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Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman

Lilandra and I finally got around to buying (and reading) some books that have  been in my wishlist..then shopping cart…for aeons. One of them (which she bought for me), is Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. I’ve been following his blog for a while – in addition to being an good read (including the comments), the photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman and her recent blogging on her photography have been fascinating.

I bought Ratio, because I am a big believer in one of the philosophies underpinning the book – that one should not be a slave to recipes, in fact you don’t need recipes. You need to know basics about cooking, but you shouldn’t need a precise recipe for everything. I buy cookbooks, and recipebooks (whatever may be the distinction) but I rarely follow them. I read them…I get inspired, but I do not generally set out to follow a specific recipe  for most dishes. For doughs and batters, I admit that I may follow a recipe the first time, but it’s not part of me to want to keep following a recipe. It’s why it’s hard for me to write recipes for this blog! I cook and try new exciting things, even take photos of them, but to write down what I do, when I don’t do it exactly the same way twice?

So, what is Ratio if not a recipe book? It is “the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking” (from the title). So it provides you with the culinary ratios for bread/doughs, custards, batters, sauces etc – just the ratios of the core ingredients so that you learn the basics and can take it from there. Know the ratio for bread dough, keep it in your head or on your kitchen shelf (5 parts flour and 3 parts water) and you’ll never be at a loss when you suddenly ketch a vaps to make a feta cheese+olive+za’atar bread, for example. Of course, you have to open to this kind of cooking – the devising of meals and dishes based on what you have in your pantry and not what’s written on a list in a cookbook. Or being inspired by some deliciously fresh ingredient you discovered in the market that day. If that’s the kind of cook you’d like to be, then this would be a good read. It’s not going to have everything you need, but it’s a good reference to have.

Testing Ratio - QuicheI will admit that I decided to buy Ratio when Ruhlman blogged about his upcoming book and the custard ratio and I saw that photo of the quiche! That photo (by Donna) is in the book, and it stands to reason that a full year after that post, when I get my hands on the book I decided to make quiche! Now, I make quiche a lot – it’s been some time now that I have felt comfortable making a basic pastry/pie crust – mix of shortening and butter (depending on what I have), keep everything cold, don’t overwork etc. So, although I made sure to follow the ratio for pie dough too, what I was really after was the custard ratio. See, since I use varying size pans for the quiche when I make it, I tend to eyeball the amount of filling/custard I need, so I know I wasn’t getting it right – tasted great (eggs, cheese, veggies, why not?) but was it all that Ruhlman raves about? So, I sauteed onions, lots of fresh mushrooms (which I kept picking at they were so good – tinned stuff just doesn’t compare) and built the custard – 2 parts liquid: 1 part egg. From my experience with my pans’ capacity, I measured the eggs and then added twice the amount of liquid (milk+cream). Oh. So good. Velvety smooth and nary a taste of scrambled eggs. At all. It was no longer eggs baked in a crust, it was a CUSTARD.

Now I can replicate that for any quiche or free-standing custard. Granted, as you can tell from the photo, I didn’t have a 2″ baking ring, and used a cast iron skillet. My oven-that-sucks overbaked the pastry a bit. I didn’t leave the pastry overhanging enough to prevent leakage over the side. And you do NOT want to know how hard it was to get this out of the pan. But those were all my variables that I expected. And you know what? The other philosophy behind Ratio that I like is expressed in Ruhlman’s introduction:

“This is important: my aim isn’t to make the perfect bread or pasta or mayonnaise or biscuits – “the best I’ve ever had.” It’s to set a baseline to work from…I love that hunt for the perfect sauce, the perfect custard, but here I’m after good. Only when we know good can we begin to inch up from good to excellent.”

And that’s all I want. To be able to make good food, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Hopefully when I have guests who can attest to this brilliance.

Now all I need is someone to write a book about flour, baking and tropical humidity!

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14 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. and here i thought i bought it for you
    what did i buy for you then if not that book

    1. Lilandra on February 26th, 2010 at 1:34 am
  2. also
    i would like to make quiche
    does it need crust?

    2. Lilandra on February 26th, 2010 at 1:35 am
  3. I apologise – I couldn’t recall who purchased what…so I guess you did buy this one for me? You keep track of these things better I think.

    Uhm…you could make it as a baked savoury custard…I just should have used parchment on the bottom. Because of the custardy thing, it won’t be like a baked omelette, so try it :-)

    3. Chennette on February 26th, 2010 at 1:37 am
  4. cool! i don’t mind baked omelette either however
    but yes, i was thinking of lining with parchment

    4. Lilandra on February 26th, 2010 at 2:25 pm
  5. Why don’t YOU write about flour, baking and tropical humidity?

    5. ewe_are_here on February 26th, 2010 at 6:09 pm
  6. uhm…you mean like I’d have to bake and pay attention to what I was doing and write things down? sigh…talk to the one who calls her blog “Baking till I drop”! :-)

    6. Chennette on February 27th, 2010 at 12:42 am
  7. I am a slave to recipes in terms of what ingredients I use but for my kind (men) ratios are instinctive rather than precise – the engineering community will come down on me for this but ratios is a form of precision. I made dhal today using Chennette’s blog and instinctively used the concept of ratios rather than 1/2 pound to 2 cloves to 1 Congo. The dhal was good and I am surprised how many people still can’t consistently make good tasting dhal and it may be they don’t have a concept of ratio.

    7. aka_lol on February 28th, 2010 at 8:58 am
  8. you’re right – ratios are precise :-) and if we could rely on just a fixed ratio, he wouldn’t have had to write a book to explain…and I haven’t tried the bread ratios yet, but I imagine in the tropics our liquid requirement would vary. I grew up with ratios though – for example, every sweet recipe is based on how much you add for 1 lb butter, or 1 tin condensed milk etc :-). Even making roti – except my mother and grandmothers measured things like baking powder in the palm of their hands!
    The idea of figuring out how much filling (volume) I needed for a quiche and working out the 1:2 ratio for the eggs and liquid was great though, appeals to the mathematical genes I abandoned after Form Five.

    8. Chennette on February 28th, 2010 at 12:09 pm
  9. We are all instinctively a ratio people but we will first have to unlearn the the strict and mindless recipe method to become one with our inborn ratio roots :) I believe good chefs are ratio-people who understand the relationship between varying the ratios and maintaining the taste.

    9. aka_lol on March 2nd, 2010 at 1:20 pm
  10. This one as been sitting in my Amazon cart for a while now. I was drawn to this because I remember that this is how my grandmother cooked. No recipes just amounts that she could eyeball. As I become more experienced as a cook this is how I cook as well.

    10. wizzythestick on March 5th, 2010 at 6:33 pm
  11. The book is freeing isn’t it?

    11. Cynthia on March 17th, 2010 at 9:46 pm
  12. um, i always seem to need to add more flour
    which is problematic with wet doughs which are supposed to be wet and the books tell you DONT ADD MORE IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THAT
    but with their other recipes when it’s too wet and you add it is fine
    so…i know i should listen to them but i also think that *maybe* i shouldn’t


    ciabatta is hard

    12. Lilandra on April 3rd, 2010 at 11:00 pm
  13. I think someone just needs to follow the same process these people did with observing the flour and baking…but in a HUMID tropical environment.

    13. Chennette on April 4th, 2010 at 12:21 am
  14. yeah

    14. Lilandra on April 5th, 2010 at 2:11 am

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