By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
May the kitchen gods and their tweeting fooderati friends forgive me for what I am about to opine: Michael Ruhlman's new book will not liberate the masses from the tyranny of recipes, which is its stated intention.
The very accomplished and plugged-in author says he has been obsessed with the idea behind his "Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking" (Scribner, $27) for a decade. A chef at the Culinary Institute of America showed Ruhlman his own personal chart of ingredient proportions: A pie dough is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water, for example, the ingredients listed in the order in which they are to be combined.
Of course, some old-style cooks have always conjured pound cakes and salad dressings without benefit of the written word. It's usually no small victory for a family member to divine how those favorites are made.
To Ruhlman, the chef's chart was a culinary Rosetta stone. So he explored the practicalities of 33 ratios for doughs, batters, stocks, sauces, forcemeats and custards. He enlisted volunteer testers to check his math and logic, and, on the advice of his editor, he developed and included a few dozen recipes of his own. All of that makes "Ratio" a worthy resource.
Food Network celeb Alton Brown coined the tyranny phrase in his book-jacket blurb for "Ratio," likening Ruhlman to a force that may change the balance of kitchen power (from chefs to mere mortals?). But the author himself is quick to apply a large asterisk to that claim.
"If you're a novice cook, or just want to get dinner on the table fast, then stick to your recipe cookbooks," Ruhlman said in a phone interview last week from his home in Cleveland. "However, using these ratios can improve the skills of someone who knows how to cook."
The information he imparts in the book is not rocket science, but it does require more than a soupcon of independent thought. That challenge alone may reduce the ranks of potential "Ratio" followers. Ruhlman says he sent the book to a food blogger in St. Louis who is an enthusiastic cook. She hated it.
"She told me she hadn't realized how much she relies on recipes," he says. "I get that."
And a simple ratio -- a baseline, as Ruhlman calls it -- does not provide guidance about amounts of leavening, or flavoring such as herbs or cheese or salt. That comes from practice, he says, as does learning the proper texture and feel of foodstuffs in process.
I was expecting "Ratio" to provide a handy chart with the author's notes, but the idea to compose it came to Ruhlman and his wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, after the book was printed (she shot the book's stunning but small black-and-white photographs). For now, you can go to his blog and pay $20 for an 11- by-14-inch glossy printout.
To his credit, Ruhlman reveals both the connectedness and differentiation of everyday ingredients. Read just two chapters in particular, and the distinction between crepes (1 part liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part flour) and pancakes (2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part butter) will be clear at last. The goal of thinking like a chef-scientist is attainable, and that could make you a better cook. Learning to think in terms of 2 parts this, 1 part that could come in handy if we Americans ever adopt the metric system.
Then again, lots of fundamentals are tweaked in the author's very own recipes; he has discovered through trial and error that room temperature and types of oil can alter the otherwise uncomplicated proportion of mayonnaise: 20 parts oil, 1 part liquid (plus egg yolk). So there are basics, and there are many exceptions.
"Ratio" is for cooks who are not daunted by such variables. If you long to be that kind of cook, then take in the book's formulas and let them roll around in the kitchen parts of your brain. The next time a dish is not coming together, you might consider its elements and deduce an inherent problem.
If, however, you are comfortable flexing a bit within the directives of a recipe, you could still seek out the gems and riffs Ruhlman has embedded in each subject chapter. No one can deny that the man has impeccable taste.
In the end, as I read the start of the last chapter's paragraph, the concept of "preaching to the choir" came to mind. Yes, ratios can liberate home cooks, as Ruhlman wrote. But only those who were free spirits to begin with.