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Throw Away The Recipe; Learn The Ratio Instead

Jul 26, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Whisking mayonnaise. Credit: Donna Turner Ruhlman

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Michael Ruhlman wants to free home cooks from what he calls the "shackles of the recipe."

His new book, Ratio, is about learning basic ratios. For example: 3:2:1 — three parts flour, two parts fat (like butter) and one part water — makes a basic pie crust. Add a dash of salt, and it's a savory base for a quiche. Add some sugar, and you've got a shell for cherries, chocolate cream or fresh peaches.

"I want people to understand the fundamentals of cooking," he tells host Guy Raz. He says home cooks are so focused on recipes that they don't understand the importance of ratios.

"Bread dough is basically five parts flour, three parts water. You need a little yeast, a little salt, but the amounts of those are not exact or precise," Ruhlman says. "But you need to stick to the 5:3-flour-to-water ratio and that's what gives you bread dough."

The book was inspired by a class taught at the Culinary Institute of America by famed chef Uwe Hestnar. Hestnar trained young chefs on cooking fundamentals. One afternoon, Ruhlman says, Hestnar told him, "I can show you everything you need to know in two pages."

Hestnar literally produced two pages of ratios that showed how to make custards, sauces, salad dressings, cookie or biscuit dough, sausage, mayonnaise and dozens of other basics.

"He pared down all of cooking to its very essence," Ruhlman says.

Still, he admits the book requires the home cook to experiment. "It's not going to teach you how to season your food or even which flavors go well together. You're going to have to figure that out," he says. "But it's going to give you a grounding in the fundamentals — and everything rests on the fundamentals."

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