The fact is, there are hundreds of thousands of recipes out there, but few of them help you to be a better cook in any substantial way. In fact, they may hurt you as a cook by keeping you chained to recipes. Getting your hands on a ratio is like being given a key to unlock those chains. Ratios free you.
Ratios are about the basics of cooking. They teach us how the fundamental ingredients of the kitchen — flour, water, butter, and oils, milk, cream, eggs — work and how variations in proportions create the variations in our dishes, bread rather than past, crepes rather than cakes.
from Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
As with any craft there is a creative difference between using a template and understanding the logic of the template. Cooking is no different. Recipes offer us the comfort of measure, guidance and direction that yields something predictably delicious. Sometimes out of necessity we find alternatives for ingredients or methods and accidentally discover something yummy. We watch our grandmothers and mimic. As with any craft, the step from imitation to creation involves understanding, risk and speculative thinking. Informed guessing.
Ruhlman’s recipe book presents a ratio and demonstrates its varied uses for a range of menu items from chocolate ganache to bread. Theory and practice combine to show, for example, what are the basic characteristics of custard or the difference between sponge cake and pound cake (that have the same ratio of ingredients but different sequencing). For a cross cultural cook like me, understanding the fundamentals of ratios and methods allow me to thoughtfully play with my ingredients. Can I make a tandoori bearnaise sauce, a lemon mustard vinaigratte, or a almond cardamom custard? Ruhlman translates between all my thematic cookbooks from Bengali Regional Cooking to Lydia’s Italian Table to Southern Community cook books.
I like the possibility of creative home cooking and Ruhlman helps. A LOT. But, I think even he would say keep your cookbooks just like we keep great works of art around. For direction, inspiration, reaction and sometimes rejection.