Guest Post: Joel McCharles from Well Preserved Makes a Case for Ratios

August 19, 2011(updated on October 3, 2018)

I’m off on vacation this week with my husband Scott. While we wander the wilds of Lancaster County, PA, a few of my favorite bloggers will be dropping by to keep you entertained. Up today is Joel McCharles from the blog Well Preserved. He is an avid canner and preserver (make sure to check out his series on dehydrating) his passion for good food is infectious and inspiring.

Greetings fellow jarheads!

When Marisa approached me about writing a spot here, I was filled with excitement. I tried to think what I could bring to this amazing forum that would hopefully be a combination of useful and unique.

Excitement was followed by rapid brainstorming (the synapses in my head make a lot of noise and the info-graphic that would express the noise between my ears would look like a lightning storm which looks really impressive but isn’t awfully useful). A random list of ideas were filtered until I decided I wanted to share something that:

• Talked about jars (kind of a requirement given the space)
• That brought a Canadian bend to the conversation (I still don’t know why this was important to me at the time but it seemed to make sense so I went with it)
• That could be used as a tool or reference for other members of our kitchen army (a revolution largely armed with jars and the bounty of the harvest.

Marisa, a few friends and I had been discussing ratios at the time. I thought that I could bring something of value to the conversation by sharing a bit about how I use the metric system to make ratios easier to measure. I should note that I don’t always use ratios and when I do, they are generally based on weight but there are times that it’s very useful to know how to use volume within simple ratios to save some time or bail you out of a pinch when your batteries die on the beloved scale. Volume-based ratios are effective when mixing liquids with liquids, solids with solids or a small amount of one with the other (such as in a salt brine). They are less effective when considerable portions of each are mixed together (1 cup of eggs weigh far more than 1 cup of flour).

In a nutshell, I want to make a case for replacing measuring cups with canning jars. I further want to share some simple metric conversions that will make calculating ratios far easier than using Imperial measuring. Jars are ideal measuring vessels – their various sizes allow you to measure large quantities of items (i.e. instead of counting 16 cups with my single measure, I can fill 4 mason jars, save time and counting).

Before we begin, a bit of background on the use of the Metric System in Canada: most Canadians use Metric for measuring speed (all of our cars and highway signs are written in it) while most of the same people buy a lot of our groceries and weigh ourselves using the Imperial System (our friends in the UK are the exact opposite).

Other measurements are less clear. I, like many Canadians, buy meat and protein by the pound but buy cheese in grams and milk in liters. Like a child who picks and chooses the vegetables they like, we pick and choose when we use which measurement. I can tell you exactly what 300 grams of cheese looks like but I can’t tell you what a pound of it would look like. I can also tell you my exact weight in pounds but would need Google to tell me how many kilograms are in it.

When it comes to volume, Metric is wonderfully easy to put together:
• A milliliter (one-fifth of a teaspoon). “Milli” means “a thousand.”
• A liter (approx 4 cups). 1,000 milliliters.

If you were making a salt brine and trying to make it 5% salt, you would need 50 ml of salt to the 1,000 milliliters of water (for the uber-math elite, of which I am not, this is not 100% accurate but is close enough for a brine in my experience).

Let’s consider typical jar sizes as:
• ½ cup
• 1 cup
• 2 cups (1 Pint)
• 4 cups (1 Quart)

And now present them with their Metric equivalent (approximate and based on most measuring cups which declare a cup to equivalent to 250 milliliters as opposed to it’s actual size of 236 – but remove just under a tablespoon per cup if you want to be exact):
• ½ cup – 125 ml (short form for milliliters)
• 1 cup – 250 ml
• 1 Pint – 500 ml
• 1 Quart – 1,000 ml (also known as 1 liters or 1L)

Other critical measurements would include:
• 1 Tablespoon (15 ml)
• 1 Teaspoon (5ml)

By knowing the above, you know that a 5% salt brine would be made up of:
• 1L (1,000 ml) of water
• 50ml (3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon).

When cooking with ratios, I start with determining what ingredient I need most of and use that as my base. To make this easier to explain, if a recipe calls for 5 parts salt and 3 parts sugar, I use the 5 as my base (I call it ‘base 5’). If it called for 4 parts salt, 3 parts sugar and 1 part pepper, I would use this as base 4. Note that every other number in the ratio after the base will always be smaller.

From there I use the following Mental Math:
Base Batches of Base 8 and higher Batches of Base 4 and Lower
8 1 Quart (1000 ml)
7 1 Pint + 1 Cup + 1/2 Cup (875 ml)
6 1 Pint + 1 Cup (750 ml)
5 1 Pint + 1/2 Cup (625 ml)
4 1 Pint (500 ml) 1 Quart (1000 ml)
3 1 Cup + 1/2 Cup (375 ml) 1 Pint + 1 Cup (750 ml)
2 1 Cup (250 ml) 1 Pint (500 ml)
1 1/2 Cup (125 ml) 1 Cup (250 ml)

Or, for approximate percentages when making a brine:
% of Salt ML Measurement
5% 50 3 Tablespoons, 1 Teaspoon
10.0% 100 1/3 Cup, 1 Tablespoon, 1 Teaspoon
15.0% 150 1/2 Cup, 2 Tablespoons
20.0% 200 1/2 Cup, 1/4 Cup, 2 Tablespoons
25.0% 250 1 Cup
30.0% 300 1 cup, 3 Tablespoons, 1 Teaspoon
35.0% 350 1 Cup, 1/3 Cup, 1 Tablespoon, 1 Teaspoon

I should also mention that all Canadians are not nearly as geeky as I am.

Knowing the approximate metric conversions free me up when working with imperial (as much of my cooking is based on it) and allows me greater culinary creativity by understanding how the different sizes relate to each other. Of course having a better understanding of the Imperial system would accomplish the same feat but I thought I’d put this out there as food for thought!

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12 thoughts on "Guest Post: Joel McCharles from Well Preserved Makes a Case for Ratios"

  • Is half of this article missing? While the author makes a nice argument in favor of using ratios, the only thing he has to say about jars is that they can be bigger than some measuring cups…

    Personally, the advantage of being able to scoop an (admittedly approximate) quantity of a dry ingredient out of a bag or canister with a custom-sized cup that has a handle, outweighs any possible advantage a jar might have for dry ingredients.

    As for liquids, Pyrex (and other brands of) measuring cups come in many different sizes, are marked with many gradations for measuring exact quantities, and have handles and spouts to make pouring clean and easy….

    I can’t wait to hear how using a simple jar improves on these tools that have served cooks well for centuries.

    Oh, I also forgot – both types of cups have tapered sides that make removing all of an ingredient easy. Sure, some jars do too – but that’s hardly the standard.

    1. Zach, that was my tongue-in-cheek title. I’ve switched it out to more accurately represent the post that Joel wrote.

  • That was a lot of math for a Friday night! I do get your point, and I agree that metric is easier for ratios. I must say, though, that when I last visited Canada the half metric/half English combo made me a little nuts.

  • Actually he makes a great point for the metric system, there is no food manufacturer large or small scale in the world that uses the imperial system as it’s basis of measuring during manufacture, it’s just not exact enough.

    Also in Canada the younger generation (much younger than our Friend Joel – who I must say I am older than) mostly have no use or knowledge of the imperial system.

    One other thing many people do not know, there are two different conversions for a cup to ml, one is the true metric conversion which is 236 the other is the imperial conversion which is 250… I know Joel touched on this, what I am trying to add is that when buying your cups make sure you check to make sure which one you are buying – because they do come in both. Think about it, 15ml off if you are doing things in rations and you have to do say 20 cups you could be over or under by an entire cup.

  • My pyrex measuring cups have markings that are extremely inaccurate! I only use the m as a guideline or for general measures that don’t matter too much, e.g. the base of the ratio. This being said I agree that using a handle based measure is easier than a jar. I too use jars for many things, but not as many as Joel clearly does!

  • I appreciate this information! I’ll often make smaller batches of pickles than what the recipes suggest, so it’s good to know how to make properly dosed brine at smaller jar scales. Thanks….

  • Just and FYI – water is the way we (wel, used to at this point, but even so) define the relationship between grams and liters. In short, one mililiter weighs one gram at room temperature. So, you are precisely correct when you mention 50 g of water per liter being a 5% (by weight) solution (because its 50 grams to 1000 g). The fact that they used water to set this up makes it very convenient for those of us that love to cook!

  • I largely agree with the idea of using ratios – I particularly think that thinking in terms of ratios is kind of huge when you start wanting to reach the same basic result but with your own twist in terms of flavor (through seasoning, etc.). Ruhlman has a great book on this, in fact…

    But still, the focus on cups, liters, or jars just seems… cumbersome compared to cooking by weight. I’m a dude who digs math – my spreadsheets are sometimes epic. But still, ever since I made the investment in a $20 kitchen scale, I don’t know that I’d choose to ever cook again by volume (though, parallel to the previous commenter’s note regarding the metric system, it is handy that a cup – 8 ounces – of water does, in fact, weigh 8 ounces).

  • I don’t know how I ended up on this page, but it really leaves me scratching my head in puzzlement.

    In solutions, it is by weight, not by volume. A 5% salt solution would be 50 grams of salt (which does not weigh 1 g per ml — just compare the differences between table, coarse table, kosher, and canning) dissolved in 950 ml of water (which for ordinary purposes would weigh 950 g).

    As to the presentation of the “base” ratio concept, it would seem that all explanation of its workings is missing…Is there more to the article I’m not seeing?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  • “Metric equivalent (approximate and based on most measuring cups which declare a cup to equivalent to 250 milliliters as opposed to it’s actual size of 236 – but remove just under a tablespoon per cup if you want to be exact):”

    Wait, what? To convert your imperial measurement to an ‘exact’ metric measurement you should remove a rough amount of an imperial measurement? That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Either get a scale, get metric measuring utensils or work with what you have as it was meant to be used.