A few weeks ago, one of my former students messaged me to ask what books I’d recommend all 20-somethings should read. The list ended up being ten or fifteen books long, but there was no question of which book should be at the top: Michael Ruhlman’s phenomenal book Ratio.
Before reading it, I hated cooking. I could put together pasta, or rice, or stir fry, but other than that, I found everything in the kitchen to be a mystery. Recipes offended me; I didn’t understand them, or why a cup of flour, a cup of milk and a cup of eggs, whipped together, might make crepes. What right do you have, Recipe Writer, to tell me to put a cup of each in? Why don’t they make the same thing if you double the portions?
The premise of Ratio changed all that. Ruhlman’s position – and that of the Culinary Institute of America – is that much of cooking can be done by ratios of ingredients. If you take four cups of flour and mix it with a bottle of beer, some yeast, and a half-teaspoon of salt, there’s a chance you might end up with bread. However, the better way to do it is to use a ratio of five parts flour, three parts liquid, 2% of the flour weight in salt, and 3% of flour weight in yeast. Translated: 500g flour, 300g liquid, 10g salt, 15g yeast. Knead such a mixture together, let it rise, cook it, and you’ll have bread – whether you use water, stock, or beer. Want half as much bread? Cut everything by its ratio: 25og flour, 150g liquid, 5g salt, 7.5g yeast.
Suddenly, crepes weren’t a mystery – they were science. I could pull out a scale, and with a few simple ingredients, have a plate of pancakes that people agreed were some of the best they’d ever tasted – and even if they watched me do it, they couldn’t believe a batch took less than two minutes to put together. I could show them the recipe, and they’d be confused. It was like magic, to them and to me.
I met Eric Sandy in 2011; he was a reporter for the Sun then, and soon after moved over to Cleveland Scene. He has one of the kindest, fastest smiles of anyone I’ve ever met; he thinks deeply, writes honestly, and, in his mild-mannered way, connects with everyone he meets, which I suspect is part of his secret to being a phenomenal interviewer. We started hanging out a lot a few months before I moved to the UK; one evening, we used Ratio to make crepes and four different types of mayonnaise to go with some pulled pork. He couldn’t believe what we’d done, and ordered Ratio before we were done with the meal. I thought I had a head start on the cooking game, but then one day, after I’d moved, he sent me a message about making his own sourdough starter.
Within a few minutes, I was telling my wife not to move the bowl with white liquid in the kitchen or throw it out. Five days later, I was about to start playing.
Sourdough starter changes the game again, because you realize that yeast is everywhere, and it is possible to just capture it and grow it yourself. Plus, there are billions of different yeasts, and each place has its own special yeast profile, so the sourdough starter I make in Virginia Water, Surrey is different than the starter someone might make in London. Thus, the bread I make could only be made here – and, perhaps, in my flat. It’s entirely personal.
The problem I faced: starter is made of flour and water, and if you want to add starter to the recipe, you have to add extra flour and water to a bread recipe in order to get the yeast. The ratio gets complicated, because if you use starter, you’re not just adding pure yeast, you’re adding more of the other two ingredients – flour and water. Even if I was using equal parts of water and flour for the starter, and adding 100 grams of starter to your 500g flour/300g liquid recipe, and I knew that you were supposed to take 50g off of the weight of each ingredient, the dough still didn’t feel right.
Which is when I realised that I could feel whether a recipe was right or not.
And that feeling the dough might be a better way to go.
So I stopped weighing ingredients. Instead, I’d add a bunch of flour, and starter, and some liquid, and start kneading. If it was too hard, I’d add water; too watery, I’d add flour. It made measuring salt amounts difficult, but I’d just guess.
And that’s cooking, I think – getting to the point where you can guess, and it turns out fine. Perhaps it doesn’t work for crepes, or pancakes, which are a bit more scientific, but it works for bread, and pizza dough.
And that’s my recipe for bread. Guess the proportions of flour, water, salt and starter, knead it together, and hope it works.
Which is why I’m getting fat.