Monday, April 23, 2012
"What were you doing?!" asked Jason when I finally got in bed at 1am. "Reading Ruhlman's Twenty," I said. Then I tried to fall asleep, but couldn't. I've never been as conflicted about a cookbook before. My reaction after the first 5 minutes of reading was "Oh no. He wrote my book!" Not that I have a book, or even a proposal for a book. All I have is a feeble hope that one day I could write a book about cooking techniques -- and that's what Michael Ruhlman has done. But after a few hours of reading, I realized that he wrote about only half of what cooking is all about: flavor. The other half is texture; and that's something that requires much more care and technique than he gives it in this book.
For the chapters on salt and acid, I am grateful to him from the bottom of my heart. Not because I agree with all of his advice, but because someone is finally talking about what makes food taste good. No, you don't need "organic" salt, black lava salt, or Fleur de Sel. All you need is plain old Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. But most home cooks need much more of it than they currently use, and much earlier in the process -- very often a whole day before the ingredient is cooked and throughout the cooking process, not as an afterthought when the dish is done. Acid is another secret weapon usually left untouched by home cooks. Vinegar and citrus juice are not only for dishes that are explicitly sour. Most dishes can use a touch of acidity to brighten their flavor.
I am also grateful to him for not jumping on the organic, local, sustainable, free range, cage free, humanly raised, allergy friendly, good for you band wagon. Enough is enough. The most local, sustainable beef can taste like an old shoe if you overcook it, and don't salt it. And a 2 day old egg from a free range chicken in your back yard can easily turn into an egg drop soup if you don't know how to poach.
Another thing I like about the book is that Ruhlman describes what things should look like, feel like, and taste like without trying to sound overly scientific. Knowing the theory about chemical reactions is only helpful if you know how to recognize this behavior with a naked eye and manipulate it to your advantage. I feel that the food science community sometimes forgets that we don't cook with microscopes and test tubes, but with our hands, eyes, skillets and meat thermometers.
What I found frustrating about the book was lack of thought given to doneness of proteins, which makes the biggest impact on texture and juiciness. In one recipe he suggests testing cod for doneness, by inserting a knife into it and then touching it to your lip. If it's warm, it's done. I've seen professionals use this technique, but it feels too vague for home cooks. How long should you keep the knife in the fish to make sure it reaches the temperature of the fish? How warm is warm? How do you make sure that the part of the knife you are touching to your skin is the part that was in the center and not near the outside? Wouldn't it be easier to see if the flakes separate and the center is still translucent? In the poached salmon recipe, he suggests cooking to 135-140 for medium-rare. By no stretch of the imagination is that medium-rare. That's well done and then some, because the fish (as everything) continues to cook once it's off the heat. Medium-rare salmon should come off the heat between 110F and 120F depending on the heat intensity and the thickness of salmon.
I felt that the internal temperatures at which Ruhlman suggests you take the proteins off the heat almost always ignored the concept of residual heat. A rib roast and steak taken off the heat at 130F will not be medium-rare as he suggests. Of course, you can say that's just a matter of definition. Maybe his medium-rare is not the same as mine. But the point is not what we call it. The point is that the proteins don't release their juice until they get to 120F, but start to toughen up and squeeze the moisture out aggressively after they get to 130F. If you want to optimize tenderness and juiciness, you need to stay under 130 during cooking and during resting. I wonder if he is bumping up most temperatures to appease the food safety nuts. Though that doesn't sound like Ruhlman. In the ceviche dish, he suggests that sole is ok to eat raw in spite of its proneness to parasites, and he is definitely not cooking cod to 135 (which would feel hot to your lip, not warm).
Another thing that bothered me about the book is omission of the details that seem obvious to people who cook professionally, but are not at all obvious to home cooks. His lovely pan sauces will not work in non-stick cookware most home cooks use. I wish he was more explicit about that. It would also help if he would make a bigger deal about drying the proteins before cooking. The roast chicken recipe mentions that you should rinse the chicken (a step that is completely unnecessary), but doesn't mention that you should dry it. Most home cooks would rinse that chicken even without his instructions, it's the drying that needs to be banged into everyone's heads. That's what will solve the classic home cook problem of "my meat is sticking and not browning."
In spite of all my gripes, I think the book has great merit. I guess Rennie's Twenty would be different than Ruhlman's Twenty, but we all have to choose our battles. I don't remember last time a cookbook made me stay up till 1am. It was a great joy to read a book that's all about cooking, and not some romantic story with a few recipes thrown in. This is a book that will make you think in the kitchen, not day dream about cooking in your cubicle.
Posted by Helen Rennie at 10:36 PM