Make ratios work for you

It’s unfortunate that we’ve learned to view recipes as something to be followed rather slavishly.  That’s not the way cooking works since there are so many variables in ingredients available.  If we can get out of that habit, then we’ve made a huge stride in cooking for one.

I’ve talked about Pam Andersen’s How to Cook without a Book-which is based on using ratios in recipes.  Even more liberating from the slavish following of recipes are a number of books which really don’t give specific quantities at all or just suggest approximations of ingredients.  These can be easily adjusted if you pay attention to the proportions of the main ingredients or the ratios.

Cover of cookbook, I just purchased Michael Ruhlman‘s Twenty.  I found it a fascinating approach to cooking–it introduces you to the really important ingredients that you work with so often that you almost do not think about them–you take them for granted: like salt, eggs, water (yes, water!) and onions, to mention a few.  He presents recipes that will make you aware of how these ingredients actually work in the process of cooking–to help you understand them so that you can improvise!

Another great thing about this book is that even though the recipes may be for more servings than you want, ratios are given for important ingredients.  For example, in a recipe for “Traditional French Onion Soup”, he give a and “onion-to-liquid” ratio that he prefers for the main ingredients–7 or 8 pounds onions (which really cook down) to 6 cups of water.  That gives you the information you need to downsize the recipe.  Other ingredients are mostly “to taste” although quantities are suggested in the base recipe.  It’s wonderful when the recipes give you this kind of information; however, you can always look at the major ingredients in a recipe and come up with your own ratio.

This book stresses “thinking about food”–and that does not mean looking at the recipe that has 20 ingredients, and dreaming about how nice it would be to make that, but it serves 16, and….  Techniques that are basic to many recipes are presented–some of them are basic ingredients–to help you understand the why and the wherefore of the ingredients.  That is the key to improvising.  The other important thing stressed: think!  Once you understand ingredients, you can adjust the recipe, you can improvise.

This is a book that I’d recommend highly–at least check it out of the library and read it–it just might give some food for though, and open some doors to make single-serving cooking easier for you.  I’d also suggest checking out Michael Ruhlman’s website for other good information for the home cook.

Serves how many?

I love cookbooks.  I love to read cookbooks just to get ideas, but one of the most frustrating things is finding a recipe that I think looks wonderful, but it’s for 6 people.  Sometimes it’s something that will freeze well, so I can make it and not have to eat it for a week.  On the other hand, since I am cooking for one (and the cat) I don’t want to pay for the ingredients to make servings for six or eight people, or have so much in the freezer.  (More on freezer use later.)  The dilemma for the single cook is scale the recipe down, not make it, or eat it for a week.  Personally I don’t do left-overs well; I guess I’m easily bored or they begin to taste like something that’s been in the fridge for five days!

Downsizing recipes can be treacherous, especially in going from six to one–the consistency can come out wrong, the seasonings may not be right.  If you are determined to do THAT recipe, perhaps you need to invite friends.

You’ve gotten ideas from those huge recipes that you can use for one.  The problem now is that you need to get away from depending on a recipe slavishly.  You need to move on to improvisation and perhaps some food science to help understand how some specific ingredients react to the application of heat, i.e. cooking.

First improvisation is a must for cooking for one–and it’s not hard–it’s just taking that first step that seems difficult if you’ve always used recipes. A book that I’ve found immensely useful is How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson. This author has provided a wonderful review of various cooking techniques as well as recipes in ratios that promote improvisation of various types of dishes:  stews, salads, an such.  While the proportions given in this book tend to be for 4 people, you can scale them down to something manageable for one person.

I have to admit to being a Kindle addict.  I admit this because I might not have found this cookbook had I not been browsing the Kindle store.  The book is  Ratio: The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking byMichael Ruhlman.

My grandmother taught me to cook and one of the things I remember learning from her was the “four parts cake”–frequently referred to as “pound cake” for equal parts of eggs, flour, sugar, and butter.  I was taught to vary the size of this cake by starting with the eggs.  You want a small cake, you use fewer eggs, and that “egg weight” determined the weight of each the other three ingredients.   It was many year before I discovered that this recipe was actually in something published in a cookbook.  While browsing through La Cuisine, by Raymond Oliver I found a recipe with the title pâtè à quatre-quarts which translated as “four parts cake”.  In the English edition this was translated as pound cake, but it was the French title that caught my eye.

In a manner reminiscent of that cake, Ruhlman gives recipes by proportions so that they are easily sized up or down.  This book gives ratios for batters, doughs, stocks and sauces, roux, and even sausages and many other things in ratios so that you have the base ingredients, and then add things like seasonings or “minor” ingredients (seasonings, et cetera) in order to have a finished dish.  This is the kind of technique that can allow cooking for one.

If you don’t want to contemplate doing the math of the ratios (and have an iPhone), there is an app for that.  The cookbook by Michael Ruhlman is now an iPhone app that will help you do the calculations.  Makes me wish I had an iPhone!