It starts one night when I’m traveling for business, stuck in a generic hotel and entertaining myself on the iPad. The options for amusement are limited when you travel for work. It’s usually the iPad, or several hours of MSNBC – unless 30 Rock is on. Browsing the App Store, I discover Michael Ruhlman’s new Bread Baking Basics App. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably know that Ruhlman is the “Ratio” prophet. He says that in order to be a good cook, you don’t need recipes if you understand fundamental ratios of ingredients and techniques.
I’m a little skeptical. Intuitively, Ruhlman’s “Ratio” concept makes sense, but I’ve heard him rail against “the recipe” at several conferences, and I’m usually left scratching my head. Whether it’s a formula or text, when you write it down it’s a recipe isn’t it? Also, I’ve already got a small library of books on bread. But, for a price of less than two bucks, the risk in purchasing the app seems small. Think of it this way – the cost of the app is cheaper than one commercially-produced loaf of bread. I touch the screen and I own the app.
Bread baking – because of its simplicity - is perhaps the best of the culinary arts to apply Ruhlman’s “Ratio” concept.
The app offers a set of menus for bread ingredients, measurements and baking options that can be customized, mixed and matched. It all seems a little too easy, a little too paint-by-numbers. I fully expect the recipe-ratio-formula to flop.
I select “whole wheat” and – seduced by a luscious photo – click on “boule" from the rotating columns of options. The ingredients are presented as ratios – 7 parts bread flour, 3 parts whole wheat flour, 6 parts water – but for the mathematically-challenged among us, the app also offers quantities in English units by weight. Desperately clinging to tradition, I select the “Knead By Hand” preference, which depicts a strong, capable hand caressing a globe of dough.
The mixture comes together beautifully and the rhythm of kneading takes its effect. Within minutes, the dough is shiny and elastic. The first rise goes off without a hitch, and for the second rise I place the dough in a banneton which I’ve had for several years but never used. Start to finish, it all adds up to exactly 5 ingredients and 15 very simple steps.
The app doesn’t have quite the romance of the Joy of Cooking, or the tactile experience of holding a book, even if you’ve got a touch screen at your fingertips. But, what Ruhlman has done is sifted out all the extraneous words, and boiled bread baking down to the ingredients and steps that matter most. By doing so he’s actually added clarity to the process.
As they say – the proof is in the pudding, or perhaps the legitimacy is in the finished loaf. By early afternoon, I’ve pulled from the oven a round, honey-colored, peasant loaf with a soft, tender crumb and a crackling-good crust. It’s probably the best bread I’ve made in recent months, including some far more complicated recipes found in cookbooks with serious pedigree.
A bread recipe (make that, ratio) – powered by the iPad – resulted in one of the most delicious, old-fashioned, rustic loaves I’ve managed to produce. Has the art of bread baking entered a post modern era that blends tradition with technology? Certainly, we’ve come to appreciate that there are better options than industrial-produced bread, but not even Apple has been able to conjure up the magic of a warm, crusty loaf. That still requires the skill, care and passion of the baker.