Everybody approaches cooking in their own way. Some of us love recipes, and follow them to the letter, rarely veering off the printed word. Some of us apply our inventive nature to cooking, creating new dishes on the spot with whatever we have on hand. There are those of us just want to get dinner on the table, better yet if it can be done in 30 minutes or less. There are those who relish the feeling of taking the time to do as much as we can by hand. Some of us even go as far as to grow or raise our own food.
It’s all cooking. And it’s all good. My father? He’s a recipe follower. My mother, taught herself to cook from recipes in cookbooks 50 years ago and never looked back. She made the leap from following recipes to just knowing what to do, knowing what seasonings work with what, how to achieve the right balance of flavors, understanding the basic proportions of things. Some of us (my dad) will never abandon our recipe books. But some of us, having mastered our favorite recipes, long to be able to cook like those we think of as “intuitive cooks”. If you, like me, are trying to become a better cook, one with a more innate understanding of what works and what doesn’t, then I highly recommend Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, as a place to start.
The premise of the book is simple. If you understand the basic proportions for many foods we like to cook, you can start there, and improvise on top of those ratios. For example, a classic vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, or 3:1. Knowing this, you don’t have to look up a recipe to make a vinaigrette, you can just start with this ratio and add your seasonings. Understanding the ratio will also help you figure out why and when you might want to adjust them.
The ratios are especially relevant in baking, where cooking looks more like chemistry, with its need for precision. A good third of the book is devoted to the ratios of doughs and batters, including sections on bread dough, pasta dough, pie dough, biscuits, cookies, pound and sponge cakes, quick breads, pancakes, and popovers. For a novice baker, it’s really helpful to see the basic recipes broken down to their fundamental components. A bread dough, for example, is basically flour and water (and a little yeast), while a pasta dough is flour and egg. Once you understand the basic components and their proportions, you can see what happens when you change the order of their appearance in a recipe. For example, the thing that distinguishes a pound cake from the sponge cake is not the proportions of ingredients, they’re exactly the same, but the order in which they are assembled. A pound cake is 1 part butter to 1 part sugar to 1 part egg to 1 part flour, or 1:1:1:1. A sponge cake has the same proportions, but they are mixed together in this order: 1 part egg, 1 part sugar, 1 part flour, 1 part butter. So with a pound cake you cream the butter and sugar together as a first step, with a sponge cake you beat the eggs with the sugar first. The pound cake ends up rather dense, and the sponge cake, well, spongy.
Michael ends each discussion of a fundamental ratio with an explanation of the many things you can do with it. A pie dough can be made sweet or savory, or with a some extra folding and chilling, turned into a puff pastry. A bread dough can be turned into rosemary and roasted garlic bread, a pizza dough, or focaccia. Michael includes explicit directions, so in a way, this book to help relieve you from recipes is actually filled with them. But by the time you get to the variations, you have a better understanding of how you got there.
The book covers ratios and variations for most of what you might learn in culinary school, not surprisingly as that’s where Michael got his training. So the methods presented are considered classical, and have a somewhat French bias. Lovers of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking will feel right at home here, with the chapters on consommé, roux, mousseline, Hollandaise, and crème anglaise. Michael sticks to the cuisines he knows, but when he can, he’ll show how the ratios might relate to other cuisines. (At one point the book mentions that Mexican churro dough is a lot like pâte à choux. If I had known that, I may have recognized that the dough recipe I was using lacked egg and I might have avoided my little churro disaster.)
But even if you are not into Fancy French Cooking, if you are interested learning how to be a better cook, whatever the cuisine, this book will help you approach cooking from a new perspective. Although small, it is literally jam-packed with information. And even though the ratios are based on weight, not volume, Michael provides enough guidance so that most of the instructions can be followed without a scale. Though by the end of reading this book, if you don’t already have a good digital scale, you’ll want to go out and get one.