Book Review: Ratio By Michael Ruhlman

I am a novice, a mere stripling in the kitchen, propelled only by a pretty good palate and a desire to make things that are delicious and, for me, gluten-free. I got sick of substandard gluten-free offerings and sick of feeling like an inconvenience at other people’s tables. 

This journey has become something of a mission, albeit a mostly personal one. Along the way, I am following my own inclinations, starting with developing recipes to replace gluten-free staples that are expansive and/or awful, and tossing in doughnuts and other sweets because they are delicious.

Because I have zero training of any kind beyond watching my mother and my grandmother cook, I am always on the lookout for a particular kind of resource. A resource that speaks in the language of the chef, but slowly so that I can understand. A resource that gathers a vast amount of information into small, manageable, portable bites that has many applications.

(Nearly) Above all, I am interested in resources that do not distinguish between the “home cook” and the “chef.” Yes, of course, I am not a professional chef, and I have no idea how to run a professional kitchen. I lack the lingo, experience, and training.

But I want to learn the way a chef might learn, by doing it, fucking up and then making some changes (or a lot of changes) and then not fucking it up. I am not interested in pre-packaged, pre-made shortcuts, and I don’t want recipes or direction to cut my prep time or fresh food. I am down with the mise en place, thank you very much.

Please don’t talk down to me, authors.

So when I picked up Ratio on a friend’s coffee table, leafing through it briefly when I stopped by to watch their dogs, I was merely curious, not committed, and there was a good possibility that my relationship with the book may have ended there if I had not read this line:

“Technique must be practiced – you can never stop getting better. This is important: my aim isn’t to make perfect bread or pasta or mayonnaise or biscuits – ‘the best I’ve ever had.’ It’s to set a baseline to work from, to codify the fundamentals from which we work and which we work off of.”

From that moment on, this book had me. Practice to get better, practice to learn more, not allowing perfect to be the enemy of good: these are the lessons of this book, and I am steadily committing these fundamentals to memory.

Ratio outlines the basic proportions  used in cooking that enable the chef to conjure a fresh loaf of bread or a Bearnaise sauce from memory. Culinary schools use ratios instead of recipes to teach their young chefs to work quickly and consistently, and over time these ratios are deeply embedded in their brains. 

Because many recipes have similar ingredients as a base, it is the ratio that makes bread (five parts flour to three parts water) different from pie (three parts flour to two parts fat to one part water) and crepes (1/2 part flour to one part liquid and one part egg). 

There are, of course, variations in cooking and technique that make breads successful or not, and there is yeast and salt and any variety of flavors that can be incorporated into the ratio at various time, but through it all the basic formula is the structure that binds everything together.

This book does not stick to breads but also dives into batters, stocks, sauces, and custards. Each has its own section, and classics are well-represented.

We are only two in our household, so the progress is slow but infinitely educational (for better or for worse, if I am being honest. Still haven’t made a decent pastry creme that has not broken.). Of all cookbooks in my possession, and the many more to come, I can safely say that thus far this is the one I would take with me on a desert island. Which I certainly hope has adequate facilities for practicing pastry creme.

Side note: Ruhlman is also the author of a series of books that begins with the title The Making of a Chef. He wanted to write about a cook’s experience at the Culinary Institute in America, in the end becoming a student himself. I highly suggest the first two, as they give insight not only into the process of becoming a chef through culinary school but also follow some well-known chefs (Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, Michael Simon and others) as they build their kitchens and careers.

What book  has revolutionized your work in the kitchen?