For such a simple book, it has a very long title!
Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking is my current favorite book.* A couple of years back I heard Ruhlman on The Splendid Table talking about…well, proselytizing really, about the magic of learning ratios in cooking. It was a “you had me at hello” moment.** And it was a pretty serious turning point in the way I thought about cooking and food.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ideas, concepts, other people’s work and the timing of their entry into our lives. There are books that others I know read as young adults, that turned the world on its ear for them and made them see life, or maybe a particular part of life, like their craft, in a whole new way. Personally, I needed to be exposed to many of those ideas in my middle-aged adulthood to have them make any sense to me, and had I picked them up as a young person, I would have been frustrated and given up. As a teenager I tried reading Siddartha and immediately put it back down again, unable to make any sense of it at all. A friend once told me that reading The Tao of Pooh rocked her eighteen-year-old mind, when I didn’t read it (nor could I have) until I was in my 30s. The ideas articulated by these authors were just too much for me in my youth – now, they sing.
Basically, I’m a bit slow.*** But my point is, there is a time and place for everything, and everyone has their own schedule to discover vis-a-vis exploring new ideas. How this relates to Michael Ruhlman’s book? Simply, if I had not come across it when I did, at 40+ years and with over 20 years of cooking experience, it would have probably meant almost nothing to me, let alone captured my imagination like it has.
This is, I think, pretty important. Cooking (including baking, grilling, smoking, bread making – all of it) is very intimidating to many people. Some of us are lucky and dive in without fear, but many of us think this is something that is difficult, complicated and really, it’s not. We just need good teachers and the right tools at the right time. Like someone wanting to learn to create visual art, I might need a camera or I might need a set of oil paints, and it can hard to figure out which one I need first. And if I choose one that I’m not quite ready for yet, it can be easy to get discouraged and give up.
*I* needed Julia, and a host of others, including a lot of food magazines with pretty pictures to lure me into even starting to think about the philosophy of food. I needed a lot of hand holding, a lot of recipe copying, a lot of rule-following, before I was ready to concede that I might be able – honestly, that anyone other than the massively talented (whatever that means) might be able – to just “know how to cook.”
Which is why Ratio, I’m happy to say, came to me at precisely the right time. Because the book is all about cooking theory. There are no pictures, there is a lot of prose explanation, and there are actually few recipes. I don’t know that I would have even done more than leaf through this book 20 years ago.
But it is not the dense, Siddartha-like tome I would have thought a book on cooking theory would be. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. And, what would surprise the 20-year-old-just-starting-to-cook me is that its bare-bones little recipes are inspiring. Where once I would have looked for detailed, specific, step-by-step recipes (with photos please!) to guide me, Ruhlman’s ratios for how to create almost anything**** make me realize now that what is missing from his basics is exactly what allows me to be the cook that I am. I no longer need to be told what to do, just give me an idea, and I can run with it. It’s like I’ve finally grown up in the kitchen.
There are others who will embrace whole-heartedly this kind of book from day one of their kitchen quests. To them, I say “big up on you – I can’t wait to come and eat at your house!” And while I’m a little jealous at their accelerated pace, or perhaps even sharper minds, I’m just glad I found this book when I did. It arrived perfectly, not a moment too late and not a moment too soon.
Twelve Months of Cookooks Quick Recap:
The book: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking
How long I’ve owned it: Less than one year
Three things I’ve made from it that always turn out, without fail: Everyday Chicken Stock – page 93, Cream Soup Using Any Green Vegetable (I recommend Swiss Chard) – page 117, Chicago Biscuits – page 34
*In editing, I was going to change this from “book” to “cookbook,” but it’s really my current favorite of all books.
**Yes, I un-ashamedly love Jerry Maguire.
**Many in my family are late bloomers and we often have to do things multiple times to “get it right.”
***Not literally, but many, many things are included in the book. So much so that you really don’t need another cookbook. That is not, however, going to stop me from collecting them.