Kitchenhacker Cookbook of the Year: Ratio
This year we've seen a ton of great cookbooks come out. Many of them have been gorgeous. Several of them have been extremely useful.
There is one cookbook that came out in 2009 that is notable despite the fact that it isn't gorgeous. It isn't a hefty tome filled with full color pictures. It is a small, slim, no-frills book that is designed to be used.
That book is Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, and it is my pick for the best cookbook of the year.
Buy it on Amazon:
Ratio focuses upon 32 ratios that provide skeletal frameworks to food. We can build upon these frameworks in an infinite number of ways to produce a huge variety of different recipe. Bread? That's five parts flour to two parts liquid. That's different from the framework for a biscuit, which is three parts flour to two parts liquid to one part fat. The ratios aren't just limited to baked good, either. They include meats, stocks, sauces, and custards as well.
As readers of this blog know, I'm not a huge fan of recipes. Ratio has recipes, but they are the kind I like: recipes designed to be tweaked and changed. Ruhlman offers plenty of suggestions, using the ratios as a structure for creativity.
Ratio teaches you how to think about cooking. This isn't the science of food. Instead it instructs you in how to cook improvisationally. The fact that a strong structure is key to improvisation is one of those seemingly-paradoxical truths. I've used Ratio both as a reference and as a tool to get my creative juices flowing. I've also used it to help solve problems. A friend of mine asked me the other day to help her figure out how to make cookies with a box of lemon cake mix. I found the ingredient list and nutritional information on-line. There I found that one serving of the mix is 43g almost half of which is sugar. I'd guessed that somewhere between 15-20g would be flour. The rest was fat, leavening, flavoring, and texturizing ingredients.
So, the mix itself had a ratio of sugar to flour that was a just a bit more than 1:1, and it included a bit of fat.
I pulled out Ratio and found out that cookies are built upon a ratio of 3 parts flour, 1 part sugar, and 2 parts fat. To get this, I'd take the cake mix (1 part sugar and 1 part flour) and add an equal amount (2 parts) flour and add slightly less than an equal amount (2 parts) of butter. Mix that to a dough. Make cookies.
Ratio is one of those cookbooks that is meant to be used, not merely admired. Its size makes it easy to use in the kitchen, but - if you have an iPhone - you have another option, too: Ruhlman is releasing a Ratio iPhone app that looks incredibly useful.