Formulas versus Recipes


While listening to the Weekly Geek podcast last week they discussed a submitted iPhone App, Ratio, by the author of the book of the same name: Michael Ruhlman. First let me say I’m completely unfamiliar with his work, his book or the App (as of the podcast it had been submitted but not yet approved and I don’t even own an iPhone so…) so this is not a commentary on the App or the book; though I am curious about the book now that I know it exists!

At any rate, the hosts were discussing the versatility of the App that, apparently, breaks down many common food items into formulas–ratios–so that the cook can design their own dishes free from the restrictions of specific recipes. All agreed that it was a cool tool but one opined that it might not be best for beginners while the other said it was PERFECT for beginners since no matter what, if they followed the ratios, the recipes couldn’t fail. Furthermore, using the example of a simple biscuit, that is didn’t matter what type of flour or fat you used, the biscuit would be correct.


Wait, seriously? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Not all ingredients are created equal and using the wrong one can spell disaster for a recipe. Even if an item is chemically correct, if it doesn’t taste good or have the correct texture, it has failed in it’s purpose of flavorful sustenance.

Because I’m a hands-on type of girl, I propose the following hypothesis:

Using a fairly basic 3:1:2::flour:fat:milk ratio for biscuits (allowing self-rising flour for simplicities sake) the use of cold butter, melted butter and olive oil (a fat frequently interchangeable with butter in other culinary applications and generally considered to be healthier) will produce vastly different results, 2 of which will not be what is normally considered a biscuit.

So I tried it. And the results were pretty much as I predicted. I used self rising flour only because I didn’t want to make a huge batch of biscuits each time (another claim by the pro-beginner host was that if you only wanted to make one of something, you could) so I did things in a single-serving size and used the traditional cold butter, melted it because I can see folks thinking that they’ll maybe soften it and going too far but using it anyway and olive for the stated health and versatility reasons.

I’m assuming a tiny bit of knowledge that I maybe shouldn’t: that the fat should be cut into the flour before any sort of liquid is added. I have no idea what level of instruction (if any) the Ratio App provides, but since the other two options are semi-liquid and liquid fats I figure we’ll get a sense of the dump-it-in technique as well. When I mixed the olive oil and melted butter each with the self-rising flour there was definite clumping and, as I figured would happen, so much of the flour bonded with the liquid in those fats that when it came time to add the milk it… didn’t mesh well.

But I baked them anyway! Placing each on a labeled piece of parchment paper and into a 435-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Once again, the results were predictable. The regular (control) biscuit was flaky, buttery and what you would generally expect when you hear the word biscuit. The melted-butter version was kinda clumpy and had a horrible texture inside: definitely not light and fluffy. If some of the butter doesn’t stay by itself so it can get all hot and steamy inside the flour, it just doesn’t turn out well. The olive oil had a slightly better texture and the flavor wasn’t actually bad, but it was more like a pancake than a biscuit–olive oil has no structure of its own to lend to the biscuit and it incorporates well with the flour and milk because it lacks milk solids the way the butter does.

And I haven’t even touched on the differences that could arise (hah!) from the use of different flours or if they wanted to, say, substitute buttermilk for regular milk–yes, you can do it but it affects the leavening you need, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I love formulas and the idea of the Ratio App is fabulous for someone like me who knows ingredients and techniques and is more likely to sit down and figure out a ratio for myself so that I can experiment with a recipe. I love books like Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible that is uber-meticulous and my own Baking textbook from Culinary School has everything in weights (something else Ruhlman encourages) and baker’s formulas (everything is done as a percentage compared to the amount of flour in the recipe, so you frequently end up with things totally in the 300% range or more which can be confusing if you’ve never seen it before). But, in this case, I have to side empiracly with the host that said this was NOT ideal for the beginners. As restrictive as recipes can be, they provide a framework that beginners can feel safe in, learn the basics from and then experiment.

One thought on “Formulas versus Recipes

  1. Pingback: Twit-bits for 2009-12-14 — Scraps (n. ,fem., singular)

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