Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking
by Michael Ruhlman
Publisher: Scribner, Country: US
ISBN: 9781416566113, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio promises a lot. He seeks to teach home cooks about the basic relationships between ingredients that form the basis of so many preparations – from custard to bread to sausages to mayonnaise. Bread, for instance, is 5 parts flour to 3 parts water. These relationships, ratios or “codes” for combining ingredients, are more fundamental than the specific weights and volumes of today’s flood of “new” recipes.

I was excited in anticipation of this book, but was greatly disappointed with the outcome from this otherwise good author. Ratios are a great approach to reviving cooking “sense”, but they require skill in definition and explanation. Somehow Ruhlman’s sense for communicating about cookery didn’t conquer the demands of explaining a mathematical relationship clearly to a range of possible readers. It was never going to be an easy task, especially when trying to apply chef sense to something which domestic cooks have largely forgotten. Nonetheless, despite its failings, the existence of this book is truly valuable and can be of utility to certain readers – those who are already familiar with ratios in cooking, perceptive novices who need no visual material, and perhaps some others who might want to explore their own understanding of cooking fundamentals.

NOTE: This review has been updated.

Full review

The book and the author

Ratio is a slim volume of a little under 300 pages, containing 34 basic ratios in five sections:

Doughs and Batters
Stocks and the Amazing Things They Allow You to Do
Farçir[sic]: Sausage, Mousseline, and Other Meat-Related Ratios
The Fat-Based Sauces
The Custard Continuum

There’s a strong emphasis on doughs and batters, primarily because it’s the area where people are probably most familiar with proportions in cooking.

Michael Ruhlman became known in the food world for his account of learning to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, The Making of a Chef. He also co-wrote books such as The French Laundry Cookbook (with Thomas Keller) and Charcuterie (with Brian Polcyn). The author has his own website and blog.

Content

Ask older cooks how to make a scone dough, pie pastry, custard, or many other standards and they might well reply with a list of quantities: “a pound of flour to half a pound of butter to 1 egg” or something like that. This type of relationship of ingredients–a ratio–was fundamental to much domestic cookery, and Ruhlman argues ratios are wired into the brain of every chef. He believes that modern domestic cooks have been blinded to these simple ratios by the chains of seemingly new recipes, each with a tweak here or there. By learning the underlying rules, the domestic cook might be free to cook with their own creativity.

It’s a great premise, evoking both the promise of imagination and respect for old lore (if you know the tradition existed). Ratios are, alas, a far more complex subject than they first appear and Ruhlman seems to get stuck in a mix of poor explanation, inconsistent approach and perhaps a weak picture of who his audience should be. There are very good aspects to this book, but the flaws are far too numerous.

A spreadsheet of chef’s ratios inspired Ruhlman to write this book. The cheffy approach likes weights because of precision and the author is a strong advocate of this view, rightfully so, but it becomes obvious that you can’t easily force cooking ratios into a weight-only system of real, infinitely scalable ratios. Weight-based ratios can work very well, but he acknowledges that certain things lend themselves better to volume measurement (fresh herbs, corn kernels, small amounts) and some of his ratios are openly volume-based.

The ratio for sausage meat is easy: three parts meat to one part fat (by weight). A vinaigrette is the same whether by weight or volume (3:1). The ratio for roux is presented by weight, though many home cooks do it by volume, and the author makes exceptions for beurre manié and a slurry, defining them by volume because of the usually small quantities for these preparations (which makes it easier to measure).

Roux = 1 part flour : 1 part fat [weight]

Beurre Manié = 1 part flour : 1 part butter (by volume)
Slurry = 1 part cornstarch : 1 part water (by volume)

Why not for a roux? Or any number of things which are neat by volume? In some ways, the love of precision seems to obscure the fact (which Ruhlman actually repeats often) that a ratio is a guide, not an absolute rule.

The reader rapidly discovers that many of Ruhlman’s dough and batter ratios are based on an egg, logically enough, given how tricky it is to do eggy fractions. But if someone says to you “2 parts liquid : 1 part egg”, does it make sense? Does the knowledge that one large egg is approximately two ounces (a fact the author repeats far too many times) make it easy to realise that the ratio calls for four ounces of liquid per egg?

Many compromises make the author seem inconsistent. He rejects a neat crepe ratio of equal volumes of milk to egg to flour, instead asserting that “The best ratio is a weight ratio, which reduces the flour quantity somewhat, 1 part milk : 1 part egg : 1/2 part flour …” And to avoid extra difficulties, small-quantity ingredients (yeast, salt, baking powder) fall outside the ratios. By the last chapter (on custards), he is presenting weight-based ratios for reference, but actual volume-based recipes and his text slips back and forth between the two systems. At times I just wished he had settled on “baker’s formula” percentages, rather than a messy mixup. (Alas, although a very clear method which states minor ingredients as weight proportions of the main ingredient, a baker’s formula requires a bit more maths.)

Missing here is the wisdom of the old ways. Ratios seem to have begun for Ruhlman with his own culinary journey — historical perspective is almost completely lacking. The rules taught in home economics classes many decades ago or handed down from home cook to home cook don’t seem to have played any part in drafting this book.

In the past, cooks used volume, single units (an egg), and weight. The reference points for a recipe varied: for pastry it might well be the amount of flour (a pound, a number of cups, half a kilo, etc); for a custard the volume required for a certain task is usually the main concern. The traditional ratio is thus not a simple statement of everything relative to an indivisible egg, but a primary ingredient or quantity and its subordinates. Frequently, domestic cooks have thought more in proportions than ratios, with the final amount being the reference point. For a pint of custard…

Speaking of pints, Ruhlman’s grasp of some units of measure seems shaky – he repeats the (false) USAmerican adage of “a pint [of water] is a pound the world around”. Confused? Briefly, the best I can say is that a US fluid ounce is 29.57ml. An ounce is 28.35gm. A pound (16 oz) of water weighs less than a US pint (16 fl.oz) of water.

Whatever the approach, a book about ratios (or proportions) deserves diagrams; visuals to help picture the basics. You’re out of luck. The only diagrams are zodiac-like wheels stating the ratios (see picture) and a few photos of food with passing comments. No visualised ratios or relationships. That is the killer. Pedagogically, the book failed for me.

Most abstract concepts need pretty careful explanation, especially if you want to show that many preparations fall along a spectrum of slight modifications. Somehow, the writing didn’t manage this challenge. Consider this:

… How is a crepe different from a pancake? A pancake has more flour and less egg (and includes a chemical leavener and sometimes butter, which adds cakiness). How is a fritter batter different from a pancake? A little more flour, but for most purposes you can use a thick pancake batter, without the butter, for fritters. But you could also call that kind of batter a muffin batter. How is a crepe different from a muffin? In the exact same way that it’s different from a pancake, which is a muffin batter cooked in a skillet. … p56

The author’s desire to communicate knowledge is endearing, but after reading a number of paragraphs like the above, I wanted him to stop and give me some pictures, diagrams, or just get to the point.

[The meat to fat ratio in sausage] is 3 to 1, 3 parts meat, 1 part fat. Ideally, 30 percent of a sausage is fat. This ratio amounts to 4 total parts with 1 of them, or 25 percent, being fat. The extra 5 percent is typically part of the meat that’s being used—pork shoulder, for instance or boneless chicken thighs, a great meat to transform into sausage. p132

Many sections introducing a ratio for a type of food very quickly become a list of tangents and suggestions for what you can do. For readers with strong culinary knowledge, it’s not too disturbing, but for anyone who finds ratios tricky, clouding the picture with numerous “you could do this or this or this” paragraphs could be frustrating.

Final comments

Despite the failings of the book (and I’m afraid there are more), it has value. Some readers might object to certain ratios or propose better ones, but Ruhlman doesn’t pretend that a single ratio is the only possibility or that it turns you into a good cook – and I’m sure that’s why there are so many excellent cooking tips and ideas presented alongside the many recipes scattered through the book. Understanding how to make something is separate from knowing what ingredients are involved. Ruhlman does a great job of encouraging the reader to think beyond the recipe and to understand the effects of minor changes in the ratios. There is no doubting his cooking sense and his desire to help the reader.

Ratio was destined to be a challenge for reader and writer alike. It required skilful explanation and careful presentation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed and mathematically unsure cooks will possibly abandon it in confusion or frustration. Ruhlman does make you think and imagine possibilities, and therein lies the strength of the book despite the many flaws. There are few contemporary books which attempt to give typical home cooks insight into relationships between ingredients. This work is still useful and interesting, but not an adequate reference work. It’s unsuitable for most non-USAmerican readers (there are a few metric examples/conversions, but the contortions that US Customary units require, as evident in this book, will discourage many metricated readers), and among his domestic audience I’d expect it to be of most value to readers seeking inspiration rather than clarity.

Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Unimpressive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
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2 Comments

  1. mochachoc
    Posted 23 Apr 2009 at 21:17 | Permalink

    I think this is a fair appraisal of the book. I was enthusiastic about buying this book after reading Ruhlman’s blog. I was also relieved that someone had the good sense to encourage cooks to move beyond the recipe. However, after reading an excerpt on Amazon I was befuddled. Not only is there a glaring mistake (3% of 1000 grams is 30 not 3 as stated in the book. An oversight the editors need a spanking for) but as you mentioned for non-American readers it is almost unintelligible. That said I look forward to an edition with the mistakes ironed out and marketed to those who don’t know what a stick of butter is.

  2. Daniel Cowan
    Posted 25 Apr 2009 at 13:28 | Permalink

    Looks like a good review, but I haven’t read the book yet, but a copy is on the way.

    Just wondering if the author had any suggestions on where one could find information on this tradition of ratios that he mentions in the review – are there older books on the subject? Somewhere in Escoffier probably!?

    I think I’m going to make my own diagrams and charts from the information in the book. : )

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