Writer Michael Ruhlman is known for working with unimpeachably respected chefs like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, and for his influential trilogy, “The Making of a Chef” (Henry Holt, 1997), “The Soul of a Chef” (Viking, 2000), and “The Reach of a Chef” (Viking, 2006). His “Charcuterie” (W.W. Norton, 2005) is responsible for untold numbers of cooks—both home and professional—taking up meat-curing and sausage-making. In addition, Ruhlman was an early food blogger, to the ongoing delight of his many readers and commenters on Ruhlman.com.
Even so, my favorite Ruhlman book could be “House” (Viking, 2005), his home-renovation memoir, which I almost certainly started reading due to my respect for his food writing—I’m sure it had nothing to do with working on our own house and being curious to see how a famous writer survived being sucked into that bottomless black hole. Whatever the reason, I found this detailed, almost contemplative chronicle of whole-house remodeling an immensely satisfying read.
The new “Ruhlman’s Twenty” (Chronicle, 2011), like his previous “Ratio” (Scribner, 2009), gets to the nuts and bolts of cooking. “Ratio” explored reducing standard preparations to scalable formulas, instead of relying on recipes—five parts flour to three water, plus minor amounts of yeast and salt, makes basic bread dough, for instance. “Twenty” builds on the idea of freedom from the tyranny of recipes with enumerated chapters of 20 techniques which should be in any cook’s permanent arsenal.
It’s a cookbook, but there’s a lot of required reading to do, too, beginning with the topic Ruhlman makes his first chapter, “Think.” (The other 19 chapters are: “Salt,” “Water,” “Onion,” “Acid,” “Egg,” “Butter,” “Dough,” “Batter,” “Sugar,” “Sauce,” “Vinaigrette,” “Soup,” “Sauté,” “Roast,” “Braise,” “Poach,” “Grill,” “Fry,” and “Chill.”) It’s too little mentioned, but serious thinking is necessary for good cooking, and Ruhlman doesn’t pull punches on the subject.
True, some of the chapter names look suspiciously like ingredients rather than techniques. But then, the role of butter in cooking, for instance, is something more than mere ingredient—it can be a cooking medium, an enriching agent, or a shortener/tenderizer, in addition to a delicious flavor. The idea is to know, or learn, how to exploit all the various capabilities—to know how it behaves in various situations, why use beurre monté (butter beaten into a small amount of boiling water to create a stable, soft emulsion) for some things, or why clarified butter for others.
For me, this sort of geek-level detail is absorbing, and Ruhlman writes with a clarity that brings the reader right along. The excellent photos, by his wife Donna Turner Ruhlman, have a similar arty honesty. But I’m not sure this is a book for beginner, or maybe even casual, hobbyist cooks. While I could read about such things all day long, cooking minutiae like proper salt percentage for vegetable-blanching water might be more than some want from a cookbook. There are recipes, too, though, and they are terrific—with crystal-clear directions applying the skills examined in each chapter.
“Twenty” is an unusual and ambitious book, one to keep in mind as we enter the holiday gift-giving season. Just make sure the serious cook in your life likes to read as well!
Look for a couple of recipes from the book in Taste of Orange County soon.