When I was growing up in Brooklyn and the park or schoolyard gates were locked, we either climbed over the fence or cut the chain links and squeezed through the opening. Nothing was going to keep us out. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, Michael Ruhlman’s latest book, is like a wire cutter that frees you from dependence on recipes. He calls it an anti-recipe book.
Cooking, like writing, is an act of learning, finding one’s voice, cutting away the clutter, and paring down to the essentials. It is exploration and celebration. Getting from A to B to C. Cooking is also the magic of memory. Touch. Taste. Commemorate.
Ruhlman thinks of ratios, adding fixed proportions of ingredients, as the “truth of cooking.” While working on The Making of a Chef, his book about the basics of cooking, he interviewed Uwe Hesnar, a dean at the Culinary Academy of America (CIA). Hesnar is like the mysterious stranger every seeker encounters on their journey. A sorcerer, he comes and goes, hiding behind the fog of cooking, the mystery of silence. As they talk about the craft of cooking and how one learns to cook, Hesnar hands Ruhlman two sheets of paper. Like the Ten Commandments handed to Moses, these are the holy foundations of cooking. They contain a chart or grid of 26 items and their ratios. This meeting is the genesis of Ratio.
What I find appealing about Ruhlman’s book is that it is instructive. He says that ratios help you to better understand cooking in general. I also think they can help you become a more confident cook. For the curious or inquisitive cook, or dare I say, obsessive cook, ratios will quickly become habit forming. You will find yourself starting your sentences with “What if I” or “How about…”
I wanted to have fun with the ratio for bread dough: 5 parts flour to 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt). My daughter was leaving for 3 weeks of sleep-away camp and I wanted to grace her with white bread as a parting gift. I knew I would be able to indulge my love of whole grain breads in her absence. I admit that I was also up for sinking my teeth into an unadulterated loaf of white bread. Her first bite yielded a big smile with a thumbs up yum of approval. Ruhlman’s aim isn’t to make the “perfect” or “best ever” bread. It’s to set a baseline. I had been downplaying my expectations so I was surprised at how good my sandwich loaf tasted. I was thrown off by the word “basic” and overlooked his other words: satisfying and delicious. I next tried the ratio with whole-wheat bread that I shaped into a boule, buckwheat rolls, and focaccia made with leftover potatoes.
The real test, however, was when I tried my hand at pie dough. I bake bread often, but baking pie is my wife’s domain—one that I always stay clear of. But now, how could I not, in the name of research, put my hands on a rolling pin. I’ve avoided making a pie since the last and only time I tried to bake one. We needed to bring dessert to a dinner party. My wife, who was busy that day, forced me into service. “Don’t worry, “ she cautioned, “just don’t overwork the dough.” I arranged rings of strawberries and blueberries atop a pastry cream. It was picture perfect. I was a proud papa and I was whistling a happy tune on the drive over. After dinner I escorted my picture perfect pie to the table. The rumor of appreciation going around the table was interrupted by two small voices coming from twin brothers, voices that brought me to my knees. They were sawing away with their forks at this impenetrable mystery. “Daddy, can we pick it up and eat it with our hands?” I could hear a clattering of forks dropping to the table as everyone else picked up their pie. “Well, I guess it’s a little tough,” their father added politely. Though my wife tried to reassure me that it wasn’t that bad, I noticed she stopped eating her pie after just a bite.
For my attempt at Ruhlman’s recipe (3-2-1 ratio), I cut the ingredients in half because I wasn’t looking to make a big pie. Plus, I didn’t have two sticks of butter in my test kitchen refrigerator (who do I need to talk to around here to get a bigger budget?) I mixed the dough by hand, trying my best to gently press it together. In no time, I was able to roll out dough for 3 individual pies and 4 turnovers.
I can now puff out my chest and say these words: flaky and tender. My pie dough was a success. I’m not just saying this because my teenage son and his friend licked every last crumb off their plates or because of their wide-eyed admiration for the turnovers that I placed in front of them the next morning. My crust easily gave way to my fork’s caress. My wife happily, very happily, ate her piece.
Ruhlman tells a story about inviting neighbors over for dinner and needing to make some kind of dessert. He knew he could rely on the ratio for pound cake and quickly assemble it when he arrived home from the grocery store. We were invited to a barbeque a few days ago and I was asked to bake rolls for burgers. Hmm??!! I looked at the clock. No problem. Thanks to Ratio, I didn’t need to spend time searching through recipes. I knew that I could easily up the quantity to ensure that I had enough rolls to bring and keep aside a few for breakfast. I mixed oat flour into my dough for a change of pace and sprinkled poppy and sesame seeds on the rolls before loading them into the oven. In case you were wondering, they were satisfying and delicious.
Ratios enable cooks to perform sleight-of-hand tricks in the kitchen. No recipe required. Bread dough, pasta dough, pie dough, cookie dough, vinaigrette, and mayonnaise are among the 33 ratios in Ruhlman’s book. They can be as easy as 1-2-3 or is it 3-2-1 or 3-1-2?