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'Ruhlman's Twenty' offers kitchen basics

On a warm spring evening at a 2009 food conference, author Michael Ruhlman was at the bar discussing kitchen skills with a powerful cookbook editor.

"In between sips of his mint julep," Ruhlman recalls, "he said to me, 'You know, Michael, I love to cook but I don't seem to be getting any better.' "

The author replied that there are "really only about 20 things you need to know in order to cook just about anything," and then I watched his eyes light up."

Two years later that conversation has produced "Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, a Cook's Manifesto," a thick but accessible tome aimed at taking your cooking game to the next level — no matter where you start.

"People have gaps," says Ruhlman. "I have gaps. Everyone has gaps. But that's the great thing about food and cooking. The topic is just inexhaustible. You never know everything. It's why cooking is never boring."

Ruhlman, who co-wrote "The French Laundry Cookbook" (with chef Thomas Keller) and "Charcuterie" (with Brian Polcyn) and famously documented his year at the Culinary Institute of America in "The Making of a Chef," notes that most of us pick up cooking skills on a need-to-know basis without a teacher at our side.

But he also believes "there are too many cookbooks published each year." So before committing to "Ruhlman's Twenty," he explored the subject of teaching cookbooks on his blog and concluded there was "no simple but systematic guide for becoming a better cook."

Not even the Culinary Institute's "The Professional Chef"?

"I tried to cook from it, but I didn't understand half the terms at the time, and it's a big text," Ruhlman says.

The 20 techniques are broken up in chapters that range from "Think," "Salt," "Water" and "Egg" to "Grill," "Fry" and "Chill," with plenty of "Butter," "Batter," "Sauce," "Soup" and "Braise" in between. Each chapter offers recipes and concepts that build on each other. Recipes are aimed at demonstrating techniques and building confidence while putting something delicious on the dinner table.

Each section is filled with dozens of explanatory photos — by photojournalist Donna Turner Ruhlman, the author's wife — that skip the glamour shots and simply illustrate exactly how the different stages of the dish should look in your kitchen.

Many of the early chapters demonstrate what Ruhlman calls "tools," which include salt, water, acid, onion, egg and butter. On a recent visit to the Tribune test kitchen, Ruhlman took on the subject of water by whipping up a weeknight coq au vin.

Instead of using a dry pan, he rendered his bacon chunks and onions in three fingers of water, explaining, "The moist heat helps tenderize the bacon but also pulls out sugars from the onions that help them brown and caramelize in the pan, creating flavors we wouldn't otherwise have. It's a very powerful tool here to extract flavor and develop the texture you are looking for."

Later, he skipped canned chicken broth for, again, water in the sauce, saying, "Why add a mediocre canned chicken stock (he is very pro-homemade stock) when you've got fresh chicken, bacon, onions, garlic, bay (which) already have everything that makes a great stock."

As the kitchen filled with warm, lovely aromas, the dish became a tasty lesson on the role of water as a tenderizer, flavor extractor, flavor melder and tool for rendering a neutral-tasting lard.

"And so once you know it works this way, you can use it in all kinds of applications," he says. "It doesn't have to be a coq au vin; it could be a ratatouille, or beans or a quick pan sauce after a roasted chicken. Pull the roasted chicken off the cast iron pan with skin stuck to the bottom, throw in some onions that get coated with chicken fat and start to caramelize; pour in some wine or water to pull out the sugars and amino acids, and cook it down until it caramelizes; then add water and do it again, finally deglazing into a quick sauce."

Once the author gets started, it's hard to stop his enthusiastic narratives on the easy magic most anyone can pull off with a few simple tools and techniques.

A big fan of family meals, Ruhlman says his ultimate goal for the book is just to make it easier to share home-cooked meals with loved ones and fill your homes with enticing, comforting aromas.

"Our lives are just better when we cook for ourselves," says a man who has worked with some of the world's greatest chefs. "This is even truer than most people realize. Studies show that good cooking smells, for example, affect our nervous system to trigger relaxation. So it's this natural stress reliever that we all need in our busy lives.

"If we would just take some time out to cook, it's pretty clear we would be less stressed, our families would be healthier and our checkbooks would be happier too."