People say math is just another language, and that the more you do it, the easier it gets. People also say that aliens abduct you in the desert so I don’t know.
You knew it had to happen though, didn’t you? Back in grade school the sour aunts were smug when they told you why you had to learn it – because you’d use it in everyday life. Nevermind that to an eight year old, Everyday Life is a concept about as tangible as the Dow. You’ll use it at the grocery store, they’d intone, and at the hardware store. Or when you decelerate a space shuttle orbiter from hypersonic speed and segue into the landing phase.
High school algebra was another toothy beast altogether. It was the one class in which I ever got a D, and then I followed up that stunt by lying my way to Mexico. Told my dad I’d pulled a B- so that I could go on my spring break trip, and by the time the report card arrived in the mail, I was the focus of a small health emergency unfolding in a medically equipped hut in the center of the Yucatan Jungle. My parents were so happy to see me alive that I never even needed the five-foot straw sombrero I’d haggled down to 55 pesos.
I still hate math. But I did need it for haggling.
Seems that on some level, every day, I need it for cooking too. Nuns didn’t tell me that or I might have tried harder. Every Day Kitchen Life requires a handle on the basics of subtraction, of fractional division, and multiplication. Granted, unless you’re baking most of this can be done using those other measuring instruments, the built-in kind: the nose, the eyes, the taste sensors, Most of all, there’s that nebulous know-how. If you’re like me and the very notion of multiplying 3 ¾ cups by 1 ¼ makes your head feel like someone crammed a few too many teeth in there, then you’ve put a spin on it. You’ve got people convinced that your frantic avoidance of math is really the highly developed, finely honed extra-sensory gift of intuition.
I’m not telling if you’re not.
And anyway, along comes Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, and suddenly I find myself inspired to at least breathe deeply in the face of the math problem instead of running from the kitchen. Here’s why. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (Scribner, 2009) is a culinary Golden Compass – it gives the home chef access to the inner workings of food. Before I go on though I better say this: In order for this to be much help, you already need to be pretty familiar with the outer workings of it. This is a book for those among us who aim to understand what we’re doing when we’re fiddling around in the kitchen.
Ruhlman’s idea is an elegant one: great food is based upon a reliable ratio of the ingredients. When you know the simple proportions of one ingredient to another, you’ve nailed the backbone of culinary craft. Easy as 3:1:2. Three parts flour, 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid, that is. That’s the ratio for biscuit dough, as opposed to pie dough, which is 3 parts flour to 2 parts fat to 1 part liquid.
And that’s the real magic here. Drag the flour from your pantry, the butter or oil and the eggs from the fridge, and get some water ready and set up shop. Grab a large bowl, and start mixing. By shifting the ratio of flour to fat or liquid, with the addition or subtraction of egg, or by using one kind of fat rather than another, you can whip up biscuits, pie dough, pate a choux, bread, pasta, muffins, fritters, popovers or pancakes. Toss in some sugar and the possibilities include cookies and any number of cakes.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Bread requires yeast, and unless you’re trying for manna, baked goods call for leavening. Salt is requisite, and no matter what you’re making, if you fail to spice things up then you’ll have pretty dull, plodding food. You won’t find guidance about leavening, herbs, extracts, cheeses or other flavors here. Rather, Ruhlman says, this kind of expertise comes from experience, and experience is an important part of this equation. Consider his statement that the basic, unadorned 1:2:3 cookie dough is “a good recipe to do once so that you can understand what a cookie is.” The implication being that you’ll never do it again.
But Ruhlman does go on at length to explain the function of the other ingredients, if not their measurements, and he provides alternate recipes that have had the ratios tweaked so that we might begin to understand what happens when you modify the balance of ingredients. And the book goes far beyond dough recipes. Ratio is divided into sections: Doughs and Batters, Stocks, Meat-related Ratios, Fat-Based Sauces (including vinaigrette, mayonnaise and hollandaise), and the Custard Continuum (which has free-standing custard at one end and caramel and chocolate sauces at the other).
If you can get a handle on the ratios, then there’s a lot of freedom here. Say you want to make a little bit of bread – or a whole bunch. Rather than finding a recipe to suit your needs, or going through the hassle of modifying one, simply measure out the amount of flour you need. You have 21 ounces? If the ratio is 5 parts flour to 3 parts water then you’ll need… well, you’ll need… um… See, that’s why this book’s applicable value is limited for me. At least until the US goes metric.
I still love this book though. If you, too, are severely mathematically stunted, and if, unlike me you don’t live with a numbers whiz like Simon, I’ll still gamble that this book will be an incredibly enlightening resource (even though gambling is a numbers game). For one thing, every chapter is filled with gems and nuggets that you can carry straight into the kitchen. There’s as much on technique and chemistry as there is on ingredients, and technique is more than half the equation.
For example, in the section on vinaigrette, Ruhlman writes extensively about the order in which ingredients should be combined as well as how to attain just the right emulsification. As for stocks, he asserts that they deserve extraordinary attention since they infuse food with that je ne sais qua that separates home cooking from restaurant quality cuisine. Appropriately then, he covers techniques for extracting flavor, simmering times, and temperatures (stock should never boil), as well as methods for thickening and salting.
Every page of the book is a joy to read. Engaging, sometimes flip, and always deeply serious about food, Ruhlman writes with wit, honesty, and an almost ruthless candor. The book is an aesthetic paradox of a cookbook, heavy on text, relatively light on the recipes, yet punctuated throughout with the dramatic, artful black and white photography of Ruhlman’s wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman. And the ratio of photos to text achieves just the right balance.
One of my rules about cooking (and writing) is to shamelessly break all the rules. But first you have to learn them – and understand them. Regardless of your skill level, Ratio gives you the tools for knowing, on a very elemental level, how to cook, and it provides inspiration as the why. Ruhlman’s culinary ratios hand you the plot of land and the bricks and mortar. The tiles, the hardwoods, the moldings and soffits and triple-hungs, those are up to you. And if you can achieve confidence in your ability to manipulate the formula, suddenly the skylight’s the limit.
If you’re planning to drive 451 miles to collect ten-plus pounds of heirloom garlic scapes, know this: you’re going to end up with a lot of garlic scape tops. This part is stringy and a bit grassy and not all that graceful on the tongue – in other words, this is the part that goes into the compost. Unless, of course, you can’t stand to waste anything that smells so tasty. Since I couldn’t bear to throw them away, I made mine into a wonderfully aromatic vegetable stock.
A few words on making a stock so heavily balanced toward the aromatics. Ruhlman’s soup stock ratio suggests that sweet aromatics –garlic, onion, carrots and celery,, etc – should comprise about 20% the total weight of a stock. You’ll be getting into pretty heady territory if you do what I do, but that’s okay – just be mindful when you’re using the stock. I don’t eat meat, so the heft of flavor is going to come from these pieces anyway. The aromatic broth is going to be ideal for cooking risotto, grains, or for using in lieu of some of the oil in a stir fry, for example.
There are several steps here that are important, and that can be used in any stock – not just a veggie stock that’s heavy on the allium.
- Toast the peppercorns. Ruhlman suggests toasting them briefly in a hot skillet until they let off a peppery, nutty aroma. Cool them slightly, crack them with the bottom of a small sauté pan, then add them to your stock pot..
- Deglaze. I knew that I wanted to make a fond to add depth and sweetness to my stock. To do this, you’ll need a stainless steel or other non-nonstick skillet.
- The slow un-boil: It is essential, when making a stock, to start out by placing your ingredients in cold water. Ruhlman explains that the ingredients shouldn’t ever boil, and in most cases shouldn’t even simmer. A gradual temperature increase will extract the most flavor without creating bitterness or emulsifying fat. In fact, Ruhlman suggests oven-cooking the broth at 180 degrees as the ultimate means of obtaining flavor.
- Stock in an hour or less: Vegetables are limited in what they can give up in terms of flavor, and they release all of it in a fairly short amount of time. After that they begin to disintegrate, turn bitter, and soak up valuable broth. An hour of cooking time will suffice.
- Just say NO to celery: at least in a vegetable stock. Celery overpowers the other, more delicate flavors.
Finally, if you don’t have ten pounds of garlic tops lying around, you can substitute with onion greens. These are milder than the roots and will add the same freshness and sweetness as the scapes.
Garlic Scape Soup Stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ lb onions, diced
¼ pound mushrooms
1/3 cup dry white wine or white wine vinegar
2 pounds garlic scape tops (or other aromatics. This can include onion tops, carrots, or leeks)
¼ pound miscellaneous greens – chard leaves and ribs, spinach,
Generous handful of peppercorns
5 pounds (10 cups) water
Small bunch parsley
Small bunch fresh thyme
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
Heat a small skillet on medium high. Add the peppercorns and toast just until they begin to smell nutty. Remove from heat, crack them with the bottom of a skillet or a pestle and set aside.
In large stainless steel stock pot, heat the olive oil. Add the diced onion and mushrooms and cook on medium low until the onion becomes transluscent, about five minutes. Increase the heat slightly and let the vegetables begin to stick to the side of the pan. Pour in the wine or vinegar and stir the onion/mushroom mixture so that it is released from the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat.
Add the water, peppercorns, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, garlic scape tops and the leafy veggies. Stir well, then cover loosely with a lid and turn on the heat. Watch the pot carefully and don’t let it get too hot. When the temperature has reached about 180 degrees, place the stock pot in the preheated oven. Allow to cook for an hour, stirring the ingredients now and then.
Remove from oven, add the salt and then taste and adjust. This will store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.