Saturday, May 24, 2008

Elements of Cooking

One of the books I got for Christmas was Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, which I have been dipping into frequently over the past months.

The best part of the book can be found in the "Notes on Cooking" section that occupies the first fifty-pages. These are moderate-length instructional pieces on key kitchen concepts and techniques, such as "Stock", "The Egg", and "Tools". These are filled with eminently practical guidance, useful both for the novice cook as well as someone who has been cooking seriously for years.

One that struck me as particularly useful was this one in the "Salt" essay on how to salt water for cooking pasta:

Before culinary school, I'd salted pasta water by putting a pinch into a giant pot of water . . . My instructor explained that our pasta water should taste like properly seasoned soup. This would ensure perfectly seasoned pasta. Or rice, for that matter.

Elegant, to the point, and eminently useful. Maybe I just fell off the culinary turnip truck, but I never thought to use that simple test before. I now taste the water everytime I make pasta, and I have to say it's led to consistently tastier pasta for me.

Ruhlman has caught a lot of flak for his over-emphasis on French terms and techniques. The book, after all, is called "Elements of Cooking" and not "Elements of French Cooking", so he's been charged with Francophilia and not valuing other cultures. It doesn't bother me that much, though. All books have their particular slants and biases, and Ruhlman's reflects his training at the Culinary Institute of America and what he's learned working with chefs like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. In other words, these are Ruhlman's tips for good cooking, not all the tips for good cooking to be found in the world.

My bigger beef with the book is what happens after your leave the first fifty pages and get into the "A to Z" section that constitutes the remaining 4/5ths of the text.

Ruhlman consciously modeled his book on Struck and White's The Elements of Style, the classic, brief (43-page) guide to English writing style that was first published in 1918. Ruhlman's concept is to provide a similar guide on the essentials of cooking. The first 50 pages do this admirably. Then it slips off the rails.

The original Elements of Style is organized as follows:

  • Elementary Rules of Usage

  • Elementary Principles of Composition

  • A Few Matters of Form

  • Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

  • Words Commonly Misspelled

The "Elementary Rules" and "Elementary Principles" are presented as crisp, imperitive statments: "Do not join independent clauses by a comma", "Omit needless words", "Use the active voice." Once you get to "Words and Expressions Commonly Misued", the organization shifts to an alphebetical list of terms with a brief discussion of each. Here, for example, is the first entry:

All right. Idiomatic in familiar speech as a detached phrase in the sense, "Agreed," or "Go ahead." In other uses better avoided. Always written as two words.

This entry does define what "all right" means, but more important is the injuction, "in other uses better avoided", as well as the fact that you should always write it as two words. Just a tiny bit of advice, but it's something the writer can take away and use to write just a little bit better. It makes for a book that's a good quick read for someone looking to reflect on their writing and also a nice reference volume that can be consulted again and again as you are in the middle of writing ("Should I use 'that' or 'which'? Let's see what Strunk and White say . . .").

Now what, on the other hand, would an aspiring home cook do with an entry like this from Ruhlman's book?

Reach-In: Reach-in is shorthand for reach-in cooler, to distinguish it from the walk-in cooler.

Or this one?

Flavor: arguably the most important element of a dish. All other elements of the craft of cooking, doneness, seasoning, texture, presentation, all are in support ultimately of flavor. Flavor is paramount.

Nice definition and sentiment, but how are these going to help someone cook better?

I greatly suspect that Ruhlman turned in a first draft of the book that came in around eighty pages and his publisher hit the roof and said, "No one will buy a book that small! Flesh it out!", so he went back to the well and started defining everything in sight. Which is a shame, for even the A to Z section has some gems of good advice hidden away among the dry-as-dust excyclopedia entries. Like these tips on shallots:

Their harsher effects can be eliminated by macerating them in vinegar; raw shallots are volatile, so they should be cut and incorporated into the food the day you're serving it (that is, don't add them to a vinaigrette that will sit for several days in the refrigerator.)

I guess Scribner was probably right: few customers would be likely to plunk down $24.00 for a volume less than 100 pages--and I wouldn't plunk down $24 for the full 245 pages, either. But it was a great gift, and a paperback version should be out soon, and the first fifty pages of Ruhlman alone is well worth a paperback cover price.

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