Cooking with Math, Part 1.

“With devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.” – Hamlet, Act III Sc. I

Devotion and piety are okay and all, but I quite think that sugar is one of the most wonderful things in the world. That was a little joke, in case you’re praying for me right now.

And even though I spent the last hour exercising my little heart out at a bootcamp I’m trying out, my first thought upon arrival home was sugar. But not eating it. Looking at it.

I do think cracked, caramelized and hardened sugar in my kitchen is one of the prettiest darn things I ever saw.

Don’t you agree?

I’ll let you know what this sugar became after a few little gifts make their ways to their recipients….

In the mean time, do I have some awesome news for you.  Eh hem.

I may have finally conquered The Ratio.

Ratios: A Love/Hate Story

I used to be one of those crazy, neurotic people who would not, could not, tamper with a recipe. A timid, afraid person who would not, could not, cook without a recipe. Now I am a person who hesitates a little before making one, two, maybe three substitutions. Every once in a while I even combine parts of recipes. I kind of think I remember a recipe I used to have and then attempt it mostly without looking.  I can even guesstimate [some] measurements! (Although Eric is totally skeptical about this.)

Although I have a long way to go, these little pieces of progress are in many ways thanks to the beauty of ratios.

Once upon a time, it became necessary for me to teach ratios in a tutoring position, and somehow the overanalysis that generally leads to good teaching ability led me to completely lose my understanding of them. The tricky little guys…. I mean, did you know that a 1:3 ratio has four total parts, not three?? It blew my mind for a 15-minute window of time. I made the mistake of telling Eric about my revelation, and he now thinks I’m the world’s worst mathematician and consistently advises that I avoid anything even remotely resembling a ratio.

But he will eat his words when he reads this, because I get them. Oh, I get them now. And they make life in the kitchen so, so much easier.

I should have put this together when I watched our friends Wil and Kristen (of Vie a la Table) study for Wil’s culinary school exams. Literally his entire test was based on remembering and implementing ratios for sauces, baked goods, creams, soups, and all sorts of other fancy things culinary students know how to make. But instead, it took me until about last week to fully realize and implement the magic with my first-ever attempt at homemade granola.

Photo Credit: Feasts and Fotos
[Photo credit – I forgot to take one!]

Can you believe I had never made granola before, not out of laziness but out of fear?? It may as well be the easiest several-ingredient food item in the world to make, next to perhaps trail mix which doesn’t even require baking. But I refused to try it, because, well, oats and such a huge variety and infinite combination of nuts and fruits, and oil and sugar vs. no oil and/or no sugar, and 50 million peoples’ opinions about what makes the best granola. Every time I approached granola, I got anxiety about oats (of all things!) and threw my hands up and shelled out far too much cash for pre-made. And then I found the world’s most freeing granola recipe. 4 cups oats, it said, and then the magic words:

1/2 cup seeds and nuts, 1/2 cup dried fruit, and up to 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, if desired.

What?? No tyrannical dictation of the exact nut and the precise fruit that should end up in my mix? Just whatever I like? For this, my first liberating act of granola self-expression, I chose cashew pieces, pecan pieces, sunflower seeds and dried cherries.

I was instructed to throw in 1/4 cup of pure maple syrup, butter the pan, and bake. No kidding. I could do that in my sleep. And I’m pleased to say my granola fears are over, simply because some saintly cook shared her recipe in terms of ratios and not ingredients.

Salad dressings are another new world that has been opened up to me. Did you know almost any oil can be mixed with almost any acid at a 3:1 ratio for a lovely light vinaigrette, with a chopped shallot, salt and pepper?

Here are a few more common cooking ratios I found that may help make your life easier:
Vinaigrette: 3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar
Stock: 3 parts water, 2 parts bones
Pancake batter: 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg and ½ part butter
Pie dough: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water
Roux: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat
Muffin or quickbread: 2 parts flour and liquid, 1 part egg and butter

These, of course, don’t include flavor boosters (most notably, salt) or leavening agents — just the basic proportions. In my quick research there, I learned of a book I think I now must read: Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, which builds on just this concept. I’ll try to get my hands on it…

Happy proportioning!

  • http://www.viealatable.com kris {life at the table}

    yeah studying food!!! we haven’t bought salad dressing in sooo long, it’s just so fun to ‘whip something up’ that suits the salad you are making right then.

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  • Karen

    You know how sometimes when you look at a word it just all of a sudden looks really strange? Well that happened to me while reading all your ratios. It was the word “part”. Maybe it’s because it isn’t a tsp or a cup or an oz. A part is not a thing, but a concept. And the word looks funny to me. : ) But what a great concept! Let us know if you find the book and if it is helpful. Thanks!

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