Michael Ruhlman gives us the goods on everything from stock to omelettes to tools to salt in his tautly tasty new kitchen tome.
Jar lids, elastics, matchbooks, the plastic bit that fell off the blender: as you clean out the kitchen drawers and cupboards, one small step toward your new, improved 2008 way of life, hear the advice of author Michael Ruhlman. He maintains that five items are all it takes to outfit a kitchen: a chef's knife; a cutting board and sauté pan, both large; a flat-edged wooden spoon; and a large nonreactive heat-proof bowl, "ideally Pyrex".
"We've turned kitchen equipment into a fetish," he says over coffee, in town to promote his latest book, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen (Scribner, $28), which hinges on paring down to essentials, in both equipment and technique. The book's genesis was a suggestion from his wife, Donna, that he write about the 10 most important things a cook needs to know; its inspiration was William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, a small reference book originally published in 1959 on how to write accurate, concise English.
Comparison to this student bible might seem bold, but Ruhlman has the chops. He "likes to take everything down to fundamentals", he says. More to the point, he has spent 10 years working with the best chefs, including the French Laundry's Thomas Keller. (Their next collaboration, on sous-vide cookery, appears this fall.)
Eight tautly written essays on essentials preface the meat of The Elements of Cooking, beginning with stock. Ruhlman is fixated on fresh stock. "Canned broth drives me crazy," he says. He advocates using veal bones, recommending breast as the "perfect mix of bone and cartilage". Making veal stock, he maintains, is "no more difficult than chicken stock, and it teaches you about cooking.”¦We should make a stock as part of our weekly routine." And make it carefully and slowly: "I don't think you should see a bubble [at] any time," Ruhlman says.
Surprisingly, the author says he has experienced no backlash to his subversive views on salt, which he terms "the most important ingredient in the kitchen". While he considers it arrogant when restaurants don't put salt on the table, he admits that many diners automatically reach for the salt cellar before tasting their food. Salt, he thinks, "is bad for you in processed crap", whereas if we add salt to fresh foods, our bodies can judge what we need. Pasta water, he writes, should taste "pleasantly seasoned", while green vegetables call for heavily salted water with up to a cup added per gallon.
More heresy: "Fat doesn't make you fat," he says. "Eating too much makes you fat." It's hard to disagree with that, or his belief that "If you know how to cook an egg, you have mastered 50 percent of cooking."
Follow the book's clear instructions on making omelettes and such, managing heat, assembling a (small) battery of tools, and you arrive at a final essay on finesse, which Ruhlman deems "the cook's finest challenge and path to the ultimate rewards". Briefly, it calls for attention to detail from start to finish: "Finesse should not be considered a flourish, an extra final step, but rather something fundamental in our actions," he writes.
Then it's on to the elements of cooking, 900 items culled from research, books, and glossaries, that progress from acid to zester, with consecutive entries at midpoint on meringue; metric measurements; meunií¨re, í la; microwave oven; and Microplane indicating the scope.
"The most fun was when I didn't try to do a lot of items in one day," Ruhlman says, describing how the entry on recipe turned into a mini essay on how to think about a recipe. The book isn't an instruction manual, he says; it should be viewed more like sheet music, open to personal interpretation, which will vary enormously depending on whether you're a high-school cello player or Yo-Yo Ma. "We don't need more recipes, we need more technique," he says. "Then you're free. You can see what you have on hand”¦I want people to understand the basics of how food behaves so they can make really good food without expensive ingredients."
As we talk, he describes a couple of recipes. One, strictly speaking, is a technique for cooking bacon that makes me want to immediately go out and buy his earlier book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (Norton, 2005). The other is for scallops with asparagus sauce. The water used for boiling the asparagus, Ruhlman says, "should taste like a mouthful of Atlantic Ocean".