Michael Ruhlman has had a prolific culinary career--from chronicling his time at the Culinary Institue of America in The Making of a Chef, to co-authoring cookbooks with Thomas Keller and other famed chefs. He has become a trusted authority that home cooks and professionals alike look to for tested techniques, experience and recipes.
In Ruhlman's Twenty the "twenty" stands for twenty chapters which identify and describe fundamental techniques the author feels every cook needs and should use. Alongside the techniques described, Ruhlman provides recipes that showcase and provide practical application for each fundamental technique. The first chapters include "think," "salt" and "water." Chapters continue for things like sauces, vinaigrettes and poaching, but also ingredients like eggs, butter and onions.
Recipes range from citrus cured salmon to butter poached shrimp, and coq au vin to a whiskey sour. In the chapter "Onion: The Chef's Secret Weapon," Ruhlman writes about the importance of onions to add sweetness or savoriness to a dish, and describes how to sweat onions or caramelize them, and also writes about the value of shallots. There are photos showing how to chop, sweat and caramelize onions, plus seven recipes highlighting onions, such as French onion soup.
There is a chapter on water. Yes, water. As you start reading it though, you realize that yeah...water is pretty key in cooking. You can cook directly or indirectly with it, you can cool or freeze foods, brine them or extract flavor from them. Ruhlman includes a recipe for a simple chicken stock and says at a bare minimum you can make stock out of chicken bones and onion. He says seasoned cooks and chefs never use store-bought stock. It is too easy to make, and store-bought products just do not compare. Ruhlman likes to make stock in the oven, on a low temperature, to keep it from getting too hot and potentially cloudy. It also keeps the pot out of the way.
It's fundamental advice like this that makes this book so valuable. You knew water was valuable in cooking, but Ruhlman has distilled down years of professional training, plus advice and technique from the world's top chefs and delivered them in a concise and practical format that teaches you the fundamentals while giving you practical applications for this knowledge.
The importance of mise en place is explained at the beginning of the book, in the "think" chapter, and reiterated throughout. Mise en place translates literally to "put in place," but Ruhlman says it really means "organize and prepare. In many of the photos in the book--like the ones for making mayonnaise--he reminds you, and shows you, that everything is prepared. The oil is measured, the egg has been separated, the lemons sliced. Everything is organized and prepared.
Sidebars throughout the book call out advice like adding a crunchy element to a poached dish, for varying texture, or how to poach eggs and the truth about marinades (Spoiler alert: They don't tenderize meat). To prevent salmon from extruding that slimy, white film for example, Ruhlman says to brine the fish for 10 minutes in a 5% salt brine solution. Tips are hidden in recipe headnotes too. Things like using fish sauce in macaroni and cheese or buying olive oil in cans, as light damages olive oil.
This book will be a little advanced for some home cooks. For example, Ruhlman suggests trussing a chicken before roasting it, but doesn't provide instructions or photos for how to truss a chicken. Other advice and techniques, like how to chop an onion are pretty basic for experienced cooks. The chapters on grilling, frying and chilling however provide more useful advice in three chapters than some books provide in dozens. Ruhlman's Twenty should have a place on the shelf of most cooks though, both as a resource and an inspiration. His advice on salt alone will likely change the way you cook, and if nothing else make your food taste a whole lot better.
Meet Michael Ruhlman when he visits Seattle next week. There is a dinner at Dahlia Lounge on Tuesday, November 29 at 6:30 p.m. The $100 ticket price includes a five-course dinner, wine and a signed copy of the book. Ruhlman will discuss the whats, whys, and hows of cooking. Tickets available at tomdouglas.com.