Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ratio, A Brief Exegesis

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.


danwalk said...

Bob, thank you for another thoughtful post. Although I have not read Michael Ruhlman's book cover to cover, I have spend some significant time with it on a couch at the local bookstore. I came away with a very similar impression.

As a home cook, I have a feeling I will probably never bake my wife a birthday cake on the basis of solely a ratio instead of following a recipe. Yet, that said, it is interesting to me that I could.

As my cooking continues to improve, I notice more and more patterns in recipes--not necessarily ratios, but certainly patterns. I now know that I can make a pan sauce with just about anything that I have on hand because I know the process for making pan sauces; I have made many from many different recipes.

Although I have been a competent recipe-follower for quite some time, my recent recognition of these patterns and common techniques has allowed me to stray at times quite far from the book.

I have a feeling that this is most likely one of the major differences between an enthusiastic home cook and a professionally-trained chef. While the home cook often will learn to cook from recipes, only discerning commonalities and techniques much later, a culinary student seems to begin with those very techniques and commonalities, only moving on to recipes when those are mastered.

Ruhlman's book therefore seems to be an attempt to make a process that for me has been largely implicit, quite clearly explicit. For that he should be commended, no matter how confusing the result may seem at first glance.

Lou said...

I'm a Ruhlman fan. I especially liked the "Chefs" series.

"Ratio", however, has me a little bit baffled (I've read about a third of it, or one part read to two parts unread).

Anything that consists of one thing in proportion to another can be expressed as a ratio. I just don't see how expressing 1,000 grams of flour to 600 grams of water is any more instructive than saying the ratio is 5 to 3. It's just as easy to halve or double either one.

I would argue that a ratio is a recipe. Does Ruhlman's book really provide a new way of expressing this?

I like the book, by the way. It's interesting, and very well written. I'm a home cook, and I like that it makes me think about the process.

Cd said...

While not throwing away the recipe books, I've gained immeasurable value from Ratio through the insights on the interactions of different ingredient. Ruhlman succeeds in creating a paradigm and visual perspective of concepts well covered by McGee.

Ratio helps convey the science of the ingredients interaction that provides a more in depth understanding of the techniques used in cooking. These interactions are most noticeable in Ratios of similar ingredient such as pie dough/ biscuits and fritters/crepes.

I find it refreshing to understand why something works the way it does, rather than blindly following a recipe.

Mike Pardus said...

For the home cook the 500/300 ratio makes one loaf which feeds the family for a day or two. Half doesn't work well in a Kitchen Aid mixer but you can double it if you're having company. More than 2x these amounts don't fit in a 5qt bowl. I think that MR is just adjusting to suit his audience. I can easily do the math to adjust for the capacity of my 30 qt Hobart bowl at work.

Tags said...

If this book has done one thing, it's put to bed the issue of Michael Ruhlman being an elitist. He's showing that the "hocus-pocus of the hoi-polloi" is within reach of anyone, give or take a little finesse.

Anyone who keeps beating the dead horse of elitism needs to make an appointment with a proctological entomologist. (don't forget the referral)

Bob del Grosso said...


"...a culinary student seems to begin with those very techniques and commonalities, only moving on to recipes when those are mastered."

Well, that's what many instructors try to teach, but don't think for a moment that most students don't cling to recipes like drowning men to a raft. They are typically very afraid to make mistakes and want everything on paper.

It's a pity, really, because school should be the time to make mistakes, postulate cause etc But cooks tend to be a practical lot and want guaranteed "correct" outcomes so badly that they mostly reject the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of their craft.