Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking
by Michael Ruhlman
Scribner, reprint edition. September 2010
Paperback 272 pp.
Although for many Americans the holiday season brings kitchen anxiety—how to feed a host of guests with dietary restrictions and food dislikes galore—I relish the opportunity to challenge myself behind the stove. When tasked with making turkey gravy, I minimize complexity. I already have the critical flavoring agent, the turkey’s own juices. In order to thicken the gravy, I decide to use a roux, a mixture of flour and fat. Instead of an ordinary (and grossly voluminous) cookbook, I open my copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio. A true roux aficionado, Ruhlman discusses the paste’s finer details—to toast or not to toast—in his memoir The Making of a Chef. Not surprisingly, Ruhlman devotes an entire chapter in Ratio to describing the correct proportion of flour to fat. The entire purpose of Ratio is, after all, to provide the essential formulas for preparing infinite dishes.
There are a mere 33 ratios in Ruhlman’s slim volume. With these simple fractions, however, Ruhlman teaches a calculus of cooking. To create cookie dough, follow the rule of one, two, three: one part sugar to two parts fat to three parts flour. Introducing nuts, chocolate, or fruit into the equation radically alters the outcome; even varying the sweetener from white sugar to brown opens new spectra of coloration and crispiness. Falling into five categories—doughs and batters, stocks, meat, sauces, and custard— Ruhlman’s ratios enable the home cook to replicate thousands of recipes.
In fact, Ruhlman suggests that “ratios liberate you,” that they unlock the constricting chains of recipes. Recipes may actually “hurt you as a cook,” whereas “ratios free you.” Initially, Ruhlman seems to present himself as a Zen master standing against worldly sins: his stance seems laced with exaggeration, and his insistence on executing all ratios with a scale feels frighteningly rigid. Yet, reading Ratio as an integral component of Ruhlman’s previous works—a reading Ruhlman actively endorses in his introduction—reveals his admirable goal: pursuing the craft of good cooking, and then transcending the good to search for perfection. Ruhlman is ultimately interested in the aesthetics of cooking, the beauty underlying the essential parts of hollandaise sauce, the wonder in watching an emulsion form.
On my first attempt, the roux fails to come out perfectly, rather lumpy and thick. Nevertheless, it works, the gravy thickens, and dinner progresses with none the wiser. I am not yet a great cook, probably not even a good one, but I am beginning my journey towards perfection, with Ratio as my guide.February 17, 2011