I so appreciate Michael Ruhlman’s point about cooking, which is, you’re better off learning techniques rather than recipes. Once you master things like poaching, braising, roasting, frying you will be untethered from recipes and books and free to improvise and experiment. I know cooks who are more or less born this way; in fact I often hear people say they don’t follow recipes exactly and use them only as a jumping-off point, if they use them at all. Bless their hearts.
I, however, am a hopeless slave to instructions. If I am told to slice my carrots 3/4″ thick, you bet I’ve got my ruler out. I use my digital scale constantly because I’m quite sure that when a recipe says 10.5 oz. they have a good reason for not saying “somewhere between a half a three-quarter pounds.” I like to think this doesn’t make me a rigid buzz-kill and I’m willing to consistently exceed all posted speed limits to prove it. I’m fun! Really!
Therefore, I might not be the perfect convert to the Ruhlman Way and yet I still loved the book.
The idea for the book came to him as he was chatting with a friend who was a good home cook but was frustrated because he thought he’d reached a plateau in his cooking. He was good but he didn’t feel like he was getting better. Dr. Ruhlman immediately diagnosed this as an acute case of Recipe Dependence (because you will only achieve a certainly level of accomplishment as a cook if you are merely following instructions.) ”Recipes are fashion” says Ruhlman (and I’m going to pretend he didn’t mean that pejoratively because if he’s going to hate on fashion we just can’t be friends). But I get it; you can learn the alphabet or you can just copy words from books.
Among the twenty techniques forming the basis of this book are some obvious ones — poaching, braising, roasting — as well as certain foods or ingredients that you might not think of as “techniques” — butter, acid, eggs, onions etc. Then there’s “batter” which I don’t even know how to describe.
If you are willing to accept his premise and fly without the net of a recipe for a while, you will get a lot out of this book. And even if you just use it like a traditional cookbook, you will still make some very, very good food. Even I loosened up a bit as I worked my way through the book and realized how many techniques I had already mastered without realizing it. Sauce, for instance. As I read this chapter I found that I already knew what he was going to say about making a pan sauce before he said it: use the fond from whatever protein you’ve cooked in the pan, add some aromatics (onion, garlic, shallot, maybe some herbs), then liquid (wine, water, stock), reduce and finish with something like vinegar or butter.
The only two recipes that did not work for me were the Halibut Poached in Olive Oil and the Pizza (the dough…was caulk). Everything else ranged from very good to memorable and I have made many things subsequent times. Lots of good pictures showcase the recipes but are also very instructive of the techniques. The challenge you may have is that since this is not organized like a traditional cookbook, it can often be hard to find what you’re looking for. There is no Appetizers section and that pork chop recipe that looked so good might be in Fry or in Salt (actually it’s in both). Onion Soup is not in the Soup chapter, it’s in the Onion chapter. Thankfully, the index is good so you will, eventually, find what you’re looking for.
The book is also sprinkled with interesting side notes, like how awesome shallots are (all the wonderful flavor of onions without the harshness so you can garnish with them and, basically eat then raw without paying for it). Or the many, many uses of fish sauce.
As with most books I really like, I find that there are many more recipes I’m anxious to try. I ordered sodium nitrate from Amazon so I could make my own bacon and I will absolutely do this (no more difficult than marinating, I’m told). I am also intrigued by the French Onion Soup as Ruhlman says that the authentic version of this dish does not include beef or chicken stock but derives all of its flavor from painstakingly caramelized onions. And he offers no shortcuts: the onions will need to cook for as much as five hours. Not something you’re going to whip up after work one weeknight but do you really want to know how they eat this in Lyon or not??? I know I do. Interestingly, the Onion Soup recipe also demonstrates several techniques at once: onion, salt, heat, water, and acid.
People often ask me to recommend a good cookbook for a beginning cook and this one clearly serves that purpose (you WILL make a perfect roast chicken with Ruhlman’s guidance and it’s laughably simple). It will get someone started on the right foot as they begin their culinary self-education but, as Ruhlman points out, even the best chefs are constantly learning and an experienced cook, or even a wildly-popular food blogger, will find some eye-opening information here and find themselves challenged and improved.