Cleveland journalist Michael Ruhlman has made a career of being a fly on the wall. His nonfiction books have covered subjects from pediatric surgeons to craftsmen boat-builders. But it was his research into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., that launched him headlong into the seductive world of food.
1999’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America was the first of three books about the personal and professional lives of chefs. Since then, his collaborations with Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller, Brian Polcyn, Eric Ripert, Michael Symon and others have put him at the forefront of culinary authors.
This fall, Ruhlman amplified the basics with a book on cooking techniques. I’ve paired the new book with one of Ruhlman’s earlier works, which together belong on any cook’s bookshelf.
The magic of Ruhlman’s writing is that he combines the rigor of fine cuisine with the joy of food in the same breath. This new title does both exceptionally well. You wouldn’t imagine that the whole of cooking could rest on the shoulders of 20 techniques, but here they are. In Ruhlman’s breakdown, they are: think, salt, water, onion, acid, egg, butter, dough, batter, sugar, sauce, vinaigrette, soup, sauté, roast, braise, poach, grill, fry and chill.
Instead of piles of recipes, Ruhlman explains how a recipe comes to be. It’s no accident that “think” is first on his list. You’ll learn techniques that make a kitchen work before reading recipes that show you how to achieve your goals.
Ruhlman’s Twenty features the photography of his wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, to illustrate the processes clearly. See their teamwork on Ruhlman’s pithy blog: ruhlman.com.
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was about to celebrate 90 years in print when this came out in 2007. It’s no wonder Ruhlman modeled his reference after a familiar classic. Anthony Bourdain’s introduction recommends that “every cook—professional or otherwise—who cares about what they are doing, and why, should own this book. It’s that simple.”
In some ways a precursor to Twenty, Elements is a slim volume with solid content. Eight essays on stocks, sauces, salt, the egg, heat, tools, sources and finesse are followed by a 90-page glossary. Ruhlman gives us the language of the kitchen both in technical accuracy and in the vernacular of the trade—bedside reading for food geeks.
Ruhlman follows in the footsteps of Michael Pardus and Thomas Keller, the mentors to whom he dedicates Elements. “You are great chefs because you are great teachers,” he writes.
• The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (1997) by Michael Ruhlman
• The French Laundry Cookbook (1999) by Thomas Keller, with Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman
• The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection (2000) by Michael Ruhlman
• A Return to Cooking (2002) by Michael Ruhlman, with Eric Ripert and Valentino Cortazar
• Bouchon (2004) by Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello, with Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman
• Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (2005) by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
• The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen (2006) by Michael Ruhlman
• The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen (2007) by Michael Ruhlman
• Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (2009) by Michael Ruhlman
• Michael Symon’s Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen (2009) by Michael Symon, with Michael Ruhlman
• Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto (2011) by Michael Ruhlman