The Hungry Engineer

The Elements of Cooking

10 Sep 2008

It wasn’t enough to simply acquire more cookbooks than anyone could ever possibly work through. I had to acquire other literature about food. This has taken the form of food memoirs, food reference books, subject specific texts, etc. The latest of these books that I’ve inhaled is The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen by Michael Ruhlman.

This is the first of Mr. Ruhlman’s books that I’ve read. I’ve heard good things about him over the years (and come on, doesn’t anyone’s involvement with The French Laundry give them automatic credibility?) and more recently about this book, so I picked it up. I do not have an extensive collection of food reference books so I cannot make an extensive comparison, however, I will say that this is by far the most readable of these texts that I have come across. The writing, while being the epitome of practical, doesn’t regale itself to the overly prosaic delivery of most dictionaries and glossaries. Ruhlman has what I feel is a unique voice in the food reference world, and it makes his writing very accessible to his readers. He has been and still is heavily involved with chefs, but isn’t a chef himself. He has experience with restaurants, but doesn’t work in one every day. He is taking that wealth of background information he’s acquired and presenting it for the home cook, and it makes for a really good read. He doesn’t dumb it down for the lay person. He simply doesn’t assume you know everything already.

The majority of the book is organized like a glossary with an alphabetical listing of terms and their definitions / descriptions / applications /etc. I know I belabored this point above, but it is so incredibly readable, that I actually just sat there and read through the glossary. There were of course many terms that were familiar to me and many that were not, but I found myself reading through the familiar items as well simply because I found the treatment so refreshing. You have to appreciate any author of a food reference book who lists “Common Sense” as an entry in their glossary.

At the beginning are eight essays collectively called “Notes on Cooking: From Stock to Finesse”. I know I’m gushing at this point, but they’re definitely worth reading as well. How much have you thought about stock? Well, Ruhlman’s thought about it plenty. He explains WHY THINGS WORK THE WAY THEY DO!!! I cannot stress this enough. Not step by step instructions – heck there’s not but one recipe in the entire book (it’s for stock, incidentally) – but why you add the aromats when you do and why you cook stock at a certain temperature and why it’s good to add bones bones and more bones. I would challenge that there’s not a single home cook out there that wouldn’t be an even better cook after absorbing some of the information in this book.

For my part, I will definitely be looking into reading more Ruhlman. My next most likely purchase will be The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute. The title alone has my interest piqued.

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