Americans are on a roll in the kitchen -- we've never been better or smarter about cooking. But how does a beginning cook become good, a good cook great?
Modeled on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, The Elements of Cooking is an opinionated volume by Michael Ruhlman -- the award-winning and bestselling author of The Making of a Chef and coauthor of The French Laundry Cookbook -- that pares the essentials of good cooking into a slim, easy-to-take-anywhere book. It will also stand alongside a handful of classics of the kitchen, just as Strunk and White's book sits on the desk of every writer and every English student.
Not only does this book deconstruct the essential knowledge of the kitchen, it also takes what every professional chef knows instinctively after years of training and experience and offers it up cleanly and brilliantly to the home cook.
With hundreds of entries from acid to zester, here is all the information -- no more and no less -- you need to cook, as well as countless tips (including only one recipe in the entire book, for the "magic elixir of the kitchen") and no-nonsense advice on how to be a great cook. You'll learn to cook everything, as the entries cover all the key moves you need to make in the kitchen and teach you, for example, not only what goes into a great sauce but how to think about it to make it great.
Eight short, beautifully written essays outline what it takes not merely to cook but to cook well: understanding heat, using the right tools (there are only five of them), cooking with eggs, making stock, making sauce, salting food, what a cook should read, and exploring the elusive, most important skill to have in the kitchen, finesse.
Ruhlman's slim 12th book, inspired by Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, would more accurately have been titled "Selected Elements of French Cooking." Organized in dictionary format, the book offers short definitions of culinary terms most likely to be encountered in a Continental restaurant kitchen: a la ficelle, jus lie, lardo, mise en place, oblique cut, oignon pique, rondeau, roulade. Entries for ladle, rolling pin and other common implements seem almost superfluous, while international items such as wok, tandoor, udon and cardamom are nowhere to be found (though to be fair, nam pla, kimchi and umami are included). An opening eight-page section announces, with finger wagging, that "veal stock is the essential" and discourses on eggs, salt and kitchen tools. Ruhlman (The Soul of a Chef) is an elegant writer and the entries he does include can be useful and sometimes entertaining. The real problem is the idiosyncratic, highly personal approach: you just don't know what you'll find in this book and what you won't. (Nov.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 05, 2007
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Excerpt from The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
I remember clearly the moment I heard it -- a bright Saturday afternoon, on the phone, seated at my desk in our old house. The truth of the news struck me like a spike. I was working with Thomas Keller on the proposal for what would become The French Laundry Cookbook. Relatively new to the world of professional cooking, I asked, "What's the most important thing for a cook to know in your kitchen?"
He paused, then said, "Seasoning."
"What do you mean, seasoning?"
"Salt and pepper." He paused again. "Salt, really."
"The most important thing for a cook to know is how to salt food?"
"That's right," he said.
The truth of it would only deepen as I continued to explore the craft of cooking. It is true not just for cooks in professional kitchens, but for all cooks in all kitchens, everywhere: learning to salt food properly is the most important skill you can possess.
No surprise, then, that salting food is one of the first things taught in culinary school. When my instructor judged my soup to be flat he told me to take out a ladleful and salt it, then compare the two. This would help me to understand what he called "the effect of salt," he said. You don't want to taste salt in the food -- that means it's been oversalted. You want it to taste seasoned -- meaning that it has an appropriate depth of flavor and balance, is not pale or insipid. Same with the water you boil pasta in. Before culinary school, I'd salted pasta water by putting a pinch into a giant pot of water. I don't know what I thought that was going to do -- if I'd given it even two seconds of consideration, I'd have had to conclude that the salt had absolutely no effect. My instructor explained that our pasta water should taste like properly seasoned soup. This would ensure perfectly seasoned pasta. Or rice, for that matter.
We learned to "season as you go" -- that is, salt your food throughout the cooking process because food salted at the beginning of or during the cooking tasted different from food salted just before it was served. The former tasted seasoned; the latter tasted salted.
So even from the outset of learning to cook properly I had discovered that I wasn't doing one of the most routine kitchen acts, salting food correctly. Keller said it was one of the first things they taught new cooks at The French Laundry. I scarcely thought about it -- salt had been an afterthought. That's what the salt shaker on the table's for, right?
Wrong. How to salt food. It's the most important skill you can have.