KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - Have you noticed how the more succinct a book's title is the longer the sub-title is? An example is Michael Ruhlman's new book on cooking titled Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. I'm sure this title to sub-title ratio is more a publisher's call than the author's, but it was the first thing that struck me on receiving the book.
Ruhlman has long ranted against recipes (and cookbooks) as such and in favor of - that's right - ratios instead. "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," Ruhlman writes on his blog. "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."
Ruhlman is right. In the book's introduction he defines a culinary ratio as, "a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients to another." For example, his ratio for vinaigrette is three parts oil to one part vinegar - which is the same basic ratio I use. One of the great things about cooking ratios that they make it easy to scale to suit the crowd. So if I'm whipping up a vinaigrette for myself I'll use three teaspoons of oil and one teaspoon of vinegar (or other acid) plus flavorings. If I'm serving salad to a dozen people I bump the quantities to three quarters cup of oil and one quarter cup of acid.
It's not always that simple (nor does the author claim it is). You still need to know how adding mustard to vinaigrette will affect it or what sorts of herbs go best with red wine vinegar (thyme, parsley, sometimes shallots). If you're baking bread it helps to know that substituting some milk (or sour cream) for the water will produce a more tender result. But having some basic ratios as a starting point will provide a tremendous boost to your culinary endeavors and reduce the guess-work (and number of mistakes) you'll make when experimenting.
In 230 pages, Ratio covers doughs and batters, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards and provides 33 basic ratios. In addition, Ruhlman offers suggestions for variations and it is perhaps the variations - "Cream Soups Using Any Green Vegetable," for example - that provide the greatest value because they teach how to make use of the ratios in practice.
I don't necessarily agree with all his ratios (nor have I had time to compare them all to what I consider my "base" recipes). In making roux he offers a ratio of three parts fat to two parts flour (3:2), but I use a ratio of 1:1. I've come by my ratio over many many years of cooking and I've no idea where his ratio came from. But that doesn't make either of us right or wrong because we both adjust those proportions according to use - we simply start in different places
Ruhlman is a professional writer, not a chef. He has had formal training as recounted in The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America and has been cooking since he was a child, but he brings an amateur's sensibility to his food writing. He is a man of strong opinions and these show in his writing, but the result is a clear and easily understood explanation of whatever it is he wants to convey.
I own close to 200 books on food and cooking of which most are cookbooks: collections of recipes. But the books I refer to most often are my food and cooking references. Books like McGee's On Food and Cooking, Berenbaum's The Bread Bible, and Ruhlman's Charcuterie. Most of these do provide lots of recipes but like Ratio these books also strive to teach fundamental principles to the folks who crack their spine - even return visitors. In fact, I gave away the last couple of reference books I was sent - I didn't need them. But Ratio will find a place in my kitchen bookshelf, even if another book has to be moved to the spare bedroom.
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