Customer Reviews: The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen
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on November 7, 2007
This last year, I discovered the writing of foodie Michael Rulhman, and his experiences in both the CIA and getting to work with such culinary greats as Thomas Keller and Michael Symon.

There are three essential sections to this slim volume, each one providing understanding to any cook, no matter what their experience level is. It's not exactly a book to sit down and read through as you would a regular book, except for the opening section. Instead, this is one to have nearby when you're reading through a cookbook, and you come across a term that you don't know, for example, a chiffonade or daube, or when you want some clarification on just what is poaching or why is a confit is so desired by foodies. No, it's not that massive tome, Larousse's Gastronomique, but it's quite a bit lighter and easier to go through than that chef's bible.

Ruhlman starts off slowly, after an opening essay by Anthony Bourdain. He gets right down to the very basics with a collection of eight essays on why you need to have knowledge of a variety of tools and ingredients, namely: Notes on Cooking, From Stock to Finesse. The language is geared for the average cook, who has never set toe into a professional kitchen or culinary school, but do want to improve their own skills at cooking.

The eight essays are as follows:

Stock: Ruhlman gets pretty darn rhapsodic about stocks; how to make them, how to ruin them, and while you don't really need to make your own, it's still a good idea to try. He also takes some of the mystery out of making them, such as how to actually 'skim' the stock, and get rid of that pesky raft. What I really liked about this one is his recipe for veal stock -- it's one that I will have to try soon.

Sauce: And yes, you can make them too. This is where stocks come in very handy, and how to get the most out of the techniques.

Salt: Why it's important, and despite the constant railings of those who wish to ban it (along with that other necessity in the kitchen, fat), how to learn how to use it. I agree with Ruhlman here, don't use it for a while and see how much you suddenly start craving it.

The Egg: I love eggs, both as ingredient and tool. Ruhlman shows here how the egg can leaven food and make it rise, bind things together, and work wonders. He also includes a nifty little set of instructions on how to prepare eggs in the most basic ways, from boiling to poaching to scrambling.

Heat: Dry heat, moist heat, and poaching, along with a few other refinements. Once you start learning how to manipulate heat, and learn how to do it, you can pretty much learn to cook anything.

Tools: Ruhlman maintains that you really only need five tools -- a chef's knife, a large cutting board, a large sauté pan, a wooden spoon, and a large nonreactive bowl. Ok, I'll buy that, but realistically, you need to have a few more things in there -- for me, it's serrated and paring knives, thermometers, various pots and pans to stew, braise and roast in, and suchlike. Almost every chef who's written a book on cooking has a list of these sorts of things, and one thing they all seem to agree on is that each tool should be able to cope with a variety of tasks, and ban the expensive gimmicky item to the depths of the cooking store that's selling it. Most average kitchens are already cramped, and those flashy designer ones to usually be found in Vulgaria never get cooked in anyway.

Sources and Acknowledgements: Fifteen really good books about cooking. I won't list them all here, but I was surprised and inwardly pleased by how many of them I already have. One thing I should warn the reader about -- throughout this book, Ruhlman continually refers back to Harold McGee's exhaustive text by stating See McGee in the text; I have to admit that I agree with him a bit, no one has done more research into the world of why and how cooking does work than McGee. The book is huge and moderately expensive, along with other tomes that he cites, but yes, they really are that important if you want to move from being an average everyday cook to the person that can cook very well.

Finesse: A tricky term, that Ruhlman tries hard to explain, but never really quite gets there. I can appreciate what he is trying to do here, but I was also left feeling unsettled a bit as I read. Most of the time I don't have the energy to knock out an amazing meal -- if I can get everyone fed and the house cleaned, that's usually enough for the day. But I can certainly respect him for trying.

The Elements of Cooking A to Z
This is the main guts of the book. There's a wide variety of topics here, most of them French, and a few new ideas and fads -- like foam -- that have been creeping into the American culinary world. Depending on how much you are obsessed with food, you'll probably find quite a few new ideas and tools to learn more about, which is where the third section of the book will come in handy. Ruhlman's writing style here is articulate and while he does get clever in a few spots -- especially with the slang found in restaurants -- it is writing that I wish most culinary writers would contain. It's clear, free of fancy jargon, and 'cuteness.' It's smart and very useful.

The final pages are given over to acknowledgements and a bibliography, most of which is covered in the opening essays.

So what didn't I like about this book? Well, Ruhlman has a tendency to be just a wee bit snobby in his attitude towards home cooks. Read carefully enough between the lines, and there's just a dash of patronizing to the reader; I guess it really can't be helped, Ruhlman has been able to hobnob with the very greatest of cooks in America, and it shows. Too, he assumes that some of the tools and techniques that he talks about are already familiar to the reader. But these are small nits, and easily taken care of.

Summing up, this is a handy little book to have in the kitchen. Either this one or the recently published What's a Cook to Do? are engaging reads, and perfect for the home cook or budding culinary star in your family. It's lightweight enough to be used easily, and not nearly as intimidating as the more traditional culinary sources.

Four stars overall, and certainly worth the effort to find.
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VINE VOICEon December 31, 2007
I agree with many of reviewer Rebecca Huston's points. I'm posting my own review here anyhow because I think it might be useful to compare this book to others I've been reading.

Love love love the way Ruhlman writes about food and chefs overall in his other books, so I was excited to get a copy of "The Elements of Cooking." Then I found myself a little disappointed with the eight essays at the start. I looked back at my Alton Brown book "I'm Just Here for the Food" (v2) and decided the sections there on stock, salt, tools, etc. were way more useful in Alton's book. Ruhlman waxes poetic with his opinions... but Alton is vastly more instructive. (Do you want to get truly inspired -- and laugh your butt off -- about stock? Get Bourdain's ""Les Halles Cookbook!")

I did like the A-to-Z part of this for its definitions. However, they weren't very instructive, either. I can't fault Ruhlman for that, because he doesn't claim this is an instructional book. I recently got a copy of James Peterson's new book "Cooking" which doesn't cover all the techniques or terms in Ruhlman's glossary, but it gives step-by-step info and photos on a lot of them.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that there is no perfect book on food, not even McGee's "On Food and Cooking," which I also tunneled through. Which book(s) you like depend on your goal -- be a better cook at home or be more like a restaurant chef? I'm leaning toward Alton for the former and (maybe) Patterson for the latter. Buy Ruhlman's "Elements" for the short and clear opinions and definitions that you can learn in-depth elsewhere, not for overnight-success-at-the-stove details. :)
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`The Elements of Cooking' by one half of the modern culinary Johnson and Boswell team, Michael Ruhlman (introduced by the other half of the team, Anthony Bourdain) is a brilliant conception, with some superb ideas communicated, but which falls short of true excellence by a fair measure!
For starters, the book claims to be patterned after a true classic, Strunk and White's little manual of writing, `The Elements of Style' (Elements). Many books have taken the same tack, especially in the field of computer programming technique. The big difference is that programming is very much like writing, and even more amenable to simple rules, while cooking is far more similar to a plastic art, where your ingredients vary from day to day, from source to source, and from season to season. The second slip down the slippery slope of concept is that the book does not consistently follow Strunk and White's pattern. Where `Elements ' is composed entirely of brief lessons on good usage and writing technique, Ruhlman starts out in the manner of `Elements', but a third of the way through converts to the style of Fowler's equally famous writing manual `Modern English Usage'. That is, the book switches from advice by technique to a glossary of culinary terms. And, it is this section which is called the `Elements'. The first fifty pages, which look most like `Elements', are labeled `Notes on Cooking from Stock to Finesse'. Now if this book had followed the `Notes' pattern or the `Usage' style throughout, I would have been far happier. As it is, both sections have a feeling of incompleteness about them.
There are at least two other superficial weaknesses of this book which are truly amazing, given the stature of the author and the publisher (Scribners). It is truly amazing to discover that the book has neither a Table of Contents nor an Index! Now if the book were dedicated exclusively the glossary format, these absences would have made some sense. You find neither in a dictionary or encyclopedia or any other reference composed of small entries in alphabetical order. But then, this book is not entirely composed of this glossary.
The `Notes of Cooking' is composed of sections on a few seminal subjects, and the material in these articles is truly remarkable. They are things every serious cook should read. The list of section titles is:
1. Stock
2. Sauce
3. Salt
4. The Egg
5. Heat
6. Tools
7. Sources and Acknowledgements (15 Good Books about Food and Cooking)
8. Finesse
The single genuine recipe in the whole book is for basic brown veal stock on page 10. Since Ruhlman's objective in this chapter is to correct our ignorance about this philosopher's stone of cooking, this is reasonable, but is a symptom of the fact that Ruhlman is not living up to his subtitle, `Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen'. After such a brilliant start with his discussion of stocks (which, by the way, every novice cook MUST read), followed by the very logical `Sauce' and `Salt' topics, Ruhlman starts to meander. With this title, I would have expected coverage of techniques and recipes for biscuits, crepes, pastry dough, bread, braising, vinaigrettes, salads, grilling, steaming, meringues, omelets. Some of these topics are addressed in passing, but good luck finding them on the fly if it is not in the glossary. As it turns out, there is a superb new book, Alice Waters' `The Art of Simple Food' which does everything Ruhlman should have done. And, if you prefer another suggestion, try Julia Child's last book, `Julia's Kitchen Wisdom', which covers everything I mentioned and more.
There is one advantage to Ruhlman's missing index and table of contents. This book, at least the first fifty pages of `Notes', really needs to be read from front to back. One can do this easily within two to three hours, and you will be richer for the effort (assuming you are really interested in cooking). The sections on stock and `finesse' alone are worth the cost of the book to avid foodies. The notion of finesse is a far, far better expression of what Emeril Lagasse calls `a food of love thing'. Mario Batali describes it as an accumulation of small measures which individually do little, but when many are combined into a whole cooking ethos, your results will be markedly better than the average cook, even though you both used the same recipes and virtually identical ingredients. The notion of finesse is far easier to translate into practice than `love'.
It is also very easy to read Ruhlman's first fifty pages because of his engaging writing style. He presents arcane facts in words which make far more sense than if you read the same thing in Harold McGee's `On Food and Cooking' (One of Ruhlman's fifteen books). In fact, Ruhlman's style is so loose, compared to some of the great culinary writing stylists such as Elizabeth David and M. F. K. Fisher that you start to suspect he is simply phoning it all in to Scribners copy editors. But it is still good stuff. That is, until you get to the glossary. The breezy style continues, and starts feeling a bit more out of place. Then, I start to see small bits of awkwardness in the wording and subtle errors in factual material. The first is exemplified by the clumsy definition of `mandoline', which suggests that a Japanese mandolin is not a real mandolin. The second is in the definition of marrow, which states that it is a fatty connective tissue. It is not that at all. It is the tissue inside the large bones in which red blood cells are produced.
This is one of those times I really wish I could assign fractional stars. I would give this book four and three-fourths of a star. Or, I would give it five stars for foodies and professionals and three stars for non-foodies.
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on November 6, 2007
This is a solid general book about cooking, the latest of several by a veteran cookbook writer. This unique approach to cooking is directed at clarifying cooking terms.

The first 49 pages are the essence of the book to me, a reduction of years of experience, as this experienced cook describes such "secrets" as that of making a stock at a simmer, not a boil, and putting in aromatics in the last 30 minutes, instead of adding earlier, and thus missing their fresh notes. He talks about the value of preparing one's own sauces, and how to best do so. He correctly describes how to salt meats early, and not so late that it needs salt at the table. Adding just enough salt to bring out the taste, and not so much salt that one can taste the salt-that's the art of salting.

He tells how to properly cook an egg, several styles, that work, including when to use a non-stick pan to have a finer control over some egg cookery. He recommends his top 15 or so books, and I've not a difference with him on any.

This is well written, and ideal for getting beginners up to speed on proper skills with simple processes,and works for intermediate level cooks. Learn useful "pearls" of cooking wisdom, without needing years to gain the wisdom condensed in the first 49 pages of this book.

Many books have numerous recipes, few discuss clearly such "basics" as how to properly blanch, saute, or braise. One person's braise may be different than another's, and the beauty of this book is how it descibes and defines cooking terms and techniques. Proper techniques creat the rich layers of flavor in a great soup, or sauce, and mastering a few new techniques allows one to better approach the quality sought in bringing out the best taste and desired textures in that dish.
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on August 5, 2008
I was very excited about receiving this book, but on a careful reading, I'd have to say I'm disappointed. It's long on Ruhlman's self-absorbed writing style (did I really need another essay on his obsession with brown sauce after wading through _Making of a Chef_?) and a little short on useful information for serious cooks. Just a couple of examples that spring to mind: there's no entry for "simmer" (a much trickier temperature to figure out than "boil," for which there *is* an entry); and, there's no rundown on cuts of meat, which even my 1997 Joy of Cooking maintains! For home cooks looking to take their technique up a notch, I'd definitely recommend Jacques Pepin's Complete Technique in lieu of Ruhlman's book, even though it takes up 3x the space on the bookshelf (it's easily 5x more useful!).
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on May 4, 2008
This book is a great idea, and in many respects lives up to what it aims to achieve. It teaches an understanding of cooking rather than a parrot-recipe-imitate approach to food, but unfortunately, one thing you quickly learn is that other books are better at the 'how and why' approach to cooking such as On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

This book presents an attitude that I endorse, but doesn't provide the knowledge or the understanding to change cooking practices. There is not much that I am able to do better having read the book. Perhaps I may change from cooking stock in a pressure cooker, but while the book details the preparation of veal stock it doesn't really detail the disadvantages of other methods. Unlike Strunk and White's The Elements of Style , this book does not have a left-hand column(common mistake) and right-hand column(correct way). Neither does it have a section on the "principles of composition", which would be very useful. The second and main part of this book is a useful glossary of cooking terms, but not a "how and why" on common cooking scenarios.

This is no Strunk and White, and while it is opinionated the author relies heavily on the knowledge and authority of others to communicate his ideas. There is much of "so and so does this" instead of a "because of this, do this to get that", which I would have preferred. There is name dropping and an assumption that some jargon terms are understood.

The book guides the reader in the right direction, but leaves him with little substance.

While I give it three stars now, this book may stay with me for some time as a reference, and I am glad that I now know what books to buy next.
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on November 29, 2013
I love Ruhlman. Ratio and Ruhlman's Twenty are two of my favorite cooking instruction books.
Elements, on the other hand, is a dictionary of cooking terms
with a sentence or three for each;
what a thing is, not how to make it or use it.
I didn't get this from the description of the book.
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This is a book for beginner, or for an experienced cook.

I have followed Ruhlman for decades now. He is an expert journalist with superb style. He was a plodding, digging dirty hands journalist that came to the CIA, the real one. He followed what Joe Campbell would call "his bliss". Now he is an instructor himself. I just buy anything he writes.

But this is a good one for you to work through. No particular theme, no cuisine. But if you just work through it, you will be successful and have solid results with each adventure you will share with those who are important.
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on January 12, 2013
It's mostly an index of terms. Seriously. 10-15% of this book has great breakdowns of necessary cooking techniques, but after say, twenty to thirty pages, becomes a cook-tionary. I like that, as it becomes a reference book that has come in handy in my private and professional life ("Cook," if you're wondering), but if you're looking for salient info, look towards either the books he used for reference and recommends, or check out Ruhlman's book of the twenty necessary techniques for cooks. In fact, I think it's called just that, sorta.
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on March 28, 2014
I like the contents of the book, found it interesting, as I have all the other books by Mr Ruhlman that I've read. And I should make it clear that this reviews applies only to the kindle edition of this book.

The Kindle edition is about as close to worthless as you can get. There is no letter-by-letter table of contents, so you're left to scrolling through the pages one by one to get to your topic. Yes, you could do a SEARCH, but why not either do an index or at least a letter-by-letter table of contents? The lack of mobility in the pages is even worse when the entry you're looking for refers you to a different entry that starts with a different letter. Hyperlinks have been invented.

A very handy, interesting, informative book which I may have to order in physical form in order to use.
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