Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

January 5, 2011 at 1:02 am

Originally posted on the Zombie Squad Forum on Wed Jan 05, 2011 1:02 am

I’ve been cooking for most of my life, even though my definition of cooking has changed considerably over the years. When I was young, cooking meant helping my mother in the kitchen with whatever she would let me do. It started out with holding a spoon here and there, to stirring the pots, to actually cutting up the veggies. Cooking was listening to what my mother told me to do, and following her instructions closely. As I grew, cooking became more complicated. I found cook books and cooking shows, which opened up an entirely new world! All of a sudden I had recipes to follow instead of just my mother’s words of wisdom. This evolution continued as I learned to “customize” recipes. Take a little from one recipe, a little from another, maybe change up some spices here and there… This led to some culinary triumphs, like the oddly delicious scrambled pancake, and many culinary failures; pancakes should never have tendrils. The evolution continued as I realized there were different techniques for cooking. I purchased the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef and worked my way through bits and pieces of it to broaden my horizons and skill base. I watched shows like Alton Brown‘s Good Eats and began learning how ingredients actually worked together. I started to see the patterns in recipes and come up with some of my own. But I was still basing my culinary work on existing recipes in one way or another.

Then I came across a list of Alton Brown’s favorite cook books. Some of the items on the list were familiar, the first one was my mother’s culinary bible The Joy of Cooking. Others were just plain intriguing, like this book called Ratio. Math? In cooking? My inner engineer just had to know more…

Eventually, Ratio was ordered, made its way into my mailbox, my book pile, and my hands. Let me start by saying that Ratio is not a cookbook in the classic sense: it does not contain a list of recipes. In fact, ratio has only a handful of recipes in the whole book. Ratio is, as its title suggests, about ratios. More specifically, it is about the fundamental ratios that exist in the world of cooking. Why is this important? Allow me to quote from the first paragraph of ratio. “When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.” Ratio is primordial culinary power, pure and simple.

Ratio’s author, Michael Ruhlman gives each ratio in its own chapter, where he discusses some of the nuances of the ratio. In the bread section, for example, he details kneading, yeasts, and a few ways to expand on the basic ratio. Each chapter then has some example recipes using the ratio, and a few final notes. Every section of this unassuming little tome is packed with useful information. Even it’s cover is a useful chart of the continuum of dough, from bread to crepes. Ratio is a true eye-opener. Want to bake bread? Five parts flour to three parts water. Salt and yeast are encouraged, but optional. Five to three and you will have bread. All bread, of any kind starts with this simple ratio. Want pie dough? 3:2:1 flour, fat, water. Crepes? 1:1:.5 Liquid, Egg, Flour. Stocks? 3:2 Water, Bones. Mayonnaise, not the clunky, bland store-bought mayo, but deliciously creamy and flavorful mayonnaise? 20:1+1 Oil, liquid, yolk. Ratio is the culinary world at its simplest and most elegant.

Ratio by itself won’t do the average person much good, I suppose. You have to have an appreciation for cooking and a desire to understand why it works the way it does. If you like your TV dinners luke-warn, Ratio is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to learn the most fundamental parts of actual cooking, if you want to expand your horizons past simple recipes, if you want to grow as a cook and not just be a follower, Ratio may well be your path to enlightenment.