Friday, October 8, 2010

The Gentle Art of Ratio Cooking

Often as I have watched other more experienced cooks ply their trade, I have marveled at their freedom from using recipes, how they just seem to know how much of what to mix together to make a delicious moist cake or a creamy custard. Of course, experience has much to do with this skill but just as important is the understanding of cooking ratios - what they are and how to use them. This is where Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking comes to save the day!

This might just be the most important book about cooking that I have ever read. Sure, there are some fun and interesting recipe ideas within its pages but the point of the book is to get you away from thinking in recipes and to get you to see why the recipes work the way they do. If you know, for example, that a basic cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour, you can use this 1:2:3 ratio to make just about any cookie your imagination can come up with! When you understand that muffins are 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, and 1 part butter, you will have hundreds of recipes at your fingertips and will have the freedom to improvise with whatever flavor combinations you might have on hand at the moment. That, I believe, is what this book is really all about - culinary freedom. As Alton Brown put it, "...having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes." So many cooks are slaves to the recipe to the extent that when they are forced to forgo a pre-written recipe, they are lost and their cooking suffers. Knowing what works and why it works is a big part of elevating your cooking from being just food to being art.

One of the best things about reading this book was that fact that I constantly found myself stopping and pondering the possibilities of the ratios Ruhlman discusses. I had never thought of using a Pâte à Choux (cream puff dough) as a base for dumplings in chicken stew but I can't wait to try! His explanation of the difference between a roux and a beurre manié has made me rethink the way I was making gravy, a basic sauce that I thought I had completely mastered.

The approach discussed in this wonderful book is so basic and yet is the foundation for literally everything else that happens in the kitchen. These are, as the title of the book claims, simple codes. With practice and technique, you will be whipping up handmade seafood sausages, fresh wild mushroom raviolis, and homemade butterscotch without ever cracking open a single cookbook. And that my friends is what the true Art of Cooking is really all about!

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