Looking Out To Sea

Cooking by ratios: the book

I’m not a great cook and very much envy the just-throw-stuff-together style of cookery which some people have. The exacting sciences of mixed drinks and bread baking provide some solace for me, because they’re all about the correct mixing of ingredients in well defined ratios.

It seems obvious that a book called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking would be something right up my street. Michael Ruhlman attempts to argue that much more of cooking follows rules of proportion and ratio — and that lack of emphasis on this fact leaves people slavishly following recipes without understanding the fundamentals. Each subtle variation is a “new” recipe.

Ratio is his solution: a book of recipes by proportion. His introduction stipulates the important rule that ratios should be understood by weight not volume because the quantity of dry ingredients will vary a lot when packed. The cornflakes rule: contents may settle during transit.

We’re barely out of the starting blocks before he starts breaking his rules. Flour in cups, butter in sticks (what?), broccoli in cups…

Then we get to the cake chapter and he flat out says — the ratio isn’t important! The proportions of sponge and pound cake are identical! So we’re less than a fifth into the book and he’s already working hard to demolish his whole argument.

I didn’t follow any of the recipes though some of them looked dubious. Other people who read the book before me thought his pastry was totally wrong. But right or not, I didn’t come away feeling that I understood the ingredients at any deeper level. His recipes were just as confusing as if they’d been given as predefined measures. Apart from a dartboard-style diagram on the front cover there weren’t any useful charts to explain how the recipes related to each other and the proportions and ingredients used.

Starting again from scratch — with a more technical approach to the subject and a more discriminating eye for the examples — and this book could be a real winner. I really wanted to like it, but so many things annoyed me.

To take a contrasting example, Dough by Richard Bertinet uses the same approach to ratios but devotes an entire book to (in essence) just one ratio: ten parts flour to seven parts water. In Dough the technical detail is omitted because there are so many examples. Ratio has neither technical explanation nor deep coverage, but instead flits from chapter to chapter.

If there are other treatments of this topic out there I would be interested to hear what they’re like.