Thursday, June 3

Ratio: the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking

I went through a long drought during which I couldn't get interested in books, but lately I've been reading up a storm again. I haven't felt moved to blog until I found Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking. This is such a neat concept, and I've been pursuing this idea for years. Ruhlman gives us the ratio, by weight, of ingredients to each other in doughs, batters, sausages, sauces, custards, and more. The only hurdle to using the ratios is that you have to have a good quality scale to measure the ingredients. Even though I've been pursuing this idea for a while, I really hesitate to buy a $25 scale that I may not actually use that often. (Enthusiasm: high! Follow-through: iffy.) Ruhlman makes the point that volume measurements are inconsistent:

"A cup of flour can weigh anywhere between 4 and 6 ounces. This means that if you are making a recipe calling for 4 cups of flour, you might wind up with a pound of flour in your bowl or you might end up with 1 1/2 pounds. That's a 50 percent difference in the main ingredient, which will have a substantial impact on the finished product."

OK, OK, you've convinced me, Mr. Ruhlman, and I may never use the ratios in your book, but I still like knowing what ratios of ingredients combine to make cookie dough, and how it differs from biscuit dough.

The actual ratios occupy only two pages in the introduction. In the rest of the book he explains the theme and variations. Here are several, to make things more concrete:

Bread = 5 parts flour : 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt)

Pasta dough = 3 parts flour : 2 parts egg

Pie dough= 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water

Cookie Dough = 1 part sugar : 2 parts fat : 3 parts flour

Remember, though, before you rush in, it's weight, not volume.

Once you know the ratios,  you can vary the recipe. Cookies? You can add vanilla, or almond extract, or melted chocolate, or chocolate chips and nuts, or lemon zest and ginger. You can use brown sugar or white sugar. Ruhlman gives you variations, scientific background, and cooking methodologies for each type of dough, batter, sausage, etc. Way fun.

Why is this so fascinating? It's like knowing what makes a Monet a Monet, what makes Beethoven so different from Bach, which intervals and instruments signal Chinese music and which are hallmarks of Celtic music.

I'm terrible at knowing how machines work, but I love learning how cooking, art, and music work. I love reading "how to" books but seldom have any real intention of following through.  I like the ideas, and I often put them to use in other ways, once they'e been composted and mixed with other ideas. Or not. It doesn't really matter to me. I like learning a little bit about a lot of things. I like reading about the creative things other people do. The ideas and possibilities are enough.