Cracking the Code

Michael Nagrant / 06.24.09

If man truly had to live on bread alone, especially bread he’d baked himself, I’d starve to death. Like many cooks, I pride myself on improvisational skills. I revel in transforming an aimless romp through the farmers market into a grand feast. I live in the moments between stoking a bland chili and rescuing an insipid soup.

The lore of baking, however, suggests that making bread and pastry is no place for such slapdashery. Common wisdom holds that proper parsing of pie dough requires an alchemical bent, a Harry Potteresque magic repertoire augmented with a little Ph.D. level science mastery.

And so, just as I had never met a pork dish I did not like, I had never met a baking recipe that I did, at least until I cracked open Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (Scribner, $27).

Though, when I first heard the title, I was skeptical. Ruhlman recently had railed against “quick-and-easy” cookbooks on his blog, writing that the conceit of such books was “fundamentally a lie.” Sure, an Everyday Joe might learn to cook like a Michelin-starred chef, but certainly not easily, or in five easy steps.

And yet, here was Ruhlman, like a culinary version of the fictional symbologist Robert Langdon solving the DaVinci code, with a book suggesting that if we just learned some “simple” numbers we might become crack chefs.

While the “simple” title of the book almost skirts that realm of eye-catching promises usually reserved for diet books (“Sit on your couch and lose weight while eating as many steaks as you like!”), it turns out that the essence of hundreds of years of culinary history, and bookshelves overstuffed with tomes from Escoffier to Emeril, can be encapsulated quite simply.

Ratio is a modern culinary textbook, a smart, inspired distillation of hallowed classics such as Larousse Gastronomique or the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook, The New Professional Chef.

Unlike those volumes, Ratio is no slog through infinite variations on the same theme, girded by thousands of recipes for mastering those techniques. In fact, you do not even have to crack open the book. The cover graphic — which shows that bread is five parts flour to three parts liquid — is really all you need.

In Ruhlman’s book, recipes also are scaled down from the usual massive restaurant serving sizes to home cook’s proportions. And as such, Ratio makes the perfect next lesson for curious home cooks lulled into the kitchen by Rachael or Martha.

What really separates Ratio from its forebears is that it is no mere technical manual. Chapter openings are filled with Ruhlman’s passion for teaching. Recipe intros are punctuated with family history.

We learn that Ruhlman’s late father, Rip, had a penchant for spice cookies and that Ruhlman’s Bebob-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie is so named for his daughter’s enchantment with Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion ditty of the same name.

There’s even a philosophical aside on how the ratios for batter demonstrate the interconnectedness of life. This is a book as much for the nightstand as the kitchen counter.

Ruhlman’s inspiration for the book came from Uwe Hestnar, one of his culinary school professors, a man he describes as a “cook’s cook, a wily intellectual.” During a culinary school bull session, Hestnar told Ruhlman he had the secret to hundreds of years of cooking, and asked whether the writer wanted to see it.

“He went to this file cabinet and pulled out a page and a half of typed out ratios,” Ruhlman says. “Hollandaise was distilled down to six egg yolks and one pound of butter. I stared at those sheets. I found them fascinating.”

Ruhlman took a copy and had a friend with “impeccable handwriting” create a chart for him. He framed the chart, placed it in his kitchen where he’d daydream over and memorize the ratios while washing dishes.

The concept consumed him, and friends requested copies of the chart so often, he knew a book needed to be written.

Ruhlman arrived at his own basic ratios for batters, cakes and breads through research and careful testing. Such efforts, it seems, would result in absolutes, but Ratio really works because of its elasticity.

A basic cookie dough is three parts flour, one part sugar and two parts fat, but such a ratio only gives you the essence of a cookie, it does not, as Ruhlman writes, provide you with “art or the best cookie ever made.”

“All the ratios are variable,” Ruhlman says. “I didn’t go up on some mountain and come down with the stone tablet. My goal was to provide cooks with a simple workable baseline.”

But, you must realize what the essence of a cookie is, how the components inform the final product. Only then can you experiment and let the improvisational spirit that’s so rewarding in savory cooking take over.

My own practical revelation came with Ruhlman’s gougeres (cheese infused cream puffs) recipe. My folks came to town a few weeks ago, and as usual, I was raring to take them to my latest restaurant find.

My mother however, requested that I cook dinner instead. While I was unprepared, I could not refuse the woman who’d sustained me so often. Cobbling together a good meal turned out to be relatively easy, but the meal needed a capstone.

Luckily, I’d remembered the cream puff dough ratio: two parts water, one part butter, one part flour and two parts egg.

While traditional gougeres are made with Gruyere cheese, I didn’t have any. I threw in aged Vermont Cheddar I had on hand and a handful of rosemary with confidence, because I knew the basic ratios for the dough are the only thing that mattered.

Half an hour later, as I watched my mother bite through creamy, eggy airy puffs redolent with Cheddar perfume, I’m pretty sure I spotted a moistened eye. Then again, my mother would love me if they had been little bricks. The real lesson was that I now had the confidence to bake.

Ruhlman says he had a similar revelation after writing the book.

“I am a terrible baker. I never felt comfortable in a cold kitchen or a patisserie,” he says. “But there I am on the CBS “Early Show,” demonstrating baking recipes. If I can demo recipes in under four minutes on national television with this book, anybody can bake.”

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form.