Baking without recipes – using ratios

Interior of a cupcake

They say you shouldn’t bake without a recipe – it’s fine to improvise with other types of cooking, but when it comes to baking, you better do what you’re told and stick to the recipe.
That’s not quite true, though. As long as you understand how the recipe works and keep some basic ratios intact, you are free to experiment as much as you want. Here are some ratios that I keep in my head and allow me to bake without a recipe, or to check a recipe I am using to see what I can play around with, and what to keep the same.

Please note: all these ratios are based on weight not volume – so they work with either ounces or grams – but not with cups.

Bread – Ratio 5:3

Bread is one of the best things to experiment with. All the factors that go into making good bread – the right flour, the time you take for each stage, the temperature and humidity – fall well outside what a recipe can control. Bread making depends on recognising what ‘good’ looks like more than following a recipe by the letter.
But when I want to bake a regular loaf of bread, I stick with a ratio that I learnt from Michael Ruhlman: 5 parts flour to 3 parts water.
This usually means 500g strong white bread flour to 300g water.
If I’m using any sort of wholemeal or rye flour, I will add more water, up to about 350g. Similarly, for something soft like pizza dough, 350g is more useful.

For more on bread, try these posts:

Meringues – Ratio: 2:1

Meringues are a very simple thing to make with leftover egg whites from making custards or ice-cream. Just weigh out the whites you have, and when you have whisked them to a soft foam, gradually add twice their weight in sugar. This will give you a lovely crisp meringue to smash up for eton mess or for a pavlova base.

For more on meringues, try these posts:

Pastry – Ratio 2:1 or 3:2:1

I don’t often make pastry from a recipe, as from a young age I learnt to make pastry from both my mum and my gran with the simple phrase ‘half fat to flour’. The fat can be butter, lard, margarine – whatever.
For a richer, more crumbly dough – perhaps something for a fruit pie rather than a quiche, you can also use an American ‘pie dough’ ratio of 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat, and one part water. (3:2:1).

For more on pastry, try these posts:

Victoria sponge cake – Ratio 1:1:1:1

There are may different ways to make cakes, and many different proportions of ingredients depending on the method. But if I want to make plain fairy cakes or a Victoria sponge I know I can start by weighing the eggs, and then using equal weights of butter, sugar and flour (plus a bit of baking powder for insurance).

For more on sponge cakes, try these posts:

Pasta – Ratio 3:2

I can’t pretend to have as much experience with this ratio, and there is a lot of flexibility in it, but 100g flour to 1 egg is a good place to start (around 3:2 flour to egg). You then add more flour as you knead to end up with a good consistency.

If you like working with these sort of ratios, I highly recommend Michael Ruhlman’s book ‘Ratio’ – and there’s also an iPhone app. You might also like James Morton’s ‘How Baking Works‘.

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