Cook the book: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman

Sadly, we're immediately brought back to earth by the rest of Ratio, which somehow devolves into a more typical cookbook, although an especially detailed and explanatory one. It's not Ruhlman's fault, he has to provide some examples to illustrate the immense amount of knowledge a cook needs beyond his utterly simple cookie ratio of 1 parts sugar - 2 parts fat - 3 parts flour. How long do you cook it? How do you flavor it? Try some recipes and work from there.

The best parts of the book are when he breaks from the recipes to provide simple lists of ways to add to the fundamental ratio, a la Mark Bittman in his books and NY Times column. In this, Bittman and Ruhlman are birds of a feather, both striving to demystify the process and show how utterly simple it is to just cook some food. You'll make some mistakes along the way, but the learning curve isn't nearly as steep as many people think.

Will the average reader take these lessons to heart, tack a copy of the ratios to the fridge, and start breaking away from nose-in-a-recipe cooking? Probably not, but only because the average reader won't even pick up the bland-appearing Ratio. Me, though, and anyone interested in learning to cook -- instead of just learning to follow a recipe -- will likely keep the book close at hand whenever the pots and pans hit the stove.

Michael Ruhlman has made a career out of dissecting the relationship between chef and food. His three Chef books — Making of, Reach of, Soul of — are elegantly constructed stories about the life of a modern chef, from culinary school to semi-celebrity. His cookbooks range from the concise and unfussy Elements of Cooking to several glossy, pornographic tomes co-written with name-brand chefs.

He's also the kind of guy who hangs out with Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, glorifies cured meat, and writes with unapologetic candor. He and Bourdain lambasted the culture of the TV chef with their own alternative awards show at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival two years ago.

In Ratio, though, Ruhlman turns back to what he started in Elements of Cooking, namely injecting something of the professional chef into the home kitchen. The core concept is that ratios are the fundamental building blocks of all cooking, by defining and understanding those ratios the home cook will begin to understand food at it's base and begin to think beyond recipes.

Ratio is not the kind of book most people will slap open on their kitchen counter to make a quick custard for dessert. It's shaped like a traditional hardcover novel and the few pictures are in black and white. But, like a good hardcover novel, Ruhlman can be gripping. His opening chapter immediately convinces that with a mere basic understanding of his list of ratios, I'll be able to innovate and experiment willy-nilly with great success.

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