Michael Ruhlman’s So Rational

Michael Ruhlman’s So Rational

He’s got a new book and a message to Americans: Get a cooking scale and some sharp knives

You might know Michael Ruhlman through his … of a Chef books, his excellent cookbook on making charcuterie at home, or as an Anthony Bourdain cohort. His latest book, Ratio, isn’t a standard cookbook. He reduces basic preparations—from cakes to mayonnaise to sausage—into ingredient ratios. It’s a killer book for learning the backbone of cooking, and it’s liberating to be able to go recipe-free by learning a few easy formulas. CHOW spoke with Ruhlman to find out more about this stripped-down approach to cooking. —Roxanne Webber

Why did you write this book?

I wanted people to understand that if they know the basic structure of how food comes together, then they become better cooks; they cook with more ease and confidence. With ratios you can even bake intuitively. We’re always taught that you have to measure everything very, very carefully. Well, you don’t. When baking goes wrong it’s because you screwed up the ratio, not because you put [in] a tad too much baking powder.

These ratios are all by weight, right?

Ratios only work by weight. Weighing makes things consistent, and weighing also allows you to double, triple, quadruple recipes, which you can’t do by volume. It also makes things cleaner and easier. I mean, to make bread, you put the mixing bowl on the scale, zero it, pour in 20 ounces of flour, hit the zero button, pour in 12 ounces of water and a teaspoon or two of yeast and a couple of teaspoons of salt, and you’re good to go.

What sort of scale does a home cook need?

[Your scale needs] conversion from grams to ounces, it’s got to be able to weigh very small amounts and up to five pounds, and it needs a tare [zeroing] button.

How did you come up with your ratios?

I started with recipes that worked, and worked backwards. I’d never seen a quick-bread ratio or a muffin ratio or a pancake ratio—but they were all [about] the same. They’re basically equal parts flour and liquid, and half that of egg, and you’ve got a perfect muffin, quick bread, or pancake. You can add butter, you can add savory ingredients, you can add sweet ingredients, but stick to that 2-2-1 ratio and you can bake intuitively and bake quickly. My go-to books for this were the CIA’s New Professional Chef and their baking and pastry textbook; Joy of Cooking; and the Cook’s Illustrated stuff.

Do you have a favorite in the book?

My favorite ratio is the quick-bread/muffin ratios because you can do so many things with them. It’s two parts liquid, two parts flour, one part egg, and then the rest is up to you. It makes delicious pancakes if you add some sugar and some vanilla and a little bit of butter. Large eggs weigh, by definition, about two ounces. So if you use those, you know you’ve got two ounces per egg, you figure about one egg per person, and that’s how you know your quantities. So I made pancakes for my son and I on Sunday. There were two of us so I did two eggs, so that’s four ounces of eggs, so I needed eight ounces of flour and eight ounces of liquid—I used milk, added some sugar, two teaspoons of baking powder, a pinch of salt.

What else can you do with it?

I love the fritters—fritters are so delicious and so easy. Make the basic pancake batter [no butter] and put in some cumin, coriander, black pepper, cayenne, and mix it with fresh corn or peas and make a little mint-yogurt sauce for dipping, and you’ve got a wonderful appetizer that’s very easy to do.

What’s another good savory ratio to know about?

Mousseline [eight parts meat, four parts cream, one part egg] is such a great thing for the home cook to do. It’s one of the best, easiest, and most stable of the forcemeats. You can make beautiful shrimp dumplings using that ratio, or you can make shrimp-and-scallop sausage that’s wonderful.

How did you come up with the idea for the book?

I was in skills [class at the Culinary Institute of America], and I was writing [The Making of a Chef], and I went to interview [Chef Uwe Hestnar], and he said, “I can show you what’s in all of these books, in two pages.” And he gives me his sheet of ratios, which he created for his own skills class because he’d seen all his students cooking out of books and it drove him crazy. You don’t learn to cook by cooking with your head stuck in a book. He said: “This is everything in the culinary arts that you need to know; this is everything that’s on those shelves, that’s on television, that’s in Julia Child; it’s right here on these two pages.” And I just found it fascinating.

So you’ve been kicking the idea around for a while?

It was obsessing me for 10 years, so I knew it was valid; there wasn’t anything else out there like it. But I didn’t know if it was going to work, and I didn’t know if people were really going to understand it. People like their recipes. And Americans don’t have scales for the most part, so who the hell is going to buy this book or even care?!

The ratio approach to cooking is stripped down. What do people need in their kitchen to cook this way?

You need sharp knives. That’s one thing Americans just don’t have, I don’t know why, is sharp knives. And they wonder why cooking is so difficult. It’s because your knives aren’t sharp. Don’t just take them to the hardware store or someone that sharpens lawn mower blades. Try to find a wet grind service near you. Two good heavy sauté pans, two good pots, kosher salt, and a cutting board, and you’re good to go.

Is the ratio approach good for a beginning cook?

Oh man, it’s a great place to start. A beginner can make Superman-sized leaps and bounds by understanding a ratio.

Do you think people are feeling the need to cook again?

People are realizing again the sense that cooking makes. We’re finding that there are a lot more reasons to cook now. [It’s not just] the economy; we are realizing that we are separated more and more from our neighbors and families with our busy schedules. Cooking can bring us together. It can satisfy our hunger and also our hunger for companionship and story.

Ruhlman gave us permission to show off some of his ratios. See how simple it makes baking?

Ratio • Doughs & Batters

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Bread

  • 5

  • 3

Mix/knead all ingredients till dough can be stretched to translucency without tearing. Use 1/4 tsp of yeast and 1/2 tsp of salt for every 5 oz. (cup) of flour. Can add eggs to enrich, olive oil to flavor, honey to sweeten, wheat germ to fortify.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Pasta

  • 3

  • 2

Mix ingredients, knead till smooth, rest at least 10 minutes before rolling. For all-egg yolk pasta use same ratio, plus a little olive oil, and water if needed. For pasta verde, change ratio to 2 to 1, plus 1/2 part blanched and chopped spinach.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Pie Dough

  • 3

  • 1

  • 2

Cut fat into flour, add just enough water to form dough, don’t overwork it. For sweet doughs, add a tbls of sugar per 5 oz. (cup) flour. For a nut crust add a cup of pulverized nuts to 12 oz. flour, plus an egg.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Biscuit

  • 3

  • 2

  • 1

Cut fat into flour, add liquid, don’t overwork dough. Add 1 tsp baking powder per 5 oz. (cup) of flour. For flaky biscuits, roll out dough, fold it in thirds and reroll; repeat 2 more times.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Cookie

  • 3

  • 2

  • 1

Cream butter and sugar, add flour; flavor with vanilla, citrus, pistachio, almond. For drop cookies, use equal parts sugar, flour, butter and an egg for every 8 oz. flour. Can add tsp of baking powder per 5 oz. (cup) flour for leavening.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Pâte a Choux

  • 1

  • 2

  • 2

  • 1

Bring water and fat to a boil, stir in flour till dough forms, then beat in eggs off heat. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano for savory preparations such as gougeres. For sweet doughs, add a tbls of sugar for every cup of water.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Sponge/
    Pound Cake

  • 1

  • 1

  • 1

  • 1

For pound cake: cream butter and sugar, mix in eggs, fold in flour. For sponge: beat eggs and sugar till tripled in volume, fold in flour, fold in butter. Adding 1 tsp baking powder per 5 oz. (cup) of flour will give you a more airy crumb.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Angel Food Cake

  • 1

  • 3

  • 3

Egg whites only! No yolks, no fat; whip eggs and sugar to satiny peaks, fold in flour. Adding a little cream of tartar or lemon juice will stabilize the egg whites. Omit the flour for a great all-purpose meringue.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Quickbread/Muffin

  • 2

  • 2

  • 1

  • 1

Combine wet and dry ingredients separately, then mix together. Use 1 tsp baking powder for every 5 oz. (cup) flour. For sweet quickbreads/muffins, such as blueberry, lemon-poppy-seed, add 1 part sugar.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Fritter

  • 2

  • 2

  • 1

Combine wet and dry ingredients separately, then mix together. Use 1 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt for every 5 oz. (cup) flour. For sweetness add a tbls of sugar; for savory add curry, coriander, cumin, chilli.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Pancake

  • 2

  • 2

  • 1

  • 1/2

Combine wet and dry ingredients separately, then mix together. Use 1 tsp baking powder, pinch of salt and a tbls of sugar for every 5 oz. (cup) flour. Add vanilla for flavor.

  • -

  • Flour

  • Liquid

  • Egg

  • Fat/Butter

  • Sugar

  • Crepe

  • 1/2

  • 1

  • 1

Combine wet and dry ingredients separately, then mix together. Vary your liquid — water, milk, juice, stock — depending on use. Season crepe batter with fresh herbs or spices for savory dishes.

© Michael Ruhlman

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.