The Art of Ratios
I have a vexed relationship to cookbooks because I'm not very good at following recipes. There are two kinds of cooks in the world -- those for whom the pleasure comes from following the instructions exactly and replicating the photo in the book (or the dish in the restaurant) and those who want some basic templates and techniques but who feel bossed around by fussy or dictatorial instructions. I'm in the latter category. If a recipe looks interesting, but I'm short an ingredient, I'll usually punt -- substitute, leave it out, somehow get around the shortage. For me, the pleasure in cooking comes from learning how flavors go together, what techniques have specific effects on ingredients, and how people from different cultures cook at home. I don't want to replicate restaurant food with its towers and foams and all the rest. If I want restaurant food, I'll go to a restaurant (even if that does mean getting on a plane for Seattle or San Francisco). What I want to know is how to work with good ingredients and how to turn those ingredients into delicious meals for my family and friends.
Because I live in a small town in Montana, my cooking tends to be driven by a serendipitous relationship to ingredients --- in the fall my freezers fill up with gifts of elk, antelope and venison. Spring and summer bring morels, then oyster mushrooms, then boletus. I'm surrounded by ranchers, and we tend to buy meat by the whole or half animal - lamb, beef and pork; which means that most of the time I'm starting a recipe by looking in the freezer and thinking, hmm … what do I do with this package of lamb kebab or ground antelope or elk roast? And then there's my slightly maniacal garden -- our season is short and I use raised beds to grow as many bitter Italian and Asian greens as I can, along with the usual tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans. So when I'm confronted with a lovely odd cut of meat, or a bounty of turnip greens, the cookbooks I treasure are the ones I can use as a launching pad.
Which is why I was thrilled when Amazon delivered my brand spanking new copy of Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. I went on a charcuterie kick last fall after buying half a pig, and in the interest of full disclosure, Michael Ruhlman and I did have a short email correspondence as I was blogging the progress of my home-cured pancetta. I'm also a fan of his nonfiction work and his blog, so I was curious to see how his magnum opus on basic cooking ratios was going to work out in practice. Ruhlman claims that he wanted "to set a baseline to work from, to codify the fundamentals from which we work, and which we work off of." While I'm not convinced that this book will free one forever from being "chained to recipes," having these basic ratios looks like it'll be really useful when I get too improvisational.
Ruhlman became interested ratios when he was attending the Culinary Institute of America and researching The Making of a Chef. Since leaving the CIA, Ruhlman's returned again and again to the chart that Uwe Hestnar, the director of the program, gave him one afternoon when they were discussing the fundamentals of cuisine. Hestnar developed the two-sheet ratio list when he was teaching the Fundamentals class, because it drove him crazy that his chefs in training were continually looking everything up in recipes. He wanted them to have it in their heads, and so he came up with this very basic spreadsheet containing "a list of twenty-six items and their ratios. Along the top run the numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 16. Along the side are rows divided by base products … A primitive culinary spreadsheet."
This spreadsheet haunted Ruhlman because it seemed to boil all the technique and history and discipline of what he'd learned at the CIA down to its most essential elements. "I find the ratio sheet beautiful," he writes. "Like a poet chipping away at his words, compressing and polishing until his idea is a diamond, Hestnar has removed every extraneous element of cooking." And while Ruhlman refers to this spreadsheet as a sort of periodic table of cooking, I think the metaphor is slightly off -- to me these ratios seem more like a taxonomy.
Take the doughs, for example. Bread is a ratio of five parts flour to three parts water, while pasta is a ratio of three parts flour to two parts egg. Therefore, pasta's relationship to bread is a substitution of egg for water. Moving forward, we find that while pasta is three parts flour to two parts egg, pie dough is three parts flour to two parts fat to one part water. So pasta and pie dough are related by the three to two flour and fat ratio (if you consider that whole eggs fall on the fatty side of the water continuum) but pie dough adds some water to make the steam to flake the crust. Biscuits have less fat and more water, hence the increased rise, while cookie dough is a one-two-three ratio of sugar to fat to flour. (Note that most measurements are by weight, not by volume, so you'll want to invest in a kitchen scale. I bought one a couple of years ago when I started experimenting out of Ruhlman's Charcuterie book and I've never looked back. They're not very expensive and since some ingredients like flour are so variable, they can be a lifesaver.)
Each of the chapters proceeds in this manner, tracing the family lineage of doughs, batters, stocks, forcemeat, fat-based sauces and ending with custards. It's the skeleton of the classical European tradition in which Ruhlman was trained and if few of us are inclined to whip up a mousseline or cream puff of an evening, there's no harm in understanding how these classical ingredients work together (although cream puffs are a cinch).
I have to admit, I stuck to the doughs and batters end of the spectrum. I'm a big proponent of cake, and truly believe that cake mixes from the store are the devil's work. Somewhere along the line, people seem to have forgotten the joys of a simple cake. It doesn't have to have layers and elaborate frosting and sugar roses. I've dined out for years on the classic French Yogurt Cake or Laurie Colwin's simple chocolate buttermilk cake. Each takes about ten minutes to mix, and forty minutes in the oven and then you have a lovely hostess gift. Cakes are so much simpler than cookies, which have to be watched and rolled and put on the sheets and taken off every fifteen minutes. Cakes are simple, and Ruhlman has a couple of good ones here. I made the pound cake for a birthday this week, and it was a big hit -- not too dense, but a nice tender crumb and just enough heft to it to be very satisfying. And it got better the second and third day (and then it was gone).
I had less luck with the sponge cake, which intriguingly is made from exactly the same ingredients. For the pound cake you begin by creaming together the butter and sugar before adding the eggs and the flour, while for the sponge you begin by beating the eggs and the sugar, before adding the flour and the melted butter. I have a sponge cake I got from Dom DeLuise's Eat this! You'll Feel Better! that I've been doing for twenty years. It's his mother's cake and is so good I've had strange men propose marriage at potlucks. For that cake you separate the eggs, beat the whites, add the yolks one at a time, then the sugar, then the flour but you don't add butter or oil. It's always worked for me, even at altitude, while the version in Ruhlman's book fell on me and left quite a crater in the middle. (It went in the freezer to be turned into trifle later, and even though it fell, the crumbs tasted delicious). Could be user error, but I'll probably stick with the sponge I know, even as I add that terrific pound cake to my repertoire.
Because I so believe in the power of cake as an all-purpose salve for life's wounds, I decided to take a flyer at the Angel Food cake (note, do not make the mistake of believing that the bottle of organic kosher egg whites you buy at the store will work for this. It won't, although the chickens were happy with the fallen, gummy cake that ensued). Angel Food cake is one of my favorites, and for some reason I'd convinced myself it was tricky, or hard, or a pain. It was none of those things. Once I used real eggs, it came together in a big floofy pile of batter, and baked up beautifully. And when I needed a use for the eight egg yolks I had left over, there in the doughs chapter was the Rich Egg Pasta, which along with a couple of pork chops from that pig I bought last year, is on the menu for tonight's dinner. I've been looking for an easy pasta dough for ages -- every time I tried it came out too stiff and weird. This one is sticky, but after resting in the fridge for a couple of hours it rolled out into a satiny lovely noodle. I'm thinking butter, parmesan and some sage from the garden.
The batters were another place where I was thrilled to have some ratios: something I can learn and then don't have to think about. I live with a man who builds houses and who doesn't eat lunch. Breakfast is a big deal in our house since it has to last him all day; one of the things I need is a pancake recipe that I can make half asleep. Ratio gave me a template -- equal amounts of flour and milk, two eggs to eight ounces milk/flour, some salt, some baking powder, some melted butter, and although the recipe calls for sugar we often like ham or cheese in our pancakes, so I skip the sugar. The key for me was knowing that the flour and milk are equal, plus two eggs. That's elastic enough that I can work with it, but not so specific that I have to look it up every time. I can add yogurt, or cornmeal, or fruit but because I've got the basic concept down, there's room to play around. We've been eating pancakes (or waffles) on a regular basis now that I can make them in my (half) sleep.
I did venture into the forcemeat chapter to play with some sausage. I had a couple of pounds of coarse ground pork in the freezer that I wanted to make a loose Italian sausage out of for pizza and pasta sauces (sautéed greens with Italian sausage is a terrific pasta sauce). I had to do a little math, since Ruhlman's recipe is for five pounds and I had four, but the ratio worked really beautifully. I got the fat to meat ratio right, and with handfuls of fresh sage and thyme from the garden, I've now got a supply of delicious homemade sausage in the freezer.
While Ruhlman claims that the ratios will set you free, he's also careful to note that they're not enough. "Good technique must be used in conjunction with the ratio -- which is why this is a book and not a sheet of paper. You need the ratio and the user's manual. Technique must be practiced -- you can never stop getting better." This book probably won't replace your current cookbook collection, but if you take these basic ratios and start playing around with them, you should increase your knowledge of how core ingredients work together to the extent that you can improvise. Learning these ratios should allow you to figure out how to fix a recipe that doesn't work, or tweak a recipe to suit the ingredients you have on hand, or even, with some practice, set you free to just cook without the need to resort to a recipe at all. And isn't that really what learning a skill is all about? Learning how things work together, so that you can make the move from replicating a dish from a photo or restaurant to actually creating a dish of your own? And if you're like me, and find too many recipes overbearing and dictatorial, then having these ratios on your cookbook shelf will give you a roadmap for escape while still assuring that your friends and family will eat well and happily at your table.
Charlotte McGuinn Freeman is the author of Place Last Seen (Picador USA, 2000) and blogs at LivingSmallblog.com. She's a freelance writer and editor who makes her home and garden in Livingston, Montana.
Ratio: Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman