Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio”

rulman-ratioWhen two elements combine and form more than one compound, the masses of one element that react with a fixed mass of the other are in the ratio of small whole numbers.
~~ Humphry Davy

Although there are those who claim that they who know how to cook never need recipes, they actually follow recipes, whether written or not written. Recipes (ratios by another name) serve as guidelines and no one, no matter how accomplished in the kitchen, can dream up all the permutations possible for all taste sensations possible.

For this reason, Michael Ruhlman’s new book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, promises to keep the culinary pundits chattering, for a few months at least.

On the surface, Ratio seems like such an obvious idea that you might wonder why no one else beat Ruhlman to it by publishing anything similar before this 244-page manual appeared.

And that’s the thing, some culinary experts have tried to do just that.

Think of Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book and The Perfect Recipe; Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef; Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise: The Hows & Whys of Suiccessful Cooking; Peter Reinhardt’s Crust & Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bakers; Hervé This’s Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Simple to Spectacular: How to Take One Basic recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication

Ruhlman, unlike some of his predecessors, takes a strong French approach to cooking in more ways than one. Following, as it were, the deconstructionist tendencies of the two Jacques — Derrida and Lacan, Ruhlman bases his book on an idea first proposed by chef Uwe Hestnar when Ruhlman studied at the Culinary Institute of America.

Hestnar broke down cooking into ratios “to teach his students, lost in recipes, to get their heads out of books and to start cooking. To me, though, Hestnar’s ratio sheet was an attempt to pare away all that was extraneous in cooking so that we could know what was fundamental,” Ruhlman muses in his opening comments.

Composed of five parts — Doughs and Batters; Stocks; Sausage, Mousseline, and Other Meat-Related Ratios; Fat-Based Sauces; and The Custard Continuum, Ratio opens with one page listing all the ratios. Stark, simple, and straightforward.

Photo credit: Tim Parkinson
Photo credit: Tim Parkinson

The best part of Ratio lies with Part One, the baking section. In particular, Ruhlman’s analysis of batters runs the gauntlet of pound cake to crêpes, showing how these are all “incestuously linked to one another.” As with all five parts of Ratio, numerous recipes illustrate Ruhlman’s points about ratios in cooking.

By focusing on ratios, Hestnar and Ruhlman sought a way to boil down cooking to its essence, the physics and chemistry of all, “a Periodic Table of the Elements for the Kitchen.”

Is Ratio that Periodic Table? Not quite. Technique still plays a major role, probably the most important. In a way, Ruhlman contradicts himself at the end of Ratio, ending with this last sentence: “Ratios liberate you — when you know the ratio and some basic techniques, then you can really start to cook.”

Nevertheless, Ratio contains a great deal of brilliance and ought to be on the shelf of any serious cook. Its flaws reside in its overemphasis on classic French cuisine and a surprising lack of vegetable matter. But let’s be honest here: French cuisine HAS deconstructed cooking down to its core, the bare bones. Many French techniques and ratios might be applied to other cuisines.

And that’s a topic for another book.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen