Friday, May 29, 2009

Recipe Pro-Tool

Michael Ruhlman’s recent post about cookbooks that teach got me thinking about how much I used to love cookbooks. Back when I was a novice cook, books like “The Joy of Cooking,” “The Professional Chef” (the basis of The Culinary Institute of Americas' “The New Professional Chef”), Henri Pellaprat’s “Modern Culinary Art,” almost anything by Ada Boni and Julia Child and, of course, “Le Guide Culinaire” by Auguste Escoffier and La Scienza della Cucina by Pelligrino Artusi were an important part of my culinary education. Some were goldmines of information about technique (e.g. The Pro Chef, “La Methode” by Jacques Pepin) and recipes while the ones I liked best were backward looking works chosen more for what they could tell me about the history, culture and ideology of European culinary tradition.

Nowadays, I’ve little use for cookbooks. I have a few that I refer to when I need to be reminded of the the name of a dish or the ratio of it’s ingredients, but there aren’t too many things in the western culinary canon that I have to cook (or chose to cook) that I can’t make up on the fly without having to refer to somebody else’s recipe.

That’s about how it should be for a cook I suppose. I mean, is not a big part of the reason we decide to center our lives around cooking so that we can create recipes that reflect our values and tastes? There is certainly nothing wrong with working from recipes written by other people and trying to satisfy our creative drive by say, changing an ingredient or applying a different technique to one or more the steps. But I find building my own recipes more fulfilling.

I don’t usually write recipes unless I am creating them for work and I rarely include the instructions for method unless I’m working on something that is very new to me. Then, if the dish doesn't come out well and needs refinement I have a precise record of what I did to review.

I write my recipes for commercial production in a form that would probably madden cooks who like to measure liquids and semi-solids volumetrically.

  1. Every ingredient is weighed and each weight is expressed as a decimal.
  2. All weights are expressed in metric units (mostly grams)
  3. All ingredients are expressed as a percentage of the main ingredient to facilitate scaling up and down (called a baker or formula percentage)

Here is an example in the form of a recipe for Chicken Sausage with Ginger and Green Onions

Ingredient Weight Percentage
Chicken meat 8636g 1
Salt 121g 0.014
Pepper, black 34g 0.004
Ginger in syrup* 173g 0.020
Green Onions 224g 0.026
Mustard, dry 13g 0.0015
White wine 604 g (~604 ml) 0.070

* Whole unpeeled ginger cooked in simple syrup and ground through the fine on a meat grinder. The ginger has to be cooked if the sausage will sit uncooked for more than a few hours. Otherwise the proteolytic enzymes in the ginger will turn the meat to mush.

I initially made this recipe by weighing small amounts of each ingredient and recording the weights before adding them in. Each time I added something sniffed the mixture to determine if it was properly seasoned. I can usually nail the seasoning of a sausage recipe via an olfactory and visual check but on those occasions where I am unsure I’ll cook up a sample and taste it.

I always salt fresh sausage at a rate of either 14-15g salt per 1000 grams of meat (see note below) depending on the kind of meat being used and the taste characteristics of the other ingredients. The percentage of each ingredient is obtained by dividing the weight of each by the weight of the main ingredient.

The beauty of this kind of recipe is that it makes it very easy to increase or decrease the batch size while keeping the ratio of ingredients consistent and producing a consistent product no matter how much or how little you make.

Want to make more or less? Then enter the new weight of the meat and multiply it by the percent values of the subordinate ingredients and you are done.

The example I gave here is for sausage, but this format works for any kind of recipe. Just pick a main ingredient (It does not have to be the most abundant, it could, for example be the most expensive. Then divide the weight of each subsequent ingredient by the weight of the main ingredient to determine its percentage value.

Finally, one can purchase software that will scale recipes up and down for you automatically. Or you can write the formula recipe into a spread sheet, apply costs and so on. (I’ve done this.) But typing on a keyboard when your fingers are fouled with food is not such a good idea. So writing them out by hand is usually the best way to go.

Note: The previously given rate of 0.014-0.015g salt per 1000g meat was in error and has been corrected to read 14-15g salt per 1000g meat.


ntsc said...

You don't really mean this statement: " I always salt fresh sausage at a rate of either 0.014 g or 0.015 g salt per 1000 grams of meat depending on the kind of meat being used... "

Else you are speaking of adding salt in the ratio of 1/100,000th to the weight of the meat and why bother? I would think you mean 14 or 15 grams, which is the ratio of 1:0.014 given in the chart.

I find that I am using mass more and more in cooking and exclusively in sausage making provided mass is given.

blondee47 said...

What does a person like me do, when I am just not mathematically inclined...why the world of chefs was ever considered a fail-safe career obviously never read a Star-Chef's ad for a sous-chef...i do not believe a cook can simply learn on the line for some of the job requirements needed in the upper echelons of high end food service...

Gary Allen said...

I read cookbooks all the time... but rarely use the recipes. The books I use tend to be very old (and their historical aspects are more import to me than their culinary potential).

On the other hand, when I find that my own cooking has become predictable, I often read recipes to find new flavor combinations to try -- but even then, I don't follow the recipe.