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Throw Away The Recipe; Learn The Ratio Instead

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Throw Away The Recipe; Learn The Ratio Instead

Food

Throw Away The Recipe; Learn The Ratio Instead

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GUY RAZ, host:

As Phil Greene shows, it takes steady measuring to craft a good cocktail. You've got to get the ratios right. It's the same with food. And Chef Michael Ruhlman wants to hammer that idea into the heads of home cooks.

Mr. MICHAEL RUHLMAN (Chef; Author, "Ratio"): I want people to understand the fundamentals of cooking. When we understand the fundamentals, we can do anything.

RAZ: Michael Ruhlman has written or co-written 13 cookbooks, most of them recipe books, but he's now trying to wean home cooks away from recipes. He wants people like you and me to memorize simple ratios, basic number combinations like three-to-one, or three parts meat, one part fat for sausage, or three-to-two for a soup stock, three parts water to two parts bones.

Michael Ruhlman's new book is called "Ratio." He joined me earlier this week at one of D.C.'s hottest restaurants, Proof. We sat down just as the lunch crowd thinned out.

What do you want people to learn from this book?

Mr. RUHLMAN: I want them to understand the interrelated nature of all the basic fundamentals that we use: how bread dough works. Bread dough is basically five parts flour, three parts water. You need a little yeast, you need a little salt, but people use different amounts of those. But you need to stick to the five-to-three flour-to-water ratio, and that's what gives you a bread dough.

RAZ: You've written, or you sort of suggested in the book, that you want to free people from the shackles of recipes. What do you mean by that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUHLMAN: I think that people can get too dependent on recipes, that they believe that if they miss a step, or if they have a tablespoon and a half rather than a tablespoon, that it's all going to go (unintelligible). That's not true.

RAZ: Michael, you've written cookbooks, co-written cookbooks. You've written other books about food. How did you come to decide to write a book about the ratios involved in cooking?

Mr. RUHLMAN: This book has been gestating for 10 years. When I was at the Culinary Institute of America, writing a book called "The Making of a Chef," I interviewed an old German chef named Uwe Hestnar. He was the leader of the skills classes, all the fundamentals classes, and he sort of waved dismissively at a shelf bulging with cookbooks and said, I can show you everything that is on this shelf in two pages. And I said: this I'd like to see.

And so, he turned around, handed me a sheet of ratios that he'd made for his skills classes because he'd gotten tired of seeing his kids, his students always having their head in books, always change their recipes. He said: if you know the ratio and a basic technique, you don't need books.

RAZ: All right. So now, we're going to prepare two items this afternoon. What are we going to do?

Mr. RUHLMAN: We're going to do a quiche Lorraine, which requires two ratios: the custard ratio and the pie dough ratio.

RAZ: Great. Let's head to the kitchen.

The kitchen staff is already chopping and roasting and prepping for the dinner rush. We've taken over a patch of real estate in the corner of the kitchen.

On the cutting board, Ruhlman laid out the basic ingredients for cooking with the ratio method: butter, flour, milk, oil, cream and eggs. And now, we're ready to start the quiche.

So we're making a pie dough right now.

Mr. RUHLMAN: We're making a basic pie dough, a basic three, two, one pie dough. It's three parts flour, two parts fat and one part water.

RAZ: What's the difference between a pie dough and, you know, pasta dough or bread dough, for example? How different are the ratios?

Mr. RUHLMAN: The ratios are fairly similar, actually. There's almost no difference between a pie dough and a biscuit dough, for an instance. A biscuit dough is a pie dough, only the water and fat are reversed.

When you understand ratios, you understand the interconnectedness of all our fundamental products in the kitchen.

RAZ: When the pie dough is ready, Ruhlman rolls it out, about a quarter-inch thickness, and here's the important part. You have to use a mold with really high sides, at least two inches. So you might want to invest in a cake pan.

Mr. RUHLMAN: You know, it's important for people to realize that a proper quiche really needs depth so that you can appreciate the texture of a custard. It got a bad rap here in America because someone convinced us that we could make it in a pie plate.

RAZ: I see.

Mr. RUHLMAN: We're going to taste how good a quiche can be.

RAZ: And by the way, we will have the recipe for your quiche Lorraine at our Web site, npr.org.

Mr. RUHLMAN: Excellent, excellent.

RAZ: The crust has to blind bake for about 15 minutes before you can add the custard and the filling. So it goes into a hot oven, and we move on to frying up some rough cut slab bacon.

Mr. RUHLMAN: There's no better smell on earth than bacon cooking.

RAZ: And then we start sauteing slivers of onion, and while those two ingredients cook up, we can use our ratios to make the custard.

For something to be called a custard, it has to have a few basic things.

Mr. RUHLMAN: It has to have a liquid, and it has to have an egg. If you take away the egg, or if you take away the liquid, you don't have a custard. So that's what these ratios try to do, to get down to the very essence of cooking.

RAZ: And custard ratio is one to two, one part egg to two parts liquid. In this case, a mixture of milk and cream, measured carefully on the scale.

Mr. RUHLMAN: There you go.

RAZ: So what happens if you ignore the ratio here, if you add more milk, or you add more egg?

Mr. RUHLMAN: Well, if you add too much - if you went overboard and weren't paying attention and added too much liquid, there's a chance that your custard wouldn't set up. If you added too little liquid, it might be too dense, too firm. What's great about a custard is the texture, that satiny, voluptuous texture.

RAZ: The pie crust is now out of the oven and ready to be filled. So Ruhlman pours in half the custard. Then he layers on half the onion, bacon and some grated gruyere cheese. He repeats until the custard almost overflows the edge of the flakey crust. Then he pops it into the over, 325 degrees, for about 90 minutes to two hours, low and slow. It's worth the wait.

That looks absolutely delicious.

Mr. RUHLMAN: Well, how does it look delicious?

RAZ: Because it has this golden crust, and it has this…

Mr. RUHLMAN: Quivering, it quivers.

RAZ: Quivering, quaking…

Mr. RUHLMAN: That's how you know it's a good quiche. It should quiver. It's just, you know, it's the world's greatest pie - the quiche.

RAZ: And though this was far and away the most delicious quiche I've ever eaten, it was pretty easy to make using two simple ratios: three to two to one for the crust and one to two for the custard. The other flavors? Well, that depends on your creativity.

Michael Ruhlman's new book is "Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking." And special thanks to Chef Haidar Karoum and the staff of Proof here in Washington, D.C., for letting us take over part of their kitchen.

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