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9 Rules You Should Always Break When You’re Cooking

9 Rules You Should Always Break When You’re Cooking

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When it comes to cooking, many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that recipes are full of hard-and-fast rules and that they must be followed exactly if we want our food to come out perfectly every time. And then, in other cases, some "rules" are just plain wrong and should never be followed. While many cooking rules are flexible (meaning that visual cues, cooking smells, and taste are generally your best indicators of proper cooking and doneness) and should be applied only when they make sense, there are a few rules that should never guide your cooking — that should be thrown out altogether.

Click here for the 9 Rules You Should Always Break When You’re Cooking (Slideshow)

It can be difficult to know which rules are worth following and which can safely be broken. Americans in particular are becoming more interested in cooking and, as a result, they face an excess of cooking tips, advice, and how-tos on television, in print, and online. Unfortunately, one of the results of this flood of cooking information is that we don’t trust ourselves in the kitchen anymore; we have forgotten that much of cooking is just common sense.

Sure, there are certain rules that should be followed when you’re in the kitchen but, if you’re looking inside your cooking pan, for example, and your sauce seems too thick, it probably is — forget what your recipe says about letting it reduce further. Similarly, if you’re roasting vegetables on a sheet pan and you smell smoke, it’s OK to cook the vegetables at a lower temperature until they’re done, regardless of what you’ve read or heard about roasting.

It can be overwhelming at first, but, with a little trial and error, you’ll easily be able to identify which cooking rules work all of the time, which work some of the time, and which ones never yield good results. Curious to know which rules you can definitely forget about? Here are nine cooking rules that we think you should break every single time you cook.

Cook for the Amount of Time the Recipe Specifies

In general, the cook time in a recipe is a suggestion (that’s the reason it’s usually give in as a range). Start by cooking your food for the shortest amount of time recommended in the recipe and then monitor its progress. If your food reaches the correct internal temperature (or, in the case of a food where temperature isn’t an issue, shows other signs of doneness) it’s done — even if you haven’t reached the minimum cook time.

Don’t Open the Oven Door

We’re not saying it’s OK to continually open the oven door when you’re cooking (you’ll lose heat and lower the oven temperature) — and, all right, you shouldn’t open it at all if you’re making a soufflé — but in all other instances it’s OK to open the oven door once, halfway through a food’s cook time. In fact, you should: Most ovens don’t heat evenly, so your food won’t cook evenly unless the pans are rotated.

Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.

7 Rules For Baking The Perfect Cake (And What To Do When You Mess Up)

Don't let your cakes fall flat, dry out, toughen or crumble with these tips, each slice will be total perfection.

By Kristen Eppich Updated March 18, 2021

Baking is a science, and makes following the rules are a lot more important than you might think. (Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

When something goes amiss in the kitchen, it’s important to understand what went wrong. When baking a cake, there are a lot of little things you can do to improve your odds of a winning finished product. Similarly, there are a lot of bad habits that can have equal influence on your recipe to negative effect. To help you on your quest to bake the perfect cake, here’s a breakdown of important dos and don’ts:

Culinary school teaches the importance of good knife skills

You might think that culinary school is all about learning to cook, but the very first thing you do is work on your knife skills. Cutting ingredients down to size is all about getting them to cook evenly. If you try to roast huge chunks of potatoes alongside tiny pieces of garlic, the latter will burn before the former cooks through. So, how do you cut oblong, tube-shaped carrots and weirdly-shaped onion layers into the same shape as a round potato? Practice.

Once you get the hang of it, you start to like making everything nice and even. If your vegetables are chopped haphazardly, they won't have a great presentation, and culinary instructors know that we eat with our eyes first. If it doesn't look appealing on the plate, they'll call you out for it. In addition to regular knife work like diced, sliced, and minced, you'll learn fancy knife cuts like julienne, chiffonade, brunoise, roll-cuts, batonnet, paysanne, and tournée, the seven-sided football (and everyone's least favorite, for sure).

Before too long, you'll realize that you can't do any of this without a sharp knife. A dull knife is a dangerous knife. If it bounces off a carrot instead of cutting through it, it'll likely land in the tender flesh of your fingers instead. No, thanks! Luckily, learning how to sharpen a knife is another benefit of a culinary education.

Miss Manners probably has a proper way to handle these sometimes-awkward situations. And she might not agree with my way of thinking, but here goes nothing, as they say.

I think each dinner or party has to be handled individually. At least, this is the way I work. Rather than giving you a set of rules, I’m going to give you examples instead. Christmas dinner and
several other holidays are always held at our home. I’m the only daughter with three boys following me. And sometimes, their wives are not what you would say are handy in the kitchen. Because of
this, it would be my mom and I doing the clean up.

If you don’t want help, don’t start cleaning up

For some reason, moms feel like they should be doing something, if their daughters are working. Since I want to give my mom a break (which is the reason why I have the dinner anyway), I stick
whatever needs to be refrigerated (or else it goes bad) inside the frig and move everyone to the family room for coffee and dessert as soon as I see the main course is finished. Usually, I don’t
even try to convert any of the food into smaller bowls at this time. I open, stuff and close. The table and kitchen mess awaits me after everyone goes home.

I also follow this system when we entertain for business. My reason for doing so is that if I start cleaning the table and dishes, then I will put others on the spot to help. I don’t want to make
anyone feel obligated. (Now, if this would work with my sisters-in-law, I just might. Only kidding.)

When we have a party for friends as a get-together, I usually take it further because my friend Barb will start clearing the table and loading the dishes without me. And yes, I do appreciate the

If we’re having a potluck gathering with say, my husband’s softball team, I’ll package up (wrap tightly with foil and put into a bag) the guests’ dishes with any remaining leftovers for them to
take home. Other than that, I stash whatever has to go in the frig, then leave everything else till later.

But ask for help if you need it!

Now, if your company happens to be the same, holiday after holiday, and they never return invitations, never offer to bring along a dish, and you feel as if you’re being taken advantage of, Sister,
the floor’s all yours. A perfect smile with a polite, “Would you mind handing me that empty bowl?” Once the guest sits down. “Oh, my hands are slippery, could you pass the dishes?” She/he might get
the hint. But, then again, you might have to work your way down to the silverware.

When you’re a guest, always offer to help

Now, as a guest, I do not follow the above advice. I figure, if someone is kind enough to give me a dinner that I get to eat not only hot, but also one I didn’t have to make, then the least I can
do it is help. If the hostess is someone I’m not close to (family or friend) then I scrape the dishes, rinse, and either stack or load in the dishwasher (depending upon the dishes and the
appliance). Usually, I avoid putting anything into the refrigerator or cabinets just for consideration of their privacy. I wouldn’t want to embarrass the hostess if she had stuffed the cupboards to
the brim while trying to clean up before the party. And I’m sure everyone can relate to that.

Do unto others…

Each situation calls for a personal touch. Today, the rules have changed so much, that there aren’t any rules. Except one and it never goes out of style: The rule of common courtesy.

Probably the best advice is to think how you would feel in the opposite position? What results would you like to see or expect? Once you have your answer, act accordingly.

You’re cooking mashed potatoes on high heat.

Cook mashed potatoes low and slow to give them the perfect consistency. If you boil them fully, they will be watery and loose, says McAllister. And if you turn them off too soon, they will be raw.

Also avoid a masher and go for a ricer, instead. “Mashers can be pointless when making potatoes. They create big chunks of potatoes that do not get mixed in with all of the salt and buttery greatness in mashed potatoes. Instead, use a ricer doing so will produce some smooth mashed potatoes to enjoy,” says Rizza.

What’s more, if your do mess up your potatoes, you can fix them with some tricks. 𠇊 good secret ingredient to keep tucked away in your pantry is instant potatoes (yes, I said instant),” says McAllister. Sneak a few tablespoons in while no one is looking. Instant potatoes are cooked and dehydrated flakes made from real potatoes. You can also use the instant potatoes if you add too much milk or cream, as they will help stiffen your potatoes up, he says.

“If you go the other way and undercook parts of your potatoes, use a tamis or sieve. To remove the undercooked potato bits, press your mashed potatoes though the sieve and only keep what comes out the bottom,” he says.

Over-Salt Your Cookies—and More Essential Cooking Rules From Molly Baz

This month, we're doing a mini series on our podcast. Each of the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen editors will be sharing their top 10 cooking rules: the techniques they swear by, the ingredients they can’t live without, and the mindsets that keep them going. This week: the senior food editor who loves salt just as much as she loves Tuna (her pup!), Molly Baz.

Getting your sh*t together before you start cooking is the ultimate way to set yourself up for smooth sailing. One of the main reasons that home cooks struggle in the kitchen is lack of organization—not knowing when to start prepping, when to start cooking, what they can be doing in the downtime. Learning to get all of that stuff out of the way before you dive allows you to actually think about what you're doing. It’s important to clear your head.

If you’re going for browning, undisturbed contact with the pan is imperative. Whether it’s sausage, Brussels sprouts, or a pork chop, give it time to sit over the heat.

I’m not talking about salty-sweet desserts, those that lean into salt as their flavor profile. It’s just that in order for a dessert to really taste like itself, there has to be at least a small amount of salt in there.

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen thinking about where everything should be so that it’s optimized for graceful cooking, which makes it that much more enjoyable and not so choppy. Even if you can’t completely re-construct your kitchen, you can think about what drawers you’re putting things in, what you’re most likely to reach for when you’re at the stove vs. at the counter. Set yourself up that way. If your flow isn’t right, you’ll never want to cook.

I hate the wonky mitts. I don’t know who invented them, but they’re just unnecessary. Kitchen towels that are folded properly (and not damp!) are the perfect insulator, that then also double as a surface cleaner.

Even as I cook through my own recipes over and over again, they get better and better. If you come back to a recipe, you’ll feel a certain level of comfort with it already so you’ll be able to pay attention to things you weren’t able to pay attention to before.

Everybody’s kitchen is different. Everybody’s stove is different. Everybody’s oven is different. We do a lot of testing in the Test Kitchen to provide time frames for everything you're doing in a recipe, so we’ll say “caramelize the onions for 25-30 minutes.” But the fact of the matter is, there’s no way for us to predict exactly what’s happening in your kitchen. So after that instruction there will be a comma and then it will say something like “or until deeply golden brown and starting to turn black at the edges.” That's the real indicator that you need to pay attention to in a recipe. The time doesn’t matter as much.

9 Rules You Should Always Break When You’re Cooking - Recipes

I know everyone goes all cuckoo for strawberries and rhubarb this time of year, but for me, spring is all about…

…bushels of fresh, flavorful greens at the market. Nothing says “warm days are ahead” to me quite like a bite of properly dressed peppery arugula or a forkful of bright pea shoots with mint. In honor of the season, I thought it was a good time to run down a few salad rules I live by.

1. Start with High Quality Greens As far as I’m concerned, if your spring lettuces — spinach, arugula, butterhead, pea shoots — are fresh enough, you don’t need much more than a thinly minced red onion or a shaving of Parm plus a simple vinaigrette to make a delicious, satisfying salad. (Unlike when I start with the plastic-bagged “spring mixes” and feel like I’m just adding ingredients like avocados, feta, and croutons not so much to complement the lettuce as I am to disguise it.) When it comes to a surprising salad, however…

2. Think Outside the Leaf Box. Salads don’t all begin and end with kale and romaine. Try building a bowl around pretty pea shoots or crunchy cabbage or leafless vegetables like roasted beets (above, tossed with pickled cabbage and dill) or asparagus spears that have been simmered (and “shocked” in ice water) then chopped up and tossed with a ramp pesto and minced onions. I’d take that over a Cobb any day of the week.

3. You Want Contrast. You probably know this rule instinctively. The best bites are always the ones with a little bit of a lot. You want contrast in texture (like a kale salad that showcases crispy chickpeas and creamy ranch dressing) and in flavor (like a spinach salad with salty feta and sweet strawberries) or in richness (like a gem lettuce salad with indulgent avocados next to bright, light pickled onions).

4. Crunch is the Most Important Texture. No matter how great your ingredients are, and no matter how well they complement and contrast each other, for me, it’s not a salad with out a little substantive crunch to offset all the leafy delicateness. I’m talking about the fresh crispiness of a cucumber or radish or fennel or the crunchiness of nuts or pita chips or croutons. To be clear this is a need, not a want.

5. About Those Croutons. Sure, you can go store-bought but why…
when homemade croutons have the power to make people (especially little people) sprint to the dinner table? They upgrade literally everything. I toss 4 cups of roughly torn bread (stale is optimum but not required) with 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and up to 1/3 cup olive oil (you want your croutons coated not drenched), then bake at 400°F for 10 to 12 minutes.

6. It Helps if It Looks Pretty. Will it taste the same if you slice your snow peas in chunks rather than these fussy slivers? Of course it will. But will it get the Pavlovian response (look gorgeous, must eat) you’re after when you serve it to your family and (soon! Please dear Lord) friends? Salads get the most likes on my instagram feed for a reason: They are so naturally vibrant and sculptural and do most of the work for you in the color department. Striped pink watermelon radishes, golden beets, orange and gold carrot shavings, deep green everything. And don’t get me started on Cézanne-still-life-like tomatoes. I’ll save that love letter for August…

7. Mix Before Your Dress. Even though most of these photos show otherwise, before you add your dressing, you want to combine all your grains, leaves and vegetables in a bowl, add salt and pepper, and toss everything together. I learned this from my most favorite salad cookbook ever, Saladish by Ilene Rosen. Rosen said this way, you ensure that your vegetables (especially delicate lettuce and herbs) aren’t overhandled and crushed by the weight of a dressing and your salad tongs. Once the dressing is added, you only have to toss briefly. Another tip from Rosen: Use your hands to ensure the most thorough, most gentle mixing.

8. Herbs Make it Sing. Here I am reminded of my friend who said she feels naked if she doesn’t apply perfume before she goes out. I am not my friend when it comes to fragrance, but I feel that nakedness when I make a salad and don’t finish with herbs. A generous showering of dill or chives or basil — or a mix of whatever you’ve got — adds dimension, plus a lingering hit of surprise.

If it’s a more formal party at someone’s home, check if there are plates to use for the nibbles. If so, always place a handful of nibbles on your plate and eat from there. Don’t keep picking up the nibbles directly and popping them into your mouth. If using a dip, take some onto your own plate (unless you see the host dipping directly) and dip from there. Always take a napkin.

You shouldn’t start drinking until the host has filled everyone’s glass and you’ve raised a toast. Always look people in the eye when you toast. When you sit down to dinner, always wait to be seated, wait to be served and never begin eating until the host has sat down and given the go-ahead, usually a “bon appetit.” Always go to the toilet before you begin eating as it’s bad form to leave the table during a meal.

6 Rules for Swapping Baking Pans

I get it: sometimes you want to make a cake, and you just don't have the pan the recipe calls for. An 8-inch round pan is basically the same as a 9-inch round, right? (Right. ) I mean, the pan just holds the batter, you tell yourself. What does the size, or shape, really matter, anyway?

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The truth is, it actually matters a lot. It's always best to follow a recipe—especially baking recipes—as written. The baking time, ingredient amounts, and, yes, pan size are all intrinsically important to the success of the dish.

But very few home cooks (and honestly, very few professional bakers) keep every single size pan in their cabinets. So what's a well-meaning host to do if they want to make a cinnamon streusel coffee cake for a Sunday-morning brunch but don't have any Bundt pans on hand? I reached out to two of the biggest #BossLady bakers I know, Baking Bible author Rose Levy Beranbaum and Flavor Flours author Alice Medrich, to find out the right ways to bend the baking pan rules. Here's what they suggested:

A 9-inch round cake pan might look a lot like an 8-inch round one, but in truth, their volume isn't nearly as close as you think. "A 9-inch round is actually 25 percent bigger," explains Medrich, noting that if a recipe calls for an 8-inch round pan and you use a 9-inch round pan instead, "you’re going to have a very thin cake, because it has to cover 25 percent more surface area."

"If the pan is too big, the sides shield the batter and slow down the baking," says Levy Beranbaum, explaining that the resulting cake will be drier and paler than intended. "If the pan is too small, the batter will run over the sides and the cake will collapse from inadequate support."

But there are a few pan swaps that are easy to make. "A 9-inch round cake can be baked in an 8-inch square pan," says Levy Beranbaum. And "loaf pans and tube pans are a little interchangeable," says Medrich, "because they are both deep and aren't wide and expansive, but then you have to compare how much volume they hold."

Which brings us to the fact that size does matter—and so does math. "It’s pretty basic arithmetic," says Medrich. If that 9-inch pan is 25 percent bigger, all you have to do is increase the recipe by 25 percent. "It’s not anything more than square areas and percentages," she says. "You can do it by volume. If you're using cups and spoons, you can still increase the recipe by half or a third." To divide eggs, she suggest whisking the egg first, then using half of it.

Not so sure of your math skills? You read the nitty gritty of Medrich's baking equation, broken down into a simple formula, over on Food52.

Ultimately, you should be taking your cues from the recipe. First off, it's a good idea to read it through a few times to make sure you understand all the instructions clearly. Then, follow the author's advice. "The recipe you start with should be giving lots of hints and clues, and you start from there," says Medrich.

For example, if the recipe instructs you to fill the baking pan a certain amount (such as "half-way" or "two-thirds full"), she explains, you can assume it should be filled that amount no matter what size pan you use. If the recipe calls for a loaf or tube pan, it's likely the batter will also do well in a similarly deep pan that has some support, such as a bundt pan. Or, if the cake is baked in a flat pan, like a rimmed baking sheet, than you’re probably fine baking in a relatively shallow 2-inch-deep pan.

Generally you only want to fill the cake pan half to two-thirds full so the batter doesn't pour over the sides. (Unless, of course, the recipe specifically says otherwise.) For heavier batters, such as banana breads and pumpkin bread, two-thirds is fine, says Medrich. But light and spongier cakes will rise more, so only fill these pans half-way.

When in doubt, stick to half. "If the author of the recipe doesn’t indicate how much to fill the pan, and one is trying it for the first time in a different pan from what was indicated, it is safer to fill the pan only half full," says Levy Beranbaum.

Unsure about that arithmetic? Instead of scaling, simply follow the half or two-thirds rule, and bake any extra batter as cupcakes. But don't wait! You've got to fill the cupcake liners immediately, explains Levy Beranbaum, and then refrigerate them while the larger cake is baking. "This actually works out well, because leavening is usually different for cupcakes," she explains, "but if they are allowed to sit for about 20 minutes at room temperature or about an hour in the refrigerator, the tops will dome nicely instead of being flat or dipped."

Levy Beranbaum and Medrich agree: the best rule of thumb is to follow the recipe as written, even if that means buying a new pan. "My feeling is that it is better and less expensive in the long run to get the proper pan," says Levy Beranbaum, "because changing pan size or shape means much costly experimentation (both in time and money)." Many cake pans can be sourced at very reasonable costs (some as low as $10). And once you've used it a few times, it will certainly be worth the investment.

Post-Roast Rules: How to Reheat a Roast Dinner

If you’re reading this, chances are you need to know how to reheat a roast dinner! Well, you have come to the right place.

Everyone loves a roast dinner, not only for the decadent feast they offer, but for the trimmings they leave behind. After all, If you’re cooking solo or as a couple, it is difficult to cook a roast just for two people without leftovers.

When you have an abundance of leftovers it’s inevitable that you will want to reheat them the next day. However reheating a roast dinner isn’t as easy as reheating a potpie, or soup! You’ll be left wondering how long to warm up a plated dinner in microwave or oven?

Special care is to be taken when reheating roast dinners. You must ensure not to sacrifice any of the delicious flavours you spent hours creating the night before, after all!

Whether you’re using a hob, a stove, a microwave, it’s important to know how to reheat a roast dinner properly. This is to ensure the roast isn’t ruined.

I know I am not alone in adoring a cold chicken and stuffing sandwich for a post-roast supper. And as much as I wish I could say that there was a one-size-fits-all take on reheating leftovers, there simply isn’t.

Post-Roast Rules

There is no right way, nor truly a wrong way, when reheating roast dinner in oven. However, some methods will yield you far superior results when compared to others.

A microwave is a faster alternative to the oven. However, is not suited to some options such as a rare roast beef which should always be reheated in an oven.

My greatest tip when reheating a roast is to ensure all the juices that have congealed at the bottom of the container it was stored in, are utilised throughout the process. It may be a rather horrid site. But these congealed juices are simply the gelatine from the roast that has set against the chill of your fridge.

These juices are full of flavour, and most importantly, moisture. Any type of protein will lose moisture throughout the cooking and reheating process. Although it may be tempting to dispose of them – keep them for gravies, or the reheating process.

Free Yourself from Recipes With a Few Golden Cooking Ratios

Following a recipe is a great way to get started in the kitchen. However, once you’ve gotten the hang of combining ingredients, you can employ a few choice ratios that govern dozens of different dishes—and free yourself from the restrictions of recipes altogether. Here’s how it works.

Why ratios are more powerful than recipes

Cooking can be daunting, but it gets simpler once you realize that a lot of recipes are governed by some very basic math. Once you understand it, you’ll always be able to make a batch of freshly baked bread or 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 upon which to build your skills and experiment with your own favorite flavors. Think of it: Once you’ve mastered how to make any bread, you only need make a few minor tweaks to turn it into something special, whether a sourdough or an herb bread, or to try something entirely new you’ve dreamed up, no recipe required.

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.

We touched on this topic years ago when we talked with Michael Ruhlman about his book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking . Back then, we focused on the kitchen hacks that inspired the book, but it’s worth figuring out how to apply those age-old tricks in your own kitchen.

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Know before you start

Before we begin, you’ll see a lot of ratios that call for “x parts of one ingredient for every y parts of another ingredient.” When a ratio calls for “parts,” they’re talking about the same measurements, in weight, across the board. That means you’ll have to apply a little savvy—instead of thinking “3 cups of flour and one cup of water,” you need to think “10 ounces of flour and 6 ounces of water,” because a “cup” of flour can vary. To address this problem, invest in a good kitchen scale, a tool we find invaluable for both better cooking and healthier eating. Once you get used to weighing your ingredients , scaling a recipe up to feed a crowd or down to feed yourself is ridiculously easy.

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The Basic Ratios: Bread, pie dough, pasta, and pancakes

Even though it’s one of the most basic foods, many of us still struggle with baking bread. But while baking is a more precise affair than other forms of cooking, it’s not as daunting as you may think. These basics will serve you well in almost any case.

Here are a few basic bread and dough ratios that you can put to good use right now:

  • 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 herbed bread, or lemon and poppyseeds for a savory quickbread.
  • Pie Dough is always 3:2:1, flour to fat to water. This one’s pretty universal, barring any of your mom’s secrets for a perfect pie crust, like a using vodka (although really, that one applies too ), or working the dough over as little as possible. Just remember to keep your fat as cold as possible.
  • Pasta is always 3:2, flour to egg. Homemade, fresh pasta is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t have to be some artisan thing you get at a specialty market. Making your own is as easy as stirring up flour and eggs by hand into a dough and rolling it out. Assume one egg per person when you craft your ratios, and again, weigh everything. 3:2 tells you how much everything should weigh, not how many eggs to use.
  • Cookies are 3:2:1, flour to fat to sugar. Of course, this will vary a bit depending on the other things you plan to add to your cookies, but basic sugar cookies follow this ratio very closely. If you plan to add a mess of chocolate chips or something else relatively sweet, you may want to scale back on your sugar a little bit. If you plan to add something thick like peanut butter, you may want to pull back a little on the fat. Still, this is a good jumping off point for any cookie recipe.
  • Pancakes are usually 2:2:1:1/2, flour to liquid to egg to fat (butter). This one’s a little trickier, but you could just mix everything up in this ratio and come out with delicious pancakes. The key here is that the best pancakes require a little sugar (a few teaspoons), maybe a teaspoon of vanilla extract for flavor, a few teaspoons of baking powder to make them fluffy, and so on. You can experiment here, but the key is to understand that simple pancakes are really easy. The liquid you use can be milk or water, it’s up to you, and the fat can be oil or butter (although I’d suggest the latter).
  • Crepes are always 1:1:1/2, liquid to egg to flour. If you’re ready to take things to the next level, a good (western-style) crepe batter is really simple to make (and much easier than actually cooking the crepes, for which you’ll need a good non-stick griddle). It’s just milk, egg, and flour. You can add aromatics to the batter if you want, like herbs or a dash of ground spice to make your crepe batter stand out.

Remember, these ratios are the basics, and they always apply, whether you’re making a big batch or small batch. They’re also jumping off points: If you find your pancakes aren’t as fluffy as you prefer, you’ll want a teaspoon or two of baking soda. If you find your cookies are too sweet, you can cut back on the sugar.

You may still want to consult a line-by-line recipe if you’re making something specific, but one thing is certain: Once you have your measurements down and you know your basics inside and out, you’ll look at those recipes for their additives and their alternative ingredients, not for instruction. After all, you’ll already know how to make bread you just want to know how to make a special kind of bread.

Beyond baking: sauces, dressings, and stocks

Ratio cooking is ideal for recipes that have common ingredients—which is why it works so well with breads, baking, and other pastries—but that’s not the end of it. Many simple sauces, stocks, and roux are also governed by simple mathematics, simple “this much this to that much that” descriptions. Here’s what we mean:

  • 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 pre-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.
  • Mayonnaise is 20:1, oil to liquid (plus yolk). Homemade mayo is a bit of a tricky one, since that “liquid” is usually water and/or lemon juice. Depending on the kind of mayo you want to make, you may use more water than lemon, lime instead of lemon, all lemon and no water, and so on. The egg yolk plays a significant role too—usually about one yolk for a solid cup of mayonnaise. Mix it all up with a standing mixer, immersion blender, whatever it takes to get a good emulsion , or proper suspension of that oil and liquid. Ruhlman notes in his book that most emulsions break due to insufficient water, not insufficient yolk, so don’t worry about the lack of egg. Don’t be afraid to toss in other flavors either—herbs, shallots, salt to taste, even cayenne pepper for heat. Like we said, the ratio is the baseline and the only limit is your tastes.
  • Brines are usually 20:1, water to salt. This ratio will give you a simple brine, no matter what you want to put into it. If you’re brining a turkey, it’ll do the job. A few pork chops or a chicken you plan to roast? Sure. It’s a perfect starter recipe—but the beauty of a brine is that it doesn’t just keep meat moist, it can also impart flavor, which is why many brines also add sugar, pepper, herbs, and other spices. I’m a big fan of Bon Appetit’s “Simple” Brine , which is a riff on Alton Brown’s classic brine recipe . All of them however, follow this simple rule.
  • 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.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, too. Hollandaise follows a similar rule (5:1:1, butter to yolk to liquid), but it’s a bit more complicated and we don’t want to do it a disservice by oversimplifying it. Even custards and cremes follow their own ratio rules, and once you learn to see them in the recipes you find, you’ll be able to make as many variations as your heart desires. While these ratios came from a number of places, Ruhlman’s book focuses on them significantly, and he even offers up some recipes for specific types of mayo, a perfect consomme, and more.

If you’re really interested in this and want to take it to the next level, Ruhlman offers a $5 iPhone app that focus on ratios (and has built-in calculators to translate measurements for you), but his book is the more worthwhile buy.

Perhaps most importantly, learning a few simple ratios for the things you like to (or want to) cook empowers you to look past line-by-line recipes and explore your own favorite flavors and ingredients in the dishes you already know and love. As Ruhlman notes, when you understand how a ratio works, it’s not like knowing one recipe—it’s like knowing all of them.

This article was originally published in October 2013 and updated on Jan. 25, 2021 to incorporate updated links and information, add a new header image, and revise the content to align with current Lifehacker style.