I recently picked up Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman. I was intrigued by the author's promise to become unchained from recipes. I imagined myself freely inventing in the kitchen with a few basic figures and techniques to light my way. Bye-bye cookbook collection! Well, of course, it didn't really work out that way. Turns out you can't exchange years of schooling and real-life experience for a $16 book. Shucks. But I will say that Ratio is full of essential information, techniques and tips that have started to change the way I cook.
For starters, I now own a digital scale so I can measure ingredients by weight (ounces) instead of volume (cups) if a recipe calls for it. (I'm so proud of myself). And I overcame my fear of yeast. Those little buggers have broken my heart time and again. Hours of rising and punching down and kneading and all that lovely flour gone to waste. It's enough to make a girl curse...the yeast, of course. The Ratio recipe was not fool-proof, because, well, I was cooking. The dough came out very sticky and gooey in my KitchenAid mixer with the dough hook.
I fought back tears, covered it in Saran Wrap and tossed the whole lot in the fridge. I might have eaten a few of those Fudgey Cheerios bars in the background for consolation. Two days later and the cold, dry atmosphere of the fridge had apparently whipped the dough into submission. I was able to shape the dough into a boule or round loaf.
I let it rise again in an oiled Dutch Oven, cut an "x" into the top and sprinkled it with fresh rosemary and sea salt. Okay, actually, I cut it and sprinkled it with rosemary and then let it rise. Next time I'll follow Ruhlman's instructions and wait until the dough rises first so my "x" doesn't get so spread out. And I'll work the rosemary into the actual dough and give it an egg wash for shine before sprinkling it with the sea salt. I did follow his instruction to place the Dutch oven's lid on for the first 30 minutes and then take the lid off for the remaining time.
When my thermometer read between 180'-210' (another great tip from the book) I took it out of the oven. Ta-da! Gorgeous. Delicious. A crispy exterior and chewy interior and it only took me two days to get there. No wonder we just buy this stuff in the store now.
I'm sure with more practice I'll get better at this. I mean, you can't put a price on homemade bread fresh out of the oven, can you? Okay, maybe you can, but it's the principle of the thing. I can't wait to try a couple of his bread dough variations, like chocolate cherry bread and grilled focaccia. When I get a hang of bread dough, I'll move on to pasta dough. That's kind of the way this book works, moving from one passion or obsession to another. You learn as much as you can about one recipe--sorry, ratio--and move on to the next. I'm still going to need this book as a crutch for a while, but maybe one day I'll be able to set it aside.
Update 9/14/11: I have since made this bread again and got it in the oven in a single afternoon, in time for a late dinner. Hurrah! The dough was a great consistency, not at all sloppy and wet like the first time.
I'm not sure what I did wrong the first time but I think it probably had to do with too much water. This time I incorporated the rosemary into the loaf instead of sprinkling it on top and let the dough rise before cutting the x in the top and adding the oil and salt. It worked great. Good recipe and I'll be making it over and over.