Sunday, May 17, 2009

Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio"

I have just finished reading Michael Ruhlman's fine new book, Ratio, which was inspired by what he learned during his studies at the Culinary Institute of America, chronicled in his excellent The Making of a Chef. Ruhlman became fascinated by the basic ratios that good chefs know by heart, which enable them to improvise with confidence rather than follow recipes. The book contains basic ratios for doughs and batters; stocks (and roux and beurre manié used to thicken them); farces, mousselines and other meat-related items; fat-based sauces; and custards.

The point of the book is not so much to provide recipes (although there are many) but to show how recipes are created and to give the reader the means and courage to make up his or her own in the same way that chefs do. For example, after giving the basic ratio for pie dough and then a recipe for tart dough using that ratio, he tosses off dozens of variations that can be made without significantly deviating from the basic ratio -- caramelized onion and compté tart, leek and walnut tart, potato and leek tart, tomato tart, peach and prosciutto tart, various sweet tarts and a number of fruit tarts, among others. This is really a new kind of cookbook!

Another thing I love about this book is how Ruhlman's love affair with food and cooking comes through in his simple unadorned prose. Here is my favorite excerpt from the book, in which he is discussing batters:
. . . people who are gifted pastry chefs have simply seen the crepe-cake continuum more clearly for longer, rather than seeing crepe equaling one set of instructions, cake another, and so hav been able to improvise; they understand how small adjustments in fat, flour, egg and sugar can result in satisfying nuances of lightness and delicacy or richness in flavor and texture. It's all one thing.

Which is why I love cooking. It's all one thing.
I do have some gripes about this book, primarily the way in which Ruhlman switches back and forth between volume measures, counts and weights, which makes it difficult to follow the ratios and, more important, has led to a number of errors and inconsistencies. In the section of crème anglaise, for example, one recipe converts 4 ounces of egg yolks to 7 large yolks while two other convert the same 4 ounces into 8 yolks, and another converts 6 ounces into 9 yolks. I usually cook by weight, but often will use eggs by count; what am I supposed to do here?

This is more than a quibble, but there is so much great stuff in the book that I can forgive it.

If you love food, Ratio is worth reading.

Bobby Jay

No comments: