(Edit, 5/9/12: Ruhlman’s Twenty just won the James Beard Award for Best Cookbook, General Cooking. Not that it needed the validation.)
I’ve mentioned Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook’s Manifesto a few times already, having talked to the author on the November 11th podcast, but held off on a full review until I’d had a chance to cook a few things from the book. I’ve tried five recipes so far, all hits, and given how informative and readable the surrounding text is, this has quickly become one of the most essential cookbooks I own.
The “Twenty” of the book’s title refers to twenty chapters, each revolving around a core cooking technique or, in a few cases, a critical ingredient such as salt, eggs, or onions, mastery of which is critical for success in the kitchen. I can’t think of anything a home cook would need to know that’s not covered somewhere in this book, and he runs from basic steps to advanced home-cooking techniques such as building egg white foams, mounting sauces with butter, and making confit with duck or lemons. But what has always set Ruhlman apart, aside from his conversational writing style, is that he drills down to the fundamentals behind a recipe. Each section has several pages of explanation, peppered with anecdotes or even quotes from chefs Ruhlman has worked with, and each recipe has more commentary. The one stir-frying recipe explains why restaurant stir-fries are different than anything you can produce at home, then gives six key tips for producing the best stir-fried dishes possible on your consumer-grade stove.
For Thanksgiving, I used two of the book’s three recipes involving duck, one in the chapter on acid (seared duck breasts with cranberry gastrique), the other in the chapter on braising (braised duck legs), and both were straightforward with excellent results. The legs couldn’t be easier – salt them the night before, sweat some aromatics in a pot, add the duck, white wine, thyme, and water just to cover, and braise in a 300 degree oven for three hours; I managed to keep one leg together for the photograph but the other was so tender that the meat fell off the bone when I tried to extract it from the pot. I brined the breasts overnight to keep them moist, since I tend to prefer duck breast closer to medium than the recommended medium-rare (it gets dry and tough when overcooked, and the brining at least slows down the drying-out); Ruhlman’s recipes should hammer home how easy it is to make duck at home, because searing the breasts requires nothing more complicated than cross cuts on the skin and heating up a single heavy skillet. Even the sauce was simple and produced a bright-red result with the sweet/sour profile that pairs extremely well with the lean, dark breast meat. (Mistral in Boston also serves a cranberry gastrique with its signature duck dish, although they roast a half-bird rather than braising the legs separately.) Using both recipes also allowed me to render about ¾ cup of fat from the two dishes, which I’ll deploy today or tomorrow on some Yukon Golds. The only hitch was that the sauce made by reducing the braising liquid from the legs, boosted with sherry vinegar and fish sauce (for umami), didn’t do much for me – and the leg meat didn’t need any help anyway.
I joked with Ruhlman that cooking scrambled eggs over simmering water, instead of directly over the heat source, was “crazy talk,” but the science behind it is pretty sound – it’s the same way you melt chocolate on the stovetop or make zabaglione (a thick custard of eggs and sweet marsala, beaten while sitting over simmering water). This method heats the food gently and slowly, preventing overcooking or scorching, and in the case of the eggs keeping the finished product soft. You have more time to develop curds, and unless you walk away or crank up the heat on the water, you’ll end up with a pile of soft, custardy eggs with a built-in sauce that is incredibly rich, with the texture of a dessert dish in a normally pedestrian breakfast food.
Ruhlman’s pan-roasted pork tenderloin uses one of my favorite techniques, what I learned as the “sear-roast” – sear it on the stovetop, finish in the oven – but boosts it through aggressive seasoning and frequent basting with a butter-garlic-thyme sauce that builds in the pan as you cook the meat. Pork tenderloin has become more popular (and more expensive) in recent years because, as the name implies, it’s naturally tender, since the muscle does virtually no work while the animal is still oinking. The downside is that it’s lean and dries out easily, so boosting it with butter as Ruhlman does makes perfect sense, while the sear-roast technique gives you substantial flavor from the Maillard reaction while allowing you to slow the cooking of the interior in the oven. One thing worth mentioning about the book that appears in this recipe is that Ruhlman assumes some basic familiarity with many ingredients – for example, he explains here that you might want to deal with the tapered end of the tenderloin to prevent overcooking, but doesn’t discuss trimming the tough and extremely annoying silverskin, which can cause the meat to curl during cooking. I don’t see that as an oversight, but it might make Ruhlman’s Twenty a bit intimidating as a first cookbook.
The flip side of that assumption is that Ruhlman also assumes some intelligence and aspirations on the part of the reader. The recipes work if you follow them step-by-step, but when you read the text around them and at the head of each chapter, you build your understanding of the twenty techniques to the point where the recipes become guidelines; in that respect, this book has more in common with his slim but essential volume Ratio, which distilled numerous recipes for baked goods, stocks, and sauces to ratios of core ingredients to allow for endless improvisations.
One great example of that is the two-step pan sauce for roasted chicken, which starts with a basic “rustic” sauce using just white wine, onion, and carrot (the last two are “aromatics”), then adds a second step if you want a “refined” sauce that uses butter, shallot, and herbs, finishing with the optional lemon juice and/or mustard. You can build almost any pan sauce from that framework; the only essential ingredient is the butter, and perhaps the shallot, but you can substitute or add aromatics or herbs, or use a different deglazing liquid. I did it straight, just switching around some herbs based on what I had in the house, and it was among the best pan sauces I’ve ever made, in part because Ruhlman has you deglaze and reduce multiple times to intensify the flavors in the aromatics. Do it his way once (and read the surrounding text) and you’ll understand the reasons behind each step, making you the master of the recipe the second time around.
I should also mention that the photography in Ruhlman’s Twenty is off the charts – these are photographs that will make you want to head for the kitchen, right from the first recipe, sage-garlic-brined pork chops (breaded, pan-fried, and finished with a butter-caper sauce, with the rest of the recipe on page 315). The braised lamb shank photo is beautiful enough that I thought briefly about eating lamb again – and that recipe includes eighteen clear photos to take you through the recipe step by step.