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Cooking ideas using formulas, not recipes
November 16, 2010 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Cooking by formula rather than recipe?

Im not sure if "formula" is the correct word but I'm wondering if there's a way to know what things typically go well together then create dishes from that. It seems when I have a recipe that I am always missing a few items and winging it doesnt always lead to the best results.
posted by mbird to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
See Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and the Flavor Bible.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:49 PM on November 16, 2010 [15 favorites]


'The Flavor Bible' is nicely done, and inspiring to look through, though it misses some flavors you might care about if you cook non-European-type cuisine.

Professional bakers typically go by 'baker's percentages', which allow them to scale up and down freely. Plus, it allows you to understand recipes more clearly, since for example the hydration ratio tells you a lot about the character of the bread you'll get. 'The Bread Baker's Apprentice' is a pretty good introduction to this. When I bake nowdays, I just figure out what style of bread I want, how much of it I want, and just multiply away. The three main variables are flour-to-water ratio (hydration) (usually 0.55 to 0.90, lower for dense bagel-like loaves, higher for loose bubbly flat loaves), flour-to-salt ratio (~0.015), and flour-to-yeast ratio (~0.006 for dry yeast), and after doing a few batches this way it becomes pretty natural.
posted by Hither at 9:00 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Flavour Thesaurus -- a compendium of what goes well together, both traditiona land modern with examples and recipes and foodpairing.be a well site which allows you to pair foods based on chemical components in common (which is often what makes them taste good together).
posted by tallus at 9:01 PM on November 16, 2010


What melissasaurus said. Ratio will give you the basics - the foundation of the "formula." Flavor Bible will help you expand on that. Ratio is also available as an iphone app. Though Ratio does have some recipes (and Flavor Bible may as well, my copy isn't at hand) neither is a traditional cookbook and both (esp. FB) assume a certain level of comfort\experience in the kitchen.
posted by sanko at 9:08 PM on November 16, 2010


Melissasaurus nails it. Ratio is a great starting point. How to Cook Everything by Bittman is also good for suggesting flavor combos to try after mastering the basic recipe.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:08 PM on November 16, 2010


In terms of cooking, not baking I've found the suggestions in Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything to be a good starting point at the very least. (I'm not the biggest fan of his baking recipes, but the above links have you well covered there). My only other suggestion is to keep reading recipes - and if you don't have the ingredients for one, look for another similar recipe online.
posted by maryr at 9:09 PM on November 16, 2010


When putting things together based solely on intuition, I try to stick to regional combinations. For instance, you might put oregano in an Italian dish, but not a French one. If you're cooking lamb, you probably want to go Greek, whereas pork will be better with Asian dishes. Repitition is really the only way to get these right, but certain ingredients just seem to like each other. Roast beef and onion, chicken and thyme, mushrooms and rosemary, and tomatoes and basil are all classics for a reason. The further you go down this wormhole, the more you'll realize that as far as cuisine goes, pretty much everything good has already been invented. Just look for the classics, and you're sure to discover that yourself.

All that said, I prefer my vinaigrette at about a 2:1 oil to vinegar ratio, while my wife prefers something closer to a 3:1. It's all in your taste.
posted by Gilbert at 9:37 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Old episodes of Good Eats are filled with info like this. Most of the recipes are explained in a way that you can do it one of many ways as long as you follow the right procedure, plus, the show rocks!

You can find episodes on Hulu.com
posted by darkgroove at 9:53 PM on November 16, 2010


Things that grow together regionally and seasonally go together.

Also, I recommend sticking to a cuisine for a while so that you can become familiar with it's taste profile. There's remarkably fewer types of ingredients and typical combinations in, say, Italian food than you might expect.

Learn the base recipes, like say pasta, bread, risotto separate from its unique ingredients. This makes it much easier to master, remember and riff on recipes.

When your tasting food you are looking for a balance of salty, sour, sweet, bitter. You also want a variety of textures such as crunchy and silky.
posted by xammerboy at 9:54 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like Nigel Slater's recipes for the "what's missing" element: they're at the opposite end from Ruhlman, in that the proportions are loose and baggy, but they're but they're really good at suggesting substitutions and variations -- especially in The Kitchen Diaries, where he writes out the process of matching his cravings with his larder, winging it as often as he plans a meal in advance.

But combine that with the knowledge that comes from tasting: you'll soon know when something needs more acidity, or heat, or whatever it's lacking.
posted by holgate at 9:55 PM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ahh, thank you holgate, for reminding me of my soon-to-be wildly admired comparison between cooking a meal and setting the EQ on a stereo. In this particular metaphor, earthy flavors (root vegetables, tubers, mushrooms, salt) are your bass, proteins (anything from rice to chicken to red meat) are your mid, and acids and heat (lemon, pepper, tabasco, etc.) are your high notes. I have no idea if this makes any sense to anyone else, but I can often spot what's missing from a dish just by not finding enough of one of these components.
posted by Gilbert at 10:30 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Consider it admired. Salt's an important one: years of hypertension warnings have made people wary, but salting to taste can sometimes be the "what's missing" all by itself.
posted by holgate at 11:48 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nthing Ruhlman's Ratio book. And, frankly, these are all really great suggestions.

I also find that reading food blogs, especially Serious Eats, can be a great ongoing habit. They cover a lot of different cuisines. They do both recipes and articles about food. They can be incredibly technical (check out their Food Lab posts), but then they're also not afraid to throw up the occasional recipe that calls for cream of mushroom soup. Which the commenters will readily offer up substitutes for, because eeewww, who uses cream of mushroom soup?

On another note: if you find that you often have a problem with having all the ingredients (or reasonable substitutes) for a dish, maybe the problem is not with knowing what goes together, but with keeping a well-stocked pantry? I will never forget the recipe I was making which called for both goat cheese and sour cream. Somehow I got it into my head that you could substitute yogurt for both of those ingredients. Ummmm, no.
posted by Sara C. at 11:52 PM on November 16, 2010


I read The Science of Cooking. It really helped me to understand what different ingredients contribute (chemically speaking) to a dish.

It's much easier to guess what would make a good substitute for an ingredient when you know WHY that ingredient is in there.
posted by emilyw at 2:29 AM on November 17, 2010


Another vote for Ruhlman's Ratio, Bittman's How To Cook Everything, and Serious Eats. All have become indispensable in my kitchen--especially Bittman.
posted by slogger at 5:02 AM on November 17, 2010


I assume we are just talking about cooking meals / dishes not backing cakes or making bread etc.

I think it just comes down to regular cooking / experimenting and also just eating a wide variety of foods. (and trying to identify what is making something work).

With time you just develop this big database in your head of combinations that you know work or suspect will work from cooking and eating in restaurants.
posted by mary8nne at 5:21 AM on November 17, 2010


Cooking for Geeks also covers some of this.
posted by alms at 5:55 AM on November 17, 2010


seconding for cooking its about trial and error. Master a few techniques, learn how things taste alone and combined with other ingredients et voila - you are a competant home cook. If you thinking of combining two ingredients you can good search for them together to see if they are in other recipes out there. If you find it is a pretty common pairing.

I think books and websites are the wrong way to go with this sort of thing - you aren't really learning how to cook, but rather learning how to cook something.

For baking something like ratio or bakewise are helpful though because they'll explain why the recipe is what it is. For cooking not so important.

and yes also - the number one fault newbie home cooks make is seasoning. If you don't eat much in the way of prepared foods or snack foods you can have a pretty free hand with salt.
posted by JPD at 5:57 AM on November 17, 2010


Also - self-confidence is key. Sure in the beginning you're gonna make some awful things - but its a learning process. Don't go running to some source for everything you do.
posted by JPD at 5:59 AM on November 17, 2010


You might beinterested in this previous ask.me question.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:02 AM on November 17, 2010


Nthing "Ratio," in particular the iPhone version which I find more focused than the hardcover.

Also, Julia Childs' late masterwork, the Way to Cook. Done in a master recipes-with-variations style, working your way through it will ensure you have a solid skill level. I am now absolutely FEARLESS in a kitchen, thanks to Way to Cook.

Another useful addition in this same general area is the Art of Cooking, by Alice Waters. Ms. Waters' politics must be taken with a grain of salt, as it were, depending on where you live, but she's absolutely spot on when she advocates fewer, fresher ingredients and allowing them to shine individually and together.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:17 AM on November 17, 2010


How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know By Heart by Pam Anderson is pretty good. (I suggest ignoring the utterly wretched doggerel verse at the beginning of each chapter.)
posted by Lexica at 8:44 PM on November 17, 2010


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