Out of the blocks I have a confession: a friend gave me this book because I love to bake. I read recipes for fun, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I found Ratio to be a great book for bakers and perhaps to a lesser degree, cooks. The ratios for different doughs: bread, biscuits, pie crust, pasta follow pretty strict formulas of flour, water and fat. Baking is often more chemistry experiment than free flowing expression of one’s imagination. Too much fat, flour or sugar and you’ve gone from delicious to compost fodder. Ruhlman’s ratios are helpful and interesting.
Other than vinaigrette, I was surprised to see Ruhlman use ratios for things like stock, meats and custards. I thought the ratio for stock seemed a little rigid, I have casually thrown a number of different ingredients into a pot to make a quick vegetable stock without the fear that too many carrots would ruin the broth. Ruhlman admits that not everyone uses the same formulas for everything (he even mentions broth) but says they are guidelines to be used in any situation.
Ruhlman begins by extolling the virtue of a good kitchen scale. Amen! The ratios in the book are based on weight not volume. The book can be used by beginners who haven’t cooked or baked much, or it can be used by experienced cooks as a reference. Ruhlman tells the story of a Culinary Institute of America instructor who dismissed the plethora of cookbooks because they distracted students from the tools of good cooking: fundamental techniques and basic ratios. He handed Ruhlman two sheets of paper with a chart of 26 items and their ratios. The instructor quipped that he would have loved to be able to sell the chart for $50 a pop, but rightly surmised that people wouldn’t buy it. The ideas of the chart are at the heart of the book. Ruhlman adds explanations, a bit about techniques and recipes but the formulas are the stars of the show.
Each ratio starts with the basics. Ruhlman follows the basics with suggested variations and then it’s on to the next thing. The Batters chapter illustrates how slight variations in the ratios take you from a muffin to a pancake to a popover. Interestingly the ratios for pound cake and sponge cake are the same. That came as a surprise, but also illustrates that ratios alone do not make the cake, technique comes into play as well. The difference between the two cakes is in the order of mixing ingredients. I confess I skipped over the sausage making chapter, because that’s just never going to happen in our house. Finally, there are a lot of recipes in the book. The recipes are examples of the formulas, I suppose you could use them, but I found it more interesting to compare the formulas to recipes in other books.
In his conclusion, Ruhlman writes that what he learned in the book is that exploring ratios help you understand the interconnectedness of the food we prepare. Secondly, regardless of the formula, technique still matters. That said, having good techniques and knowing the ratio of what you’re making frees you from the tyranny of the recipe, and that’s worth something.