One Part Creativity: Zero Parts Recipe
Can just using ratios really teach me to be a better cook?
Read more from Slate's Food issue.
"There are hundreds of thousands of recipes out there, but few of them help you to be a better cook in any substantial way," Michael Ruhlman writes in the preface to his fascinating and pompous new book, Ratio. "In fact, they may hurt you as a cook by keeping you chained to recipes." Ruhlman calls Ratio an "anti recipe book, a book that teaches you and frees you from the need to follow." He argues that once you've memorized certain "bedrock" culinary ratios, you can cook virtually anything without resorting to a cookbook.
I read Ratio cover to cover one afternoon, and I rolled my eyes. Like many of us who lack an Italian grandmother or a culinary school education, I taught myself to cook with recipes. Ruhlman is dead wrong about one thing: Recipes can help you become a better cook in a very substantial way. From following instructions, you learn technique. From watching how ingredients are paired, you develop an intuitive sense of what flavors work together.
Moreover, the underlying message irritated me. It's no longer good enough to make a pecan pie from the Joy of Cooking? We have to be artists now? I'm an experienced cook who improvises plenty and is fairly good at it, but I view recipes like I do Mapquest directions: They're a useful tool that generally take me where I want to go. Why would I want to "unchain" myself?
Nonetheless, there's something extremely beguiling about Ruhlman's idea that all you need in order to cook magnificently are a handful of simple, elegant formulas. I began to wonder if his ratios might liberate my inner Ferran Adrià—if I even have one. Is there really, as Ruhlman argues, "no end" to what you can cook when you know a ratio? I decided to take his premise for a test-drive.
The first thing you'll notice if you start trying to cook with ratios is that they are not as marvelously simple as Ruhlman implies. Ratios, Ruhlman writes "allow you to close the book and cook as you wish." But while his seductively spare table of 33 culinary ratios fits neatly on two introductory pages, it is followed by some 200 pages of caveats, fine print, and explications of technique. You need a book to learn to cook without a book? No thanks. If the goal was to "close the book," I was closing the book. I copied out the ratios and put Ratio away.
I decided to start with cookies (1 part sugar: 2 parts fat: 3 parts flour). Ruhlman advises beginning with an utterly plain sugar-butter-flour cookie, an exercise that will "instruct the thoughtful cook about … the nature of a cookie." So-called essence of cookie took approximately 1 minute to mix, 20 minutes to bake, and tasted like the most boring shortbread you've ever eaten, which is to say, not too damned bad. Those were my thoughts about "the nature of a cookie." Apparently, I'm not a very thoughtful cook.