Michael Ruhlman – Ratio

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.

13 Comments

  1. Garrett

    Love the book. It’s a good, clear guide on certain aspects of cooking. I tried his method for making crepes and my roommate and I were just tickeled at the results. =)

    Now I’m researching a reliable electric, digital scale. Damn it, Michael, you’ve made me obsessed! ;)

  2. Stéphanie

    Hi, I am writing here from France and I just wanted to mention that I love your articles.
    I have been printing this article about the vinaigrette. I have lived in Canada for 5 years and 1 year in the US. I can’t tell you enough how I used to dare some salads because of their awful dressing! The only one I had just loved was Caesar salad dressing. And as said Michael about all the processing food we are eating, nothing could ever equal a vinaigrette made out of sherry vinegar, olive oil, garlic and shallot. Yummmyyy! You should taste the one my grandmother makes. :))

    Thanks for your article and keep going!

    I hope I have been able to pass on my opinion … in English

    Take care
    Stéphanie

  3. Sara

    This sounds like an interesting book.

    I like to read new recipes and try them but some days I just come into the kitchen and start putting ideas together. I guess I am a bit of a recipe follower and a bit of an intuitive cook.

  4. Sherihan

    I think I am more of a recipe follower at present but that’s maybe just because I am a beginner, although I have started playing with the recipes I have already mastered.

    Sure reading a book like that might be very helpful, I love cookbooks anyway, I find them very interesting.

  5. Duncan

    I greatly enjoyed your review, Elise, though we have different perspectives on the book. Although I liked the goal of Ratio, and it’s clear that reasonably confident cooks will manage with the book okay, I thought there were too many flaws in explanation and presentation (my review is here. It’s good to see that some people are enjoying the book and finding it useful.

    Hi Duncan, I think it would helpful if you based your review on the actual book that has been published, and not the pre-release version, which as you mentioned, is a full 50 pages shorter. I have both copies, having been given the pre-pub version and having bought the published version, and based my review on the latter, which I believe is more complete. And yes, this book is not for everyone. ~Elise

  6. heidi leon

    Hola Elise,

    I’ve just discovered Michael Ruhlman because of you. BIG GRACIAS, girl. I will buy his book asap.

    I totally agree with him, food is all about fisica y quimica (Fisics and Chemistry)as Spanish songwriter and singer Joaquin Sabina once said. And that said, to be able to manage the science of cooking is not about learning crazy formulas, is about learn and understand the RATIOS.

    Once we understand how an ingredient works for good and for wrong, we can expand our culinary horizons. I rarely follow a recipe, and most of my blog recipes are no measure recipes which I have to transform in measure recipes for my readers. ;-)

    ps. Yes, churros is just like pate a choux. Amazing…maybe we should try to bake some churros instead of deep frying….

  7. nicole

    “And even though the ratios are based on weight, not volume,…”

    YES! That’s the information I was really hoping for.
    Today I made my first pie crust that was not just edible but delicious, but man, scooping out shortening (crisco in the original, Palmin-soft in case another german reads this) with a measuring cup is not my idea of fun! And of course I didn’t weigh anything while preparing the dough because I was sure it would be horrible anyway. Oh well, next time :-)

    Thank you for the review and for all the other wonderful articles! I’ve had my eye on your coffee icecream for ages now and I’m making that next week because a friend is visiting and bringing his (perfect) mousse au chocolate, so I have to try and WOW him in return ;-)

  8. Foodie Friend

    I would have never bought this book had you not posted about it because I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise…so glad you did. I will never buy store bought dressing again. My vinaigrettes have been turning out fantastic.

  9. Stephanie

    I received this book for my birthday last week! I’m obsessed! I’m going to work my way through this book. I’ll be doing lots of baking in the weeks to come, I’m sure. I made the Cherry Dark Chocolate bread! I have to go get a digital scale now. Another gadget to add to the kitchen. :)

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