Universal Recipes

My dad put himself through college working as a short-order cook on the Great Northern Line. One of the things that he learned in that time was impeccable timing on assembling complete meals. He doesn’t bother to do it, anymore, but I used to ask him stuff like, “ham and eggs with muffins, eggs benedict, and 2 softboiled eggs with fruit” and he’d tell me what he’d make in what sequence. (get the 3 minute eggs on the fire first then use the heating water to melt the butter for the eggs benedict, then poach them) – the stove in the cook’s car was ridiculously small, so he had to gang things together a lot of the time.

One time I asked him to teach me how to make pancakes. He said, “I can’t do that, but I can make a batch and you can watch and see what you can figure out.” Dad knew how to do it so well that he didn’t think about it, so he wasn’t interested in recalling the process to memory and turning it into a lesson. That was “work” to him. By the way, he used the same methodology to teach me how to drive: “you got clutch, brake, throttle and steering wheel. Let’s go to the parking lot at school and see what you can figure out.”

Watching the pancakes was a revelation: it seemed like he knew exactly the right amount of batter to make N pancakes reliably, and he could back from N to an ingredients list instantly. One time we were in Paris and there was a street vendor selling crepes (with Nutella!) and I asked about crepe batter. “Oh, you just make it a bit thinner with more milk, and butterier with more butter.” By then, I was an accomplished pancake artist, and I remember feeling like my head had just exploded.

Fast forward to 1997. My buddy Mike G’s wife Lynn used to sometimes make popovers for us. Damn, they were good! When Lynn began to lose her battle with a brain tumor, she wrote down her precious recipe and gave it to me as a going away present. It’s in my memory drawer. I started making popovers and it didn’t take me long to realize that popover batter is the same as crepe batter except even butterier – and, since popovers are very thickness sensitive, there’s a recommended flour (1.25 cup), egg (3) butter (3 tbsp) and milk (1.25 cup) quantity. Popovers are the original “cup cake” by the way, in the same way that pancakes are, um, “pan cake.” – There are different ways of cooking what amount to exactly the same recipe. Lynn was always super careful about her recipe being exact, but I knew there had to be a certain amount of leeway, so I started making it “dad style” – i.e.: just making the universal batter a bit buttery and a bit runny, and making it rise by lofting enough air into it with a whisk so that the bubbles would steam and the mix would expand as it cooked.

I use my microwave oven almost exclusively for melting small batches of jeweler’s wax, butter for pancakes, or defrosting frozen breads.

Making the stuff rise is another ‘mystery’ – breads and cakes can be made to rise in one of 3 ways. There are probably more (add dog fur to it?) but arguendo:

  • loft air into the mix with a whisk; the air expands with heat and the batter rises.
  • add baking powder, which is a mix of acid and baking soda that creates small bubbles of carbon dioxide in the batter which expand similarly to the air.
  • use yeast; as the little fungusy buggers begin to wake up and come to life they start pooping out carbon dioxide which makes the dough/batter expand.

Yeast is deprecated for pastry making because it confers a yummy but noticeable flavor of its own.

air lofted in with a wisk (and I added a bit of baking powder, sue me)

So, if you have no baking powder, you make your pancake batter a tiny bit thicker and whomp air into it with a whisk. Note the way there are lots of bubbles formed in the batter above. Those are what will make the pancakes rise or the popovers pop over. I am morally certain that Lynn’s popovers wouldn’t be harmed by a bit of baking powder and less elbow grease, but I use her recipe faithfully because it reminds me of that strange, proud, thoughtful woman (who knit like a goddess).

Plan B is you use baking soda and add a bit of dry citric acid powder to it, mix it up, and you have baking powder. You could also use a bit of vinegar but: noticeable flavor of its own. So why not use slightly sour buttermilk? The bacteria in that are pooping out CO2 as fast as they can and they’ll make your pancakes rise a bit, but you’ll get a characteristic flavor.

From here, if you’re sciency, you can extrapolate all the other options and figure out the rest. But for the sake of fun I’ll explain things more fully.

pancake ready to flip

There is also the way you cook it. Pancakes are fried in a pan (cook until the back is no longer liquid and all the bubbles are popped then flip it over for a while) I’ll tell you a secret: I use silicone popover trays and teflon frying pans only for pancakes and popovers. I’m just not patient with my breakfast sticking to things. If you never overheat the teflon pans and just wipe them with a paper towel they will last for a very long time.

Back in the early 2000s a friend was visiting and gave me a waffle iron. How cool! So I made a batch of the universal (popover tuning) batter and we had great waffles. It’s all the same thing, right? If you ponder this a little while and internalize it, you are now prepared to dominate a large number of breakfast problems, effortlessly. I’ll formalize the method at the bottom of the posting; be patient.

I know people who buy Bisquick and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, I shake my head sadly because they’re buying flour and baking powder in a box. Just add the other 3 ingredients (milk, eggs, butter) – it’s not far from buying “dehydrated water: add 1gal water to make 1gal fresh water.” Biscuits are just drier pancake batter with the butter folded in loosely instead of whisked in. Cook them in a shorter cup than you’d use for your popovers and they’re muffinoids, or roll them out thickly and cut them in disks and they’re ninja hockey butter pucks. English muffins are the same thing except the hockey pucks are fried and one side is non-sticked using milled corn. You can use buttermilk for those. or butter and milk, or just butter or just milk depending on how badly your kitchen is out of supply. Seriously, though, don’t buy the Bisquick – it’s maybe a fraction of a second faster than just throwing things around and whomping them up.

And this is why I got around to this posting:

Jack’s mom, voyager, sent me a great big bottle of Canadian maple syrup! Wow is that stuff great. Voyager: a great big “thank you” to you!

So, here’s the universal breakfasty batter recipe, pancake tuning:

  • One egg per person being served
  • One cup of milk per egg
  • One cup of flour per egg
  • 1 tablespoon of butter per egg (melted)
  • a spoon-tip of baking powder per egg

Unless you move as fast in the kitchen as my dad, you need an order to combine them in, so why not put the eggs in the bowl first, add the milk, add the butter, whisk it, add the flour, and add the baking powder while you whomp it some more to loft some air into it. Pour it into a frying pan (if you are worried about it sticking you can wipe the pan with butter before you heat it) and cook as described above. The crepe tuning is: add a bit more butter, add a bit more milk. The waffles tuning is the same as the crepe tuning but whomp more air into it. Usually I pause every so often to whomp air into the batter to keep it from going flat.

------ divider ------

I remember when T-fal teflon pans first came out. Dad was amazed and we got him a set for christmas that year (so we’d get more amazing breakfasts!) He still uses them, 40-odd years later. They’re down to the aluminum with no trace of teflon, which means we ate it all. At 86 dad is still showing no sign of teflon toxicity.

The hard part about popovers is cooking them. Start with the oven at 425 and let it heat, then put the cups and batter (well whomped) in and allow them to cook for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and let the oven cool down to that temperature. Do not open the door. What makes a popover pop over is that basically you want the batter to boil in the cup and congeal that way. Opening the door makes the heat drop and so does the popover. Then you wind up with buttery hockey pucks.

Nutella is great but … Well, Mike G ruined it for me. He made his own once, using clarified butter instead of coconut oil, hand-roasted hazelnuts, cashew nuts, and top quality cocoa. In 2015 I made some canabutter and decided to turn half of it into canatellabutter and it was pretty freakin’ sublime except that you do not want the munchies when you’ve got a jar of Nutella and a recipe for crepes that you’ve memorized thanks to this posting.

I believe two other universal recipes are bread/pizza dough/pasta and tomato sauce. Do you know any others?


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I’m a chemical engineer and I work on a plant that makes PTFE.

    They’re down to the aluminum with no trace of teflon, which means we ate it all

    Yeah, all of it. All roughly 3 milligrammes of it, between the family, over the life of the pan. If I dosed just you with ten times that amount of strychnine, all at once, you’d probably live. There’s really almost no PTFE on a pan at all – the several layers they apply usually amount to a thickness in the region of single-digit hundredths of a millimetre.

    At 86 dad is still showing no sign of teflon toxicity

    He’s probably not showing many signs of neutrino radiation poisoning either, for similar reasons.

    Teflon isn’t just not toxic, under anything like normal conditions it’s nigh on impossible to get it to react at all with anything at all. That’s why, if you want to pump hot pressurised concentrated acid down a steel pipe, you line it with Teflon. Unless your digestive system is operating at several dozen atmospheres of pressure and using HF instead the normal acids, any Teflon you ingest slides right on through entirely untouched and with absolutely zero effect on your body.

    And now, an engineer’s rant:

    One cup of milk per egg

    What the FUCK use is that supposed to be?

    First of all, eggs come in different sizes. “One egg” might be 55g or 70g. That’s a difference of 20%+!!! So – large egg, or small egg? It matters.

    Second – which cup? The cup I serve espressos in? The tea cup? The coffee cup? The hot chocolate mug, the comedy one the size of a bucket? The baby’s sippy cup? Which fucking idiot first wrote a recipe and decided that “cup” was a sensible measure for communicating recipes? (Answer: some fuckwit who literally only had one cup in their kitchen, AND assumed everyone else (a) only had one cup and (b) had the exact same cup as them). If only someone had come along since that moron started scribbling and invented a series of standardised measures so that we could all agree that this recipe in fact requires 236.59 millilitres of milk.

    Wait, what? A “cup” has a definition that goes to the nearest HUNDREDTH OF A MILLILITRE!?!?!?! I don’t even own an instrument that can measure volume that accurately – or weight for that matter.

    At home, I have a recipe book I wrote myself. I contains all the recipes I’ve found work for me, that I like. Except where the unbelievable arse that wrote the original recipe specified something stupid like “one cup” or “236ml”, I’ve experimented and reduced every single recipe item to the nearest usable multiple of a round number of weight that works. So this would probably be 250g milk, for starters. No need to think about meniscuses, or the markings rubbing or washing off the measuring jug. Stick the jug on the scale, zero it, weigh out 250g milk, move on.



    Sorry. Standards in general and in particular standardisation of units of measurement is the bane of the life of many engineers.

  2. dashdsrdash says

    _Ratios_ by Michael Ruhlman is a cookbook entirely dedicated to what you’re calling universal recipes. There’s a free PDF of the bread-through-crepes table available.

    The columns are flour, liquid, egg, fat and sugar; there are 12 rows from bread through crepes.

    From one of his blog posts:

    “We have been trained in America to believe that we can’t cook unless we have a recipe in hand. I am not saying recipes are bad or wrong—I use them all the time; there are plenty of recipes in the new book—but when we rely completely on recipes, we cooks do ourselves a grave disservice. We remain chained to the ground, we remain dependent on our chains. When you are dependent on recipes, you are a factory worker on the assembly line; when you possess ratios and basic technique, you own the company.”

  3. chigau (違う) says

    sonofrojblake #1

    …250g milk…

    skim milk? 2%? full fat?
    cow? goat?

  4. sonofrojblake says

    @chigau, 3: LOL, touché. “Emergency backup supply. We’re on the dog’s milk.”

    Then again – while it definitely matters for simply drinking the stuff, and I might even be persuaded it matters a bit if you’re putting it on your cornflakes, for the majority of recipes I don’t believe it matters whether you use skimmed, semi or full fat, any more than it matters if you use butter or “I can’t believe it’s not” or white or wholemeal flour. Which is to say there definitely is going to be a difference, but not enough to worry about, so just use whatever’s in your cupboard/fridge. Whereas “cup” is just wilfully obtuse and confusing.

  5. Jazzlet says

    sonofrojblake @# 1 & 4
    The desire for precision in this sort of recipe is misplaced, the whole point of universal recipes is that you know how to alter the ratios of the different ingredients to produce different results. As long as any individual cook uses the same kind of measurements, be it volume or weight, and the same size eggs they will get decent results by changing the ratios in the way Marcus has outlined.
    To further disagree with you the kind of fat you use does matter, many of the spreads like “I can’t believe it’s not” contain a lot of water which will change the ratio of water to fat to flour. It’s why they often say “not suitable for baking” on the packs. You could use lard or good dripping or bacon fat instead of butter, but you need to make sure anything else has no water in it.

    Chigau @#5
    Sorry, but as the page you linked to notes a pint can be 16 or twenty fluid ounces depending on where you are so any reference to a pint as a standard size is out. Tablespoons are also variable in size.

    Where Marcus is entirely wrong is in what he has called the different results, initially he is clearly making large drop scones, then pancakes, then Yorkshire puddings ;-)

    I’d add sauces made with a roux, to the univeral recipe list. Once you’ve mastered the basic white sauce you can alter it’s thickness for different purposes, the liquid used and of course flavour it in dozens of different ways.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    Jazzlet #7
    re: volume measurements
    Have you ever asked the server in a bar how much is in a “pint” of beer?
    It’s a puzzler.
    UK and US fluid ounces are different.

  7. kestrel says

    Re: comments #3 and #4: LOL. Yes, it matters – it matters *quite a lot* what sort of milk you use if you are a cheese maker. As I am (and therefore I am blessed). For one thing that super-duper-pasteurized stuff will not form a curd.

    Measurements: when I’m making something I know how to make I often use my (clean) hands to measure. No need for fussy teaspoons/tablespoons etc. depending what you are making. That is however different with cheese making: there, it really does pay to carefully measure… for the most part.

    I always regarded recipes as suggestions. I do realize part of it is repeatability – if you are the sort of person who wants things to taste exactly the same way every single time, by all means, follow sonofrojblake’s suggestion to weigh things very carefully and always follow the exact same procedure. For me, it’s fine if it is different every time. I like the adventure of trying different things to see how they work.

  8. says

    it’s not far from buying “dehydrated water: add 1gal water to make 1gal fresh water.

    Actually “dehydrated water” is something I would be willing to buy.

    I dislike bottled water. It’s an immense waste of fossil fuels. Firstly, you have to manufacture the bottle. Secondly, you have to put all those water bottles in trucks and drive them to locations that are far away from where the water was originally obtained. For example, where I live it’s possible to buy water that comes from springs in the Borjomi Gorge of central Georgia. That’s ridiculous. Why can’t people just drink locally available water?

    In general, people who buy bottled water do so because it tastes differently than their tap water. Dissolved minerals influence the taste of water. If somebody was selling a mix of dry mineral salts that I could then dissolve in my tap water, I’d actually want to buy such a product.

    Personally, I live in a city where tap water is good enough to drink as is. Other people aren’t always as lucky. I have a friend who lives in the countryside in a place where he can only use the water that’s underground below his home. And it sucks, the taste is really bad. The logical solution in this case would be to install a reverse osmosis filter in order to remove all the crap from tap water, and then add some “dehydrated water” in order to improve the taste of water (very pure water also tastes poorly).

  9. sonofrojblake says

    a precise measurement. It is half a pint

    Half a US pint (473ml)? Or UK pint (568ml)? You see the problem.

    If you’re making cheese, then yes, I’ll agree the milk is very important. How many people posting in this thread have made their own cheese routinely? (As in, more than a couple of times).

    if you are the sort of person who wants things to taste exactly the same way every single time

    Ouch. Guilty as charged. I try to cook at home like I cook at work, which is to say finding a recipe that works and making happen again as exactly like last time as possible. I’ve been known to use a teaspoon to remove an extraneous gramme of milk from my porridge in the morning. I’m not proud of this obsessiveness, but it does give the desired result (desired by me, anyway). At work, it’s more important because an error in our recipes there can (and have) cause actual explosions.

    In general, people who buy bottled water do so because it tastes differently than their tap water

    I’m a big fan of blind taste tests, and I defy most people to tell the difference. (My wife and I always buy proper chocolate Hobnobs, because a blind taste test established that they are noticeably better than own-brand. Gingernuts, on the other hand, are indistinguishable, so we save about a pound a pack on those things… which in our house mounts up.)

    I think most people buy bottled water because they’re thirsty and caught short and don’t want something with sugar or other chemically flavours in it. It’s a convenience thing and they’re conned by the marketing.

    Yer man with the borehole needs an RO unit and a remineralisation bed, which is just a big tank full of calcium carbonate chips. You run the water through that slowly and it picks up the minerals that make it taste OK. Drinking RO water isn’t just insipid and unpleasant – live on it for long and you’ll start leaching calcium out of your bones. (At a previous workplace I managed the installation of an effluent plant that took factory effluent and made it drinkable. The last stages were RO and remineralisation.)

  10. says

    “Actually ‘dehydrated water’ is something I would be willing to buy.”

    Would powdered water do? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_water

    I recall a variant which used some form of fat as the shell, created as a technological spin-off of the chocolate-chip cookie wars in the U.S., but I’m coming up empty in my search for any reference to that.

  11. says

    Yes, that maple syrup is the best.
    Though your recipe is more hravy on milk and flour than mine, which uses more egg (for pancakes I use 2tbsp flour for each egg and “enough” milk). They’re the size of crêpes but thicker.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Nutella is great but…

    Look for domestic hazelnuts to become more common in the future.
    Scientists breed hazelnuts as the next cash crop for Midwest farmers

    The European plants can’t handle a tough Minnesota winter or survive a North American fungal disease known as Eastern Filbert Blight. North American hazelnut bushes are immune to the blight and survive winter.
    But unlike the European bushes, the North American hazelnuts don’t produce the consistent sizes, numbers and quality needed to be processed by machines.
    Enter the breeders…

  13. Jazzlet says

    Well as we say in the UK “a pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter”

  14. Jazzlet says

    chigau @#8
    In the UK by law draught beer has to be sold in stamped glasses that are either exactly an Imperial pint, mostly in the south where they traditionally go for flatter heads or in oversized glasses with a line to mark the exact level to draw the liquid part of the beer to for a pint, traditionally in the north where they go for far larger heads to their beer. If your beer doesn’t reach the top of the glass or the line you are legally entitled to insist on a top up and if the landlord doesn’t oblige many people will refuse the pint altogether and go elsewhere. In good pubs when someone orders a round including a lively beer the staff pull that pint first, let it settle a little while pulling other pints, then top it up before handing it over. We take our pints of beer very seriously.

  15. says

    Sonofrojblake @#11

    I think most people buy bottled water because they’re thirsty and caught short and don’t want something with sugar or other chemically flavours in it. It’s a convenience thing and they’re conned by the marketing.

    I know many people who drink bottled water at home. I also know that my state buys bottled water for government employees, because apparently they don’t want to drink tap water at their offices. “Thirsty and caught short” doesn’t describe such situations. Back when I was studying in a university, I saw majority of students drinking bottled water. I asked around why it looks like I’m the only person drinking tap water, and everybody told me that tap water isn’t as tasty as the stuff they are buying.

    By the way, it is really simple to avoid situations where you are thirsty and caught short—just carry an empty foldable bottle with you at all times. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the nearest public toilet where you will find a water faucet.

  16. consciousness razor says

    Half a US pint (473ml)? Or UK pint (568ml)? You see the problem.

    The one where Marcus lives (population: 327 million) or the one where you live (population: 66 million).
    Or we could go with the place which has the better food….

  17. says

    Andreas Avester@#18:
    I know many people who drink bottled water at home.

    Those who do should use a flouride mouthwash. A friend of mine who’s a dentist used to say that bottled water saved dentistry, because for a while they were worried that basic cavities might go away. Between bottled water and anti-vaxxers you’ve got a couple of ‘solved’ public health problems still making billions of dollars (or doing billions of dollars in damage).

    As most people know, bottled water is often municipal water, purchased in bulk and run through a water softener. Vasa Water(tm) is bottled right down the pressure-gradient from my aquifer; there’s a non-zero chance that anyone drinking it is drinking waters that have been through my kidneys. Of course, any water anyone drinks has been through someone’s kidneys so I like to imagine a bit of the tang of Julius Caesar in mine.

  18. says

    Marcus @#20

    Of course, any water anyone drinks has been through someone’s kidneys so I like to imagine a bit of the tang of Julius Caesar in mine.

    Julius Caesar? Come on? Is he really somebody you look up to?
    He was a bloody mass murderer. Some forgotten person who designed the sewage system for some city has done the society much more good than Caesar. I’d argue that Caesar’s “accomplishments” were harmful and detrimental to other people’s well-being.

    I’d much rather imagine that in me there’s a bit of some amazing artists and scientists or at least those engineers who designed sewage systems for cities.

  19. konrad_arflane says

    Making the stuff rise is another ‘mystery’ – breads and cakes can be made to rise in one of 3 ways. There are probably more (add dog fur to it?) but arguendo:

    You missed out sourdough, so that’s 4. Although even more so that yeast, it adds a (sour) taste to the final result, so it’s not appropriate for everything. It’s also pretty damn slow.

  20. says

    You missed out sourdough, so that’s 4.

    Ah, yes, have bacteria poop out CO2 instead of yeast poop out CO2.

  21. says

    Andreas Avester@#21:
    Is he really somebody you look up to?

    My point being, he peed in a lot of things. Not that he was a great guy.

  22. voyager says

    Glad you’re enjoying the syrup. Jack has peed on many of the trees that went into its making, so you may have a molecule of Jackson Brown instead of Julius Caesar.

    On the subject of recipes, I use them mostly as a guide and I often measure by eye or with my hands much like kestrel. That’s how I was taught by my mom. My husband gets frustrated trying to reproduce my meat loaf because I can tell him what I put in it, but not how much. I just know when it’s right.
    I do measure more carefully when I bake, though.

  23. lurker753 says

    Hi Marcus,
    Long time lurker, first time poster. Registered just to share another universal recipe: indian curries.

    See here: https://www.joegrossberg.com/archives/002047.html

    I understand it’s common for Indian restaurants to have a house blend of spices, to make a generic base ahead of time, then for a specific order they retune and add the requisite headline ingredients.
    Lurker #753

  24. says

    I understand it’s common for Indian restaurants to have a house blend of spices, to make a generic base ahead of time, then for a specific order they retune and add the requisite headline ingredients

    You’re right!
    I used to mix my own spices, but then I got hooked on Kitchens of India and completely gave up on trying to make anything as good. Although, I notice KOI doesn’t make beef curry.

  25. dangerousbeans says

    “Yeast is deprecated for pastry making because it confers a yummy but noticeable flavor of its own.”
    Nah, there are weird edge cases of ~pastry using yeast. Crumpets and sourdough come to mind.

    As for cups, they are 250ml and all US units should be banned

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