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Ruhlman, who explained the basic ingredients, tools, and cookbooks essential to the home chef in The Elements of Cooking (2007), now offers an illuminating read on the magic numbers that lie at the heart of basic cookery. He divides the book into five parts (doughs, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards). In each section he explains what essential properties make the ratios work and the subtle variations that differentiate, for instance, a bread dough (five parts flour, three parts water) from a biscuit dough (three parts flour, one part fat, two parts liquid). While making his case that “possessing one small bit of crystalline information can open up a world of practical applications” gets a little repetitive, it’s certainly a lesson worth taking to heart. This revealing and remarkably accessible read offers indispensible information for those ready to cook by the seat of their pants; with a handy grasp of these ratios (and a dash of technique), willing chefs should have no excuse to remain tethered to recipe cards and cookbooks. --Ian Chipman
"Cooking, like so many creative endeavors, is defined by relationships. For instance, knowing exactly how much flour to put into a loaf of bread isn't nearly as useful as understanding the relationship between the flour and the water, or fat, or salt . That relationship is defined by a 'ratio,' and having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes. Professional cooks and bakers guard ratios passionately so it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Michael Ruhlman is forced into hiding like a modern-day Prometheus, who in handing us mortals a power better suited to the gods, has changed the balance of kitchen power forever. I for one am grateful. I suspect you will be too." -- Alton Brown, author of I'm Just Here for the Food
Michael Ruhlman is the author of more than twenty non-fiction and cooking related works, including the bestselling "The Soul of a Chef," "The French Laundry Cookbook" with Thomas Keller, Charcuterie and Ruhlman's Twenty, which won both James Beard and IACP awards. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, Donna, who is the photographer on his most recent cookbooks.
I've been cooking without recipes for 20 years now, pretty much since I could reach the counter, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of home cooking.
Still, there are certain things that remained mystical. For some reason, we think of dough as something only a baker can make. It's not. It's 5 parts flour and 3 parts water. Home-made pies are too much trouble, right? Wrong. I can make a pie dough in less time than a typical TV commercial break (and now I know where the term 'easy as pie' came from). Homemade mayo is great, everyone knows that, but emulsions are hard to make and easy to break, right? Wrong. Just make sure you have the proper ratio of water to oil and you'll be fine (and you can easily re-emulsify if it does break).
If you're a novice in the kitchen, this book is going to really do a lot for you. You'll walk past the cake mixes and straight to the bags of flour. You'll find yourself never throwing leftovers away because leftovers+stock=fantastic soup. You'll transcend simple bread baking (which is still quite enjoyable) and discover the splendor of choux paste.
More importantly however, if you're very comfortable in the kitchen as I was, but still see a division between home cooking and fine cuisine, this is even more so the book for you. It will help bring things to your plate that you thought were reserved for the outer world. The best bread is the bread you bake. The best sauce is the sauce you dream up. The best soup is the one you made from scraps.
Of special note is the very important fact that everything in this book is not just possible, but it's easy as well.Read more ›
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After reading through the book, I was left feeling that it should have offered me a lot more. Perhaps Mr. Ruhlman should have given the basic ratio, and then gone on to explain what the results would be. After that, he could have discussed how changing each ingredient in the ratio would change the results.
For example, a cook will get some decent bread by using the 5:3 ratio in the book and a standard breadmaking technique. However, if she reduces the water, the bread will be better for bagels and pretzels. If she increases the water, it will tend toward a ciabatta or pugliese. Changing the salt and yeast will affect the rise time and flavor. That's how knowing a ratio becomes useful. The cook knows altering it little in one direction will change the results in a predictable way. Some of this information was haphazardly indicated in the chapter introductions, but it would have been much more effective if it were thoroughly explained and organized in the context of the recipe ratio.
To me, this was the information missing that would have made this book an invaluable resource. It's not just knowing the ratios - it's knowing how to tweak them to get the results I want in each particular instance. I think any mid-level cook knows that adding a few herbs and spices to their homemade biscuits won't break the recipe. But if she wants to be able to tweak her basic biscuit recipe so that just a little more moist and tender to go with fried chicken, or a little more sturdy to stand up to a lot of sausage gravy, this book doesn't offer anything. Many problems with recipes can be solved by altering the ratio slightly: cookies spreading too much, cakes collapsing, biscuits not rising, bread too dense, pie dough overbrowning, etc.Read more ›
Ever since Ruhlman first started pondering this book on his blog years ago, I've been eagerly anticipating its arrival, and it has not disappointed. The theory of ratio and its present and historical value are engagingly presented, and the book quickly ushers openminded readers to the kitchen to see these things at work themselves. So far I have baked two "experiments" I would never have had the bravery to tackle without this knowledge, and both have been educational and delicious accomplishments!
This is not a cookbook -- indeed, it is an anti-cookbook. Those expecting complex recipes, or the "best" way to make something, will be dissatisfied. This is a manual for real cooks who want to understand the fundamental underpinnings of what makes food FOOD in order to play, tweak, recontextualize, and personalize their methods in infinite variations. It's a book for culinary explorers who don't wish to be, pardon the pun, spoon-fed.
As always, Ruhlman's fresh, engaging, personal writing style leaves this an entertaining read even if you're not stopping every few pages to try your hand at the techniques. (If telling you it was a real page-turner while I was awaiting jury duty doesn't convince you, I don't know what will!)
(This review originally appeared in a somewhat different form at my blog, OffSeasonTV at Blogspot.)
This book purports to be the latest and greatest in books claiming to teach how to cook without recipes, a trail blazed not all that successfully by authors such as Pam Anderson. Derived from a chart Ruhlman acquired from Chef Uwe Hestnar, at the Culinary Institute of America, it actually does a fairly creditable job of showing how certain aspects of cooking (particularly baking, charcuterie, and saucemaking) are based heavily on ingredient ratios (weight, by the way, not volume ratios, which are somewhat useless due to differences in ingredient density). Hestnar felt quite strongly (and presumably still does) that these ratios were the most critical things a professional chef needs to know, and that pretty much anything else is secondary.
As is often the case with books of this sort, Ratio oversells itself; anyone who's spent a great deal of time studying politics can tell you that something that claims to be the utmost in simplicity seldom really is, and truthfully this book has a tendency to downplay technique (entire books can be and have been written on the subject, which really isn't a very simple subject at all), as well as hyperfocusing on classical Franco-international cuisine. The question really comes down to this: how valid is Hestnar's point, and can a non-cook learn to cook from Ruhlman's book?