Cooking can be daunting, but what you may not know is that a lot of foods are governed by some very basic math. Once you understand it, you’ll always be able to make a batch of freshly baked bread, make a rich and savory sauce, or mix up a simple syrup to sweeten cocktails or drinks. Knowing these ratios is liberating (you’ll never buy a pre-made box or mix again), and they serve as a platform for you to begin experimenting with your own favorite flavors and ideas. Think of it: Once you’ve mastered how to make any bread, it’s just a few minor tweaks to make something special, like a sourdough, or an herb bread, or to try something entirely new that you dreamt up, no recipe required.
“When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.”
Professional chefs understand the power of these ratios (although they don’t refer to them as such)—they’re part of any basic culinary education. This is also why professionals don’t need to fumble for a recipe every time they need to make bread, and why a good chef can instantly scale a recipe from a family of four to a banquet of four hundred without worry. So can you.
Vinaigrettes are always 3:1, oil to vinegar. Simple and easy—no matter what kind of vinaigrette you plan to make, this simple ratio should help you make it—and the best part is that once you start making your own, you’ll never buy bottled salad dressing again. Mix up some balsamic with a nice olive oil and you’re done. Expand the idea a bit by adding some diced shallots or chopped herbs for a little added freshness and flavor.
Stocks are generally, 3:2, water to bones. Want to make your own chicken or beef stock? Next time you roast a chicken (or even get a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket) or cook a bone-in beef roast, save the bones. Then get a nice big pot (or use your crock pot), and add in 3 parts water to 2 parts of the bones from your old meal. That alone will get you a simple stock. As usual, you can doctor it up with salt, herbs, and other seasonings, but this basic ratio will hold true and net you a stock that’s good for anything.
Bread is generally 5:3, flour to water (plus yeast/baking powder and salt). Almost any bread dough follows this general ratio. You’ll also need to add salt (a pinch is enough for a small batch, but the general rule is about 2% of the weight of the flour) and yeast or baking powder for leavening (1 teaspoon for baking powder for every 5 ounces of flour, or 1 teaspoon of yeast for every 16 oz/1 lb of flour). From there, the sky’s the limit on the flavor or type of bread you want to make. You’re free to add herbs like rosemary or thyme for an herb bread, or lemon and poppy-seeds for a savory quick-bread.