Ratio by Michael Ruhlman just might be one of the greatest cookbooks ever written. It is one of the few books in the genre that actually teach you how to cook. Most other cookbooks are nothing more than a collection of recipes. They guide you step by step through the cooking process but keep you tethered to the author’s preferred tastes. Ratio encourages you to think independently in the kitchen. It sets you free to explore and develop your own cooking style. In my opinion, it is nothing short of a culinary declaration of independence.
I almost overlooked this little treasure when Janine first brought it home. Frankly, the little paperback didn’t look like much. At first, I quickly flipped through it and then placed it on a shelf with the rest of our cookbooks (or should I say; “recipe collection”?). Eventually, I went back to it and read the preface. I was immediately hooked. Its message resonated within me. It validated what I always believed to be true.
I tend to be the type of cook who relies more on fundamental cooking knowledge than formal written instructions. In all honesty, I only know about five basic techniques (braising, roasting/baking, poaching, frying, and sautéing). On paper, my skills may seem limited but in practice, they enable me to create hundreds of different dishes by simply altering the ingredients. People tend to think I’m a much better cook than I really am.
This concept is the essence of Ratio. Within its’ pages, Michael Ruhlman explains how several perennial favorite foods can be made without relying upon predetermined recipes. Understanding the ratio of main ingredients will enable the average home cook like me to create unlimited versions of these dishes by simply changing the flavor components and seasonings.
The book focuses on mostly baked goods, but the ratios for vinaigrettes, butter sauces, stocks, and charcuterie are also provided. These are the foundations upon which extraordinary meals are built.
Pie dough is a good example. The ratio of ingredients for basic pie dough is 3-2-1 or three parts flour, two parts fat (butter, lard, shortening, etc.), and one part water. By simply maintaining this basic ratio and increasing the amount of ingredients proportionately, you can make pie dough for two or twenty pies. Using butter as the fat ingredient and adding a little sugar will yield a sweet pie dough crust. A savory pie crust can be created by skipping the sugar and using lard or shortening instead of butter.
Once you learn the how to make a basic pie crust, all you have to do is change the filling ingredients to create an unlimited number of different pies. Add apples slices, butter and brown sugar to a sweet pie dough crust and you have the basis for an apple pie. Add some leftover beef stew to a savory pie crust and you have beef pot pie. The possibilities are endless.
Ratio may not be for everyone. If you are the type of person who would rather “create” than “recreate”, then Ratio is for you.