it’s weighed rather than measured by volume. The baking ratios that the pros use are based on a given weight as the part, for instance, one pound. If we want to make a batch of muffins, we would use the ratio of 2:2:1:1. If we start out with one pound as our part, then it goes like this: 2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : 1 part fat = 2 pounds flour : 2 pounds liquid : 1 pound egg : 1 pound fat. BOOM! You just made a basic muffin batter ratio. Using this basic ratio, you can scale your muffin batter up or down as needed. Any extra ingredients would need to be factored in accordingly. For instance, you would need around 1 teaspoon baking powder and/or ¼ teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour, ¼ teaspoon salt per cup of flour, and about 2-4 Tablespoons sugar per egg, depending on taste.

But wait! You just said to weigh everything! Relax. One pound of flour is slightly less than 4 cups, so you just need to multiply the above measurements of baking powder/soda and salt by four for each pound of flour you’re using. If you want to make a yeast dough, you’ll need around 2-2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast per pound of flour.

Once you have the basic ratio down, you might want to add flavorings, spices, etc. These can be added to taste. You can add whatever flavoring you like, your favorite spices, fresh or dried fruits–the possibilities are almost endless. If you want to make a savory batter rather than a sweet one, just nix the sugar altogether.

The great thing about working with ratios is that they don’t just work with baking. There are several other crucial ratios that the pros depend on. Vinaigrettes are a cinch once you know that the ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Add in your flavorings to taste, and you’ve got a great salad dressing or marinade. Just remember that the basic parts of the ratio are almost always weighed as opposed to measured in volume.

“So, what do I need to do?” you may ask. First things first. If you don’t already have one, get yourself a good quality kitchen scale, preferably one that has a zero or tare function. This allows you to weigh several ingredients in the same vessel and keep each ingredient’s weight separate from the others. You just put the vessel on the scale and press the zero/tare button, and the weight will go back to zero. Add each ingredient, zeroing it out in between. A note on weighing ingredients for baking: Weighing in grams/kilograms is more accurate than weighing in ounces/pounds. Also, eggs can be tricky but there’s a work-around to that.

Large eggs are the ones most commonly used for baking, and each one (minus the shell) weighs around 2 ounces. Therefore, eight or nine eggs will yield about one pound. The problem is, it’s not exact, so if you’re not careful you’ll end up with either too much egg or too little. Here’s what I do. I crack seven eggs and look at the weight. If it’s at least two ounces under a pound, I’ll go ahead and add another whole egg. If it’s 1½ ounces or less under a pound, then I’ll crack another egg in a separate bowl, whisk it, and then carefully pour in just enough of that whisked egg to equal one pound. Just remember–waste not, want not. Any leftover whisked egg can be covered, returned to the fridge, and used up within a couple of days. You don’t even need to worry about the fact that it’s a partial egg, either. Just use it in whatever you’re making along with any other whole eggs called for.

Using ratios when baking is a quick and easy way to whip up a batch of treats on short notice when you have a craving or unexpected company. Below are several ratios for both baking and cooking uses. They’re all by weight unless otherwise noted. Let me know what you think in the comments!

  • Yeast Breads: 5 parts flour : 3 parts liquid, plus yeast, salt, flavoring, etc.
  • Pasta Dough: 3 parts flour : 2 parts egg
  • Pie Dough: 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part cold water, plus salt and sugar to taste (omit sugar if making a savory pie). My mother and I both only use lard.
  • Biscuit Dough: 3 parts flour : 1 part fat : 2 parts liquid
  • Cookie Dough: 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part sugar, plus baking soda/powder, flavorings, etc.
  • Pate a Choux: 2 parts water : 1 part unsalted butter : 1 part flour : 2 parts egg. The eggs are added at the end. Let the mixture cool 10-15 minutes before adding the eggs, or you’ll end up scrambling them.
  • Pound Cake: 1 part unsalted butter : 1 part sugar : 1 part egg : 1 part flour
  • Sponge Cake: 1 part egg : 1 part sugar : 1 part flour : 1 part unsalted butter, plus baking powder, flavoring, etc.
  • Angel Food Cake: 3 parts egg white : 3 parts sugar : 1 part flour. Remember to separate your eggs while they’re cold from the fridge, but whip them at room temperature. Wait about 30-60 minutes before whipping. Whipping them at room temperature produces a fluffier texture.
  • Muffins and Quick Breads: 2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : 1 part fat, plus baking powder/soda, salt, flavorings, etc.
  • Fritters: 2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg, plus whatever you’re coating in the batter to fry and any flavorings.
  • Pancakes and Waffles: 2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : ½ part fat
  • Popovers: 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : 1 part flour
  • Crepes: 1 part liquid : 1 part egg : ½ part flour. Always let your crepe batter rest at least 30 minutes before making them. Melt a small amount of unsalted butter in a small skillet. Pour about ¼ cup batter in pan and swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan evenly. Cook 1-2 minutes per side until golden.
  • Stock: 3 parts water : 2 parts bones. A note on making stock: There is some confusion as to the difference between a white stock and a brown stock. Many people think that a white stock is one made with poultry bones and a brown stock is one made with beef or other mammal bones. What it actually refers to is the method of removing the impurities from the bones. With a white stock, the bones are blanched; with a brown stock, they’re roasted.
  • Consommé: 12 parts stock : 3 parts meat : 1 part mirepoix (itself a ratio–1 part carrot : 1 part celery : 2 parts onion) : 1 part egg white for clarifying the consommé.
  • Roux: 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat. Whisk ingredients together in pan over medium-high heat until smooth paste forms and continue to cook until desired color is reached. The thickening ratio is 10 parts liquid : 1 part roux. Be forewarned: The longer you cook a roux, the less thickening power it has. Roux can be made in bulk, cooled, portioned into smaller amounts, and frozen up to 3 months. Let it thaw completely before using.
  • Beurre Manie: 1 part unsalted butter : 1 part flour (by volume rather than weight). Mix ingredients together by hand, fork, or mixer on medium speed until a thick paste forms. Beurre Manie can be made in bulk, portioned into smaller amounts, and frozen the same way as roux. Let it stand at room temperature about 30 minutes before using. To use beurre manie, break off one or two small pieces at a time and stir them into the liquid until desired consistency is reached. Refrigerate any unused portion and use within a few days.
  • Slurry: 1 part cornstarch : 1 part liquid (by volume rather than weight). The thickening ratio is 1 Tablespoon slurry : 1 cup liquid.
  • Ground Sausage: 3 parts meat : 1 part fat. Sausage seasoning ratio is 60 parts meat/fat combination : 1 part salt. Add other seasonings to taste.
  • Brine for Meat: 20 parts water : 1 part salt, plus any flavorings to taste
  • Mayonnaise: 20 parts oil : 1 part liquid, plus egg yolk
  • Vinaigrette: 3 parts oil : 1 part vinegar of choice
  • Hollandaise: 5 parts unsalted butter : 1 part yolk : 1 part liquid
  • Baked (Free-Standing) Custard: 2 parts milk : 1 part egg, plus sugar, flavoring, etc.
  • Crème Anglaise: 4 parts milk/cream : 1 part yolk : 1 part sugar, plus flavorings
  • Chocolate Sauce: 1 part chocolate : 1 part cream. Scald the cream, remove from heat, and add chopped chocolate. Let stand about 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth and blended. To scald cream, heat it over medium heat until small bubbles form around the edges, about 180 °F (82 °C). Be careful not to scorch the cream.
  • Caramel Sauce: 1 part sugar : 1 part cream. Cook and stir the sugar until it reaches a nice caramel color, then remove from heat and pour in cream while whisking constantly. There will be splattering and/or bubbling.

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