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Customer Review

278 of 308 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost getting teaching kitchen improv right: priceless, May 13, 2009
This review is from: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (Hardcover)
(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?

Well, Hestnar's not wrong. Certainly a lot of this book comes down to the interactions of the chemical components of food; mayonnaise, for example, and its dependence on egg yolk as an emulsifier is an extreme example, since it really takes very little yolk to emulsify oil and vinegar (indeed, Ruhlman quotes a 20:1:1 ratio for oil/vinegar/yolk), but the ratio in question is extremely squishy compared to the rather strict 5:3 ratio of flour to water for a standard loaf bread (hardcore bakers will recognize that as a baker's percentage of 66%). And indeed these ratios are fairly important for the subjects that Hestnar's chart covers -- too little liquid will create a gloppy sauce, and too much will create a hard-to-handle bread dough (although this is something you actually want for a ciabatta). And fat ratios make the difference between a bread dough and a pastry dough.

But as I said, I do think it's oversold. The simple fact is that these ratios really aren't as general as Ruhlman wants to think; they cover only certain parts of the culinary arts, and are mainly of use for troubleshooting purposes outside the realms the book covers. And Ruhlman's work only covers classical French-based cuisine; there isn't a tomato sauce to be found in here, for example, nor any discussion of rice or other grains (if cooking rice isn't ratio-driven I don't know what is). But what is in here is quite useful, and it does promote the use of weight measurements in the American kitchen, something people seem to be afraid of. It's an interesting read, and I do recommend it, but as a guide to improvisational cooking it only does half the job.
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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 11, 2009 12:17:05 PM PST
Well where do you recommend one turn to find a complete guide to improvisational cooking? As a beginning chef, I would really like to know.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 20, 2009 10:39:32 AM PST
Alton Brown's books are pretty good, since they teach you what's going on with the cooking process. Julia Child's stuff is excellent if you don't mind learning with an emphasis on French food (the techniques will generally translate to almost anything), as is Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques.

Don't give Ratio a pass though -- it's good at what it does cover.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2009 9:26:31 PM PST
Morgan Bird says:
I haven't read the book so I can't comment on your larger point about scope, but what would a tomato sauce ratio look like? That may be the least ratio-based sauce possible. A basic tomato sauce, if you have really excellent tomatoes, can just be tomatoes, in whatever combination of diced, blended, fresh, stewed, etc. you prefer. Olive oil, wine, seasonings, aromatics and the like are all optional. The point of a ratio for stuff like dough and mayonnaise is that, even if it's somewhat flexible, it's based on some scientific reaction or other that's important to the process.

Posted on Apr 18, 2010 11:43:41 AM PDT
David Terry says:
Gosh...after twenty-plus years of writing & reading book reviews (none of them involving cooking, to say the least), I think that's one of the most lucid, balanced reviews I've come across.

That was a pleasure to read.

thank you.

who ARE you, by the way?

David Terry

Posted on Jun 28, 2010 10:30:51 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 8, 2010 11:47:38 PM PDT
Um... I don't think you understand the term "ratio"...

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 5, 2011 6:59:11 AM PDT
Woody says:
Clearly he does not understand...... I have been using ratios calculated by me for many years so I know the concept and am eager to learn more beyond cookies and biscuits. Thanks for the review I bought this book and can't wait for it to come "today"

Posted on Aug 18, 2011 9:28:58 AM PDT
I congratulate Brian Connors for his ability to produce a good review. On the book itself, I would comment that while respecting ratios is important, disrespecting them is, possibly, as important.

Posted on Oct 16, 2011 4:59:24 PM PDT
Katie says:
It was a well written and informative review, but I guess I don't understand ratios either. Don't see how an 5 to 3 ratio amounts to 66%.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2011 4:48:58 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Oct 31, 2011 4:50:47 AM PDT]
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