If you remember the ratios for the basic baking recipes, you can bake almost anything. Recipes can be very difficult to remember and to memorize, but ratios are generally more memorable and usually work out to a formula that is easy to commit to memory, to use, to scale up or down.
Why work with ratios
Whenever I come across a new baking recipe that intrigues me, I always try to work out the ratio to see if this "new to me" recipe fits into a ratio that I am already familiar with. It's a method to dissect a recipe to allow you to understand what makes it tick. It's also a way to learn how recipe writers deviate from the basics to come up with new recipes.
In baking, it's very difficult to reinvent the cake recipe because at its core, the amounts of each ingredient relative to each other have to fit a certain mould, otherwise you risk throwing off the recipe.For example, if you have a basic vanilla layer cake recipe that you like and you want to adapt it to make it lemon flavoured. You can't just add lemon juice to the recipe and expect the same results, though lemon-flavoured. You have to take away from one ingredient and replace it with the lemon juice, otherwise, you may end up with too much liquid in the batter, resulting in a gummy cake that is impossible to properly bake through.
The same goes for frostings: if you like Italian meringue buttercream, and you want to turn the vanilla buttercream into an orange buttercream, you can't just add in orange juice. The orange juice will probably lead to a broken buttercream where you've lost the emulsion and the solid fat is separated from the liquid. It would be impossible to fix at that point.
In order to work with ratios and get creative, you need to understand the roles of the ingredients used in baking and what each ingredient contributes to a recipe. You're also going to have to get very familiar with the ins and outs of baking substitutions. The good news is that baking is pretty logical and once you understand the ingredients, the techniques, and the ratios, you can pretty much create anything you want, with a little dose of experimenting to perfect your final product.
I'm trying to recall when did ratios make an appearance when we were in school? A ratio is a fraction, so ratios would have come up in math class: a 1-to-1 ratio can be written as 1:1 and we know that works out to equal parts. Another way to express a one-to-one ratio is 50/50 or as 50 %. Why? Well, if you have two equal parts that are one-to-one, the whole is two parts. And each portion represents half of the whole, i.e. the fraction ½ or 0.5, which translates to 50 % of the whole. Clearly, I'd make a terrible math teacher, so let's move on...
When you want to calculate ratios, you divide all the components by the same number, usually the smallest number of the recipe. The goal is to bring the components down to the smallest whole numbers they can be:
- If I tell you a shortbread recipe is 115 grams of sugar, 230 grams of butter, and 345 grams of flour: divide all the quantities by 115 grams, which leaves you with 1 of sugar, 2 of butter, and 3 of flour. The ratio is 1:2:3, by weight.
- If I tell you the cake is made with 2 cups of butter, 4 cups of sugar, 6 cups of flour: divide all the numbers by 2 cups and you end up with 1 of butter, 2 of sugar, 3 of flour. That's a 1:2:3 ratio, by volume.
- If I tell you the biscuits are made with a recipe that is 60 grams of butter, 120 grams of milk, and 180 grams of flour, divide all the quantities by 60 grams, and you end up with a ratio of 1:2:3, by weight.
One thing to note, when you are working with ratios, you have to know if the ratio is by volume or by weight because volumes and weights are not the same thing!
A few basic baking ratios to remember
The pound cake
The pound cake is based on a ratio by weight and each ingredient must weigh a pound: a pound of butter + a pound of sugar + a pound of eggs + a pound of flour (a 1:1:1:1 ratio by weight). Traditionally, you would use the creaming mixing method to incorporate a ton of air in the butter and sugar before adding the other ingredients. The pound cake used to be made without any leaveners, but these days, we'd rather give our pound cakes a little help with some leavening agents, like baking powder and/or baking soda. Given that the ratio of the pound cake is actually 1:1:1:1, by weight, you can easily scale up or down the recipe to fit your bakeware.
The French "quatre quarts" is also a pound cake
The French cake called "quatre quarts" is made by weighing out quarters, so one quarter of the weight is butter, one quarter of the weight is sugar, one quarter of the weight is eggs, and one quarter of the weight is flour. Guess what: that's exactly the same as the pound cake because all ingredients are equal by weight and the ratio is still 1:1:1:1. Growing up, the quatre quarts were referred to simply as cake because the word "cake" is a French baking term that actually translates to a loaf cake specifically or a cake baked in a loaf pan. Traditionally, the quatre quarts is baked in a loaf pan, which is called "un moule à cake".
Both the pound cake and the quatre quarts have a ratio of 1:1:1:1 of butter/sugar/eggs/flour by weight.
The life-changing 1-2-3-4 ratio for cakes
Bundt cake recipes are as easy as 1-2-3-4, though actually the working ratio is better represented by 1:1:2:3:4, by volume. If you can remember those numbers, you can literally make any cake, actually. The base recipe for a bundt is 1 cup butter + 1 cup milk + 2 cups sugar + 3 cups flour + 4 large eggs . That's all you have to remember and that recipe makes enough batter to fit a 10 to 12 cup bundt pan (the big one).
Of course, if you are baking the 1-2-3-4 cake recipe with all-purpose flour, which most of us are, you will need to add leavening agents, like baking powder and/or baking soda to help your cakes rise. To replace the milk, you can use 250 mL (1 cup) of another liquid, like buttermilk, or you can even replace the 250 mL (1 cup) of milk with 375 mL (1.5 cups) of sour cream.
Other ways of tweaking the 1-2-3-4 cake:
- add chunks of chocolate or chocolate chips to the batter, like for this chocolate chip bundt cake
- add fruit, like diced apple, like for this apple bundt cake with salted caramel glaze, but you can also try adding cranberries, chopped pear, or even peaches!
- add spices
- vary the type of sugar and replace some of the granulated sugar with some brown sugar, for example
Shortbread are as easy as 1-2-3
The shortbread ratio is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour, by weight. That's all you need to remember. Then, if you want to make a small batch of shortbread, go with 50 grams of sugar, 100 grams of butter, and 150 grams of flour. If you want to make a bigger batch, weight out 100 grams of sugar, 200 grams of butter, and 300 grams of flour. You can easily scale up and down this recipe to fit the amount of cookies you want to bake, your pan size, the ingredients you have on hand, etc. This ratio can be used for plain shortbread or for fancier recipes like these lavender shortbread dipped in white chocolate.
Biscuits are also as easy as 1-2-3
Biscuits and scones also fall into a 1-2-3 ratio, by weight: 100 grams of butter, 200 grams of liquid, 300 grams of flour. Again, you can scale this recipe up or down depending on how many biscuits or scones you want to make. And you can add a little sugar for sweet biscuits if you want to serve raspberry shortcakes or ice cream strawberry shortcakes for dessert. You can also work in a little sugar to the 1-2-3 ratio if you are making sweet scones, like these lavender white chocolate scones, or these date scones.
Meringues are 2:1
If you need to make a meringue, just remember that you need 2 parts sugar and 1 part egg whites, by weight, so the meringue ratio is 2:1. Then you can make a little meringue with just 30 grams of egg whites (equivalent to 1 egg white) and 60 grams of sugar, or a lot of meringue with 300 grams of egg whites (from roughly 10 eggs) and 600 grams of sugar. And once you've mastered meringue, you can make an Italian meringue buttercream, for example, by beating in some butter! The same ratio works for pavlovas, and this chocolate pavlova comes pretty close to this ratio. Marshmallow recipes are also sometimes meringue based and again, the 2:1 ratio holds true, like with these vanilla marshmallows.
Resources to help you with bake with ratios
If you want to use ratios more when you bake so that you can start getting creative, I highly recommend a few resources to help you:
- Michael Ruhlman wrote a whole book dedicated to ratios and it's called Ratio. In this book he's documented most of the ratios you might need to bake. You can buy on Amazon
- Consult the guide to baking conversions and sign up to get the pdf version of the baking conversions chart
- Invest in the book The Baker's Appendix, also available on Amazon, which is another great resource for understanding how to convert ingredients from one unit of measure to another, like from cups to grams
- Get a kitchen scale, so that you can work with ratios by weight, and not just ratios by volume. I love my OXO kitchen scale and the newest version is available on Amazon.
- Get familiar with baking conversions and download the baking conversions chart if you haven't already.
Realistically, you will find along that way that you can't simplify every single baking recipe to a neat and tidy ratio, like 1-2-3-4. Trust me, I try to all the time and I get frustrated. Still, the exercise of analyzing a recipe, breaking it down into the ingredients, the ratios, and the techniques will make you a better baker and is key to mastering baking! And when you realize that most baking recipes fit some sort of formula or ratio, it's very exciting and opens up the doors to so many creative possibilities.