In Ratio, Michael Ruhlman’s latest book and in many of his promotional posts and media appearances he makes an assertion that has raised a lot of objections among reviewers of the book and, to a lesser degree, the cooking public. What he says, in essence, is that if one understands that most fundamental preparations of western cookery can be reduced to simple expressions of the relative weight of two to four primary ingredients (ratios), over time one should be able to move away from dependence upon recipes.
If I am paraphrasing him correctly, I think that it’s a bit optimistic to assume that anyone who is used to working with recipes is going to abandon the practice in favor of a reductive approach that involves weighing a set of principal ingredients and then seasoning them with a little of this and a dash of that.
As a matter of fact and practice it’d be really stupid for professional cooks -especially those involved in producing large quantities of food- to abandon the use of recipes. The need to produce the same product in a consistent manner at a known cost demands it.
But as I found while I was helping him work through some of the material for the book, there is tremendous value in at least thinking about the foods we construct in the very simple terms of proportions of one ingredient to another. For one thing, it compels you to think about what is actually essential to a recipe and what can be substituted with another ingredient or eliminated entirely. And for me, at least, a logical consequence of spending so much time breaking down recipes into simple expressions of a few principle ingredients, was a renewed appreciation for the tremendous redundancy seen in the world of cookbook publishing.
Another benefit of reducing recipes to ratios of principal ingredients is that it causes you to focus so intently on a few key ingredients, that you cannot help but begin to ask lots of questions about what those ingredients are and how they behave when they cook. In other words, reducing recipes to ratios can be heuristic if you let your mind go that way.
So while Ratio might not cause you to throw all of your cookbooks and recipe cards into the nearest dumpster, its central proposition, that every recipe contains ingredients that are essential to its nature (as well as those that are not) and that these ingredients can be thought of as simple proportions might renew your appreciation for the power of reductive logic.
Frankly, I think the book is pretty radical for a “cookbook.” I can’t imagine there are too many authors who can pull off something like this and get paid for it.