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Book Reviews

Review: Ratio

by Nick

Every weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

This is one of the newer books I’ve reviewed on Macheesmo. When I first read about “Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman, I knew that I wanted to check it out. I’m a pretty avid reader of his blog, and I love his writing style and explanations. I reviewed his book on Charcuterie a few months ago and this book seemed even more up my alley.

The Truth of Cooking. If you have ever worked in a restaurant, you’ve probably seen the truth of cooking in action. And no I’m not referring to the yelling, sweating, or general craziness that dominates a professional kitchen.

I’m talking about how when the chef needs to whip up a few crepes, for example, she won’t refer to some book. Instead, she knows that crepes are simply 1 part milk to 1 part egg to 1/2 part flour. She can make 10 crepes. She can make 100 crepes. The difference is that you know a crepe recipe and she knows a crepe ratio. It’s a subtle difference but it’s the truth behind real cooking.

Ratios. This isn’t the first book that I’ve reviewed that talks about ratios. Ruhlman though covers many different kinds of ratios. While the main part of the book is on doughs and batters, there are also chapters on stocks, sauces, custards and even some sausages. The point is that there are some really basic dishes that can, in fact, be reduced down to easy to remember ratios.

But Wait a Second… My first inclination when I got into this book was to question it. It seemed a bit too simple. For example, Ruhlman’s ratio for bread is 5 parts flour : 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt). He puts yeast and salt in parenthesis to show that these are variable and also that they are not essential to the ratio.

He says that this 5:3 ratio will work for all kinds of bread, but if you were to check out the recipe for say focaccia in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (which also gives ratios), the ratio is more like 5:4. Specifically, it is actually 10:8.4, and a small percentage of that liquid is olive oil. That is a pretty substantial difference.

But Ruhlman acknowledges these differences right away and gives a very good answer. His goal in this book isn’t to give you a ratio for every single variation of bread, but instead to give you a baseline to work from. As he says:

“My aim isn’t to make the perfect bread or pasta or mayonnaise or biscuits – ‘the best I’ve ever had.’ It’s to set a baseline to work from, to codify the fundamentals… I’ve worked with the greatest perfectionist there is in the cooking world, and I love that hunt for the perfect sauce, the perfect custard, but here I’m after good. Only when we know good can we begin to inch up from good to excellent.”

And I think that is a very good answer. By my count there are 33 ratios in this book and those ratios are the thing in their most fundamental form. Michael goes on to give a bunch of fun variations on each ratio and also gives an explanation on each ratio. Each ratio, then, takes the form of a mini-chapter. This makes the book really well organized and easy to use as a reference or dig a bit deeper if you want to do that.

The Pound Cake. This was one of my favorite examples in the book. I only recently learned that the pound cake got its name because it has a pound of each ingredient. I had absolutely no idea that this was the case. The ratio that Ruhlman gives for it is in fact 1 part butter : 1 part sugar : 1 part egg : 1 part flour. Chances are I won’t be forgetting that anytime soon.

Surprisingly, the ratio is exactly the same for sponge cake! Except it is 1 part egg: 1 part sugar : 1 part flour : 1 part butter. Same ingredients, same amounts. The only thing that changes is the order. In the book, Ruhlman lists the ingredients in the order that they are used and the techniques for these two cakes are very different. One technique, creaming the butter and sugar together, results in a dense pound cake. The second, whipping the eggs until they triple in volume results in a much lighter sponge cake result.

Same ingredients. Same ratio. Different order/technique. Vastly different results.

Stocks. I had never really thought of a stock as a ratio, but I guess it definitely is. I usually just guess when I make stocks, but it’s interesting to see an actual ratio – 3 parts water : 2 parts bones. Well, there ya go! Michael says, and I agree, that these things are the “most commonly avoided preparation in American home kitchens, even though it’s the single preparation that might elevate a home cook’s food.”

He also does a great job of explaining some of the basics and techniques for making a good stock which are just as important as knowing the ratio – if not more so.

All in all I found this book to be very accessible. There isn’t any flashy photography (although there are photos where appropriate), and the writing is easy to follow. At times it is even funny!

Like I mentioned earlier, I would highly recommend Ruhlman’s Blog. A few weeks ago, he even offered to send readers a very nice laminated version of the Dough and Batter ratio chart from the book for the small fee of 20 bones. Pretty cool stuff.

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