Ratios provide cooking assistance

There is an ascendant school of thought that questions the function, if not the value, of recipes in everyday cooking. The idea is that recipes should be seen as mere “parameterizations,” useful only as examples or case studies. Only the ratio at the heart of the recipe, such as three parts flour with two parts egg for pasta dough, is seen as truly fundamental and important information. Michael Ruhlman argues for and teaches the use of this ratio-based system in his new book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.

Ruhlman learned of ratios from Uwe Hestnar, a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. Hestnar came up with the list of ratios used in Ratio because he found his students with their “faces buried” in recipe books, which to Hestnar implied that they were missing the point. Hestnar figured that the best cooks have the best skills and the best instincts, not necessarily the best recipes. The search for the ideal recipe is therefore not the best way to become a good cook, and Hestnar used ratios to try to change the focus from the specific recipes to the general principles.

For example, while a recipe can teach only how to make a single version of bread, Hestnar’s idea is to teach his students how to make any bread by equipping them with all of the information and methods common to all breads. At the heart of these commonalities is the ratio of five parts flour to three parts water, which is the same for baguettes and pizza dough. Furthermore, the effects of varying yeast content follow a simple principle—less yeast means a slower rise, which in turn means more fermentation and flavor. The effect of the remaining ingredient, salt, is obvious, so knowing the ratio, the techniques, and the yeast principle makes recipes redundant except as examples.

Because of this redundancy, Ruhlman found the ratios to be tremendously liberating. Rather than blindly following some alleged expert’s prescriptions, a cook equipped with the ratios can improvise and experiment to make his or her own rules and, furthermore, to cook to his or her own tastes. Ruhlman thinks that this sense of freedom is not just the most important advantage of using ratios, but fundamental to the joy of cooking.

Thankfully, Ruhlman rarely indulges in such abstract arguments, devoting the vast majority of Ratio to the actual cooking. He presents 33 ratios, some in just a few pages, while the most important ratios, such as that for bread, have entire chapters to themselves. Ratio actually contains a lot of recipes as well, but Ruhlman uses them as experience- and confidence-building examples: training wheels to be jettisoned as soon as one understands the principles.

Becoming a good cook will always take a tremendous amount of time and effort, but Ratio can shorten the amount of time we spend simply following directions. Using ratios rather than recipes might not accelerate the skill development fundamental to making better food, but ratios allow us to get creative as early as we feel comfortable. If you like to cook and you like to improvise, you may like Ratio.