If Michael Ruhlman's done his job, your favourite cookbooks might go the way of the printed encyclopedia—at least for everyday cooking. Here's what the food writer said over email about ratios, the foundation of all your food.
Foodies might recognise Ruhlman from his non-fiction accounts of training at the CIA, working with Thomas Keller at the world-renowned French Laundry restaurant and writing its lavish cookbook, and his culinary take on recreating the writer's bible, Strunk & White's "Elements of Style," for the home cook with The Elements of Cooking. TV junkies might better know him for his judging stints on The Next Food Network Star or Cooking Under Fire, or his guest appearances with fellow prose-friendly cook Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.
Ruhlman's latest work, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, aims to reeducate the home chef and open their minds to the idea of cooking without a line-by-line recipe; to instead learn the basic formulas of five food groups (doughs, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards), and then improvise and experiment from there on out. Chefs know these ratios, even if they don't call them ratios, and they're a big part of why they can vary a menu and branch out without fear.
The topic sounded like an ideal kitchen hack to us, so we asked Ruhlman to trade a few email questions about cooking and writing with us. He kindly responded, and the transcript follows:
Lifehacker: What does learning the ratio of a dish or food type, as opposed to knowing a great/grandma's recipe, allow you to do differently?
Michael Ruhlman: It allows you to improvise. It allows you to take a basic preparation like quickbreads and apply any flavor you want to it. It allows you to cook without recipes
Lifehacker: Why has the average home cook been left in the dark about the fundamentals of cooking by ratios? Has this knowledge been hard to come by, or just considered too wonky for most everyday cooks?
Michael Ruhlman: I don't know why. A recent Wall Street Journal article describing an upswing in cooking intuitively suggested we got hooked on recipes because of Fannie Farmer. Processed foods and cake mixes lead us to believe that we couldn't do it on our own, and we believed the companies selling us the mixes.
Lifehacker: Can you give an example of a ratio that lets an everyday cook get creative?
Michael Ruhlman: Well, to use the quickbread ratio: 2 parts flour and liquid, 1 part egg and butter. That will give you a perfect muffin or, baked in a loaf pan, a quickbread. Now, you also need to have a little technique and common sense. A teaspoon of baking powder for every 5 ounces (cup) of flour is needed for leavening, a pinch of salt for flavor, but that's it. If you want a lemon-lime cake, add lemon and lime juice and zest; vanilla is always good, or add lemon and popyseeds, add cranberry and orange, blueberries, bananas. Make a savoury quick bread with cumin coriander and ginger to accompany a dal. (Secret: If you season the batter with a little sugar and vanilla and pour it on a griddle, you have perfect pancakes. That savory quickbread suggestion? Pour it over corn or peas, just enough to bind them, spoon the mixture into hot oil for amazing fritters).
That's what ratios allows you to do.
Lifehacker: Stepping away from food for a minute: How do you go about organising and outlining a book like Ratio or The Elements of Cooking?
Michael Ruhlman: I don't know! You just start and if it doesn't make sense, fix it! Ratio started out completely different, with stocks. But by the end, I realised that doughs and batters were the most important, so I led with that.
Lifehacker: What tools, computer or otherwise, help you research and organise notes, and run a line through them?
Michael Ruhlman: I use a computer and a kitchen scale.
Lifehacker: Your work usually takes high-end culinary experiences—training at the Culinary Institute of America, working with famous chefs, the elements of cooking—and creating a teachable, but not textbook, narrative out of them. How do you know when you've done that? What kind of goal do you set for yourself in turning something like charcuterie into plain speak?
Michael Ruhlman: I write books because I don't know the answer to something. I write to explore. When I know the answer to my own questions, then I go and write. And if it doesn't bore me to death when I reread, I know I'm on the right track.
Lifehacker: What kind of food resources—books, websites, etc.—do you turn to when you're researching or just digging around online? What kind of stuff do you try to avoid?
Lifehacker: Finally, because we have to ask: Mac or PC? And what kind of gadgets can't you live without?
Michael Ruhlman: I'm 100% Mac. (Other than that), kitchen scale, instant read thermometer, and I'm really liking my iPhone (the "Units" app is great).