Scan a few pages of Michael Ruhlman’s new The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen and it quickly becomes apparent that Elements is no ordinary ABC guide to home cooking. In this book Ruhlman sets out to concisely explain, à la Elements of Style, the foundation lessons he’s learned from some of the world’s best chefs on how to be a better cook. Michael co-wrote The French Laundry Cookbook with renowned chef Thomas Keller as well as several other books about chefs, so one might assume (rightly) that he learned a thing or two along the way.
After a brief introduction by the colorful Anthony Bourdain, Elements proceeds with a series of eight essays by Ruhlman on fundamentals of cooking well – Stock, Sauce, Salt, The Egg, Heat, Tools, Sources (books), and Finesse. These essays take up about 20 percent of the book, the remainder is a lengthy A-Z glossary of cooking terms, some of the descriptions mini-essays in themselves. Definitions of French cooking terms include (thankfully) their proper pronunciation, which I find particularly useful, given that I’m prone to publicly butcher other languages. (A certain pastry chef kindly explained to me one day that pâte brisée was pronounced paht bree-ZAY, not pah-TAY bree-zay. Doh!)
One of the things l appreciate about Michael’s book is that his voice comes through so clearly throughout. This is an opinionated book. Ruhlman is not trying to appease anyone, or make concessions for a broader public. Reading the book I found myself agreeing whole-heartedly on some points and disagreeing entirely on others (no way is 1996 the best edition of Joy of Cooking, Michael). I love that he starts off with a discourse on making stock, and takes a whole chapter to describe salt, including the importance of salting the food while you cook. Eggs done right are heavenly, cooked poorly can be disastrous. These are the fundamentals of cooking well, of how one goes from ordinary to extraordinary. Ruhlman writes with authority and wit:
Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can’t use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or the rec room Ping-Pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced. Recipes are sheet music. A Bach cello suite can be performed at a beginner’s level or given extraordinary interpretation by Yo-Yo Ma – same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.
One can practically learn to cook from reading the definitions in the extensive glossary. Ruhlman stresses the importance of nuance and finesse in cooking, this ideal carries into his explanations as well. Whereas I would explain the word “sauté” as meaning to quickly cook in a little butter or oil, Michael’s definition goes further:
Sauté: a “dry-heat” cooking method, the French verb for “jump,” used for tender cuts of meat and other items such as vegetables that don’t require tenderizing, done in a pan using a small amount of oil. Sauté is usually accomplished with very high heat, to give flavor to the exterior of what’s being cooked, but there are many levels of sauté depending on what’s being cooked. A duck breast, for example is usually sautéed over very low heat to render the fat from the skin. The proper heating of the pan before the fat or the food goes into it is an important part of sautéing as is choosing the right-sized pan…
Who is this book for? Not everyone. Most home cooks I know are just trying to put food on the table, quickly, easily, and as healthfully as possible for their families, a challenging task especially if you work full time and have kids. Ruhlman’s several page description of the importance of veal stock, including a recipe that calls for 8-10 hours of cooking, would intimidate most busy moms (and dads) I know.
The Elements of Cooking is however perfect for the person who loves to cook, loves to learn, and is interested in improving her cooking ability, or taking it from good to great. Whether you are just learning to cook or on your way to culinary school, if you are truly interested in becoming a better cook you will find Elements a valuable resource.
Michael Ruhlman’s blog
Ruhlman on Recipes – Review and excerpt on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks blog
Q&A with Ruhlman – with Adam Roberts the Amateur Gourmet
The Elements of Cooking – Review by Derrick Schneider of Obsession with Food
Full disclosure: We received a review copy of this book from Scribner, the publisher.