Ruhlman’s Twenty.

(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.


  1. Why don’t you eat lamb?

  2. What’s the meat-to-nonmeat ratio here? I don’t prepare meat at home. Ratio was terrific even if you tore out the meat chapters.

  3. Obo: Had a bad incident a few years ago – got some lamb at a Whole Foods that was a little past its prime, and the smell made me so nauseous I haven’t had lamb since then outside of the very occasional gyro (which tastes of the spices, masking the lamb flavor).

    rfs: I think you’ll do fine. I infer that you’re not vegetarian, you just don’t cook meat at home; I think more than a third of the recipes are true vegetarian, maybe just under half, and if you are willing to use an ingredient like bacon at home or have an acceptable substitute, you’ll get over the halfway mark. I just opened up at random to the egg chapter; it has nine recipes, and I think the only one that’s not vegetarian is a pizza bianco with bacon on it.

  4. I enjoy this book thoroughly. It motivated me to start making stock on my own, and although I can’t say I won’t ever use store-bought stock ever again, I will think twice before doing so. I’ve made (so far) the roasted chicken and the poached beef tenderloin with the fantastic coriander vinaigrette.

    (Really liked your podcast with him as well from a couple of weeks ago.)

  5. The book sounds really interesting and I always enjoy your writing, be it on food, books, music or even baseball. I hope your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving. As I know you are a pie man, I made an experimental apple-persimmon tarte tatin that turned out even better than I expected, presuming you enjoy caramelized fruit. As I pare down my wall of cookbooks I’ll check this one out.

    The Family Meal by Ferran Adria was my latest purchase and I am looking forward to trying out a few ideas from there.

  6. I’m torn about whether to grab this book for my NOOK (Color) or in print. I guess either one works, but I’m not sure about cooking with an electronic device close to the stove…

  7. I probably would have bought it at some point anyhow, but after listening to your interview of Rhulman on the podcast, I knew this was a must have. My copy arrived from Amazon yesterday (along with David Chang’s Momofuku) and I spent the next hour just reading his chapter introductions. I’ve long taken to reading cookbooks for ideas, flavor combinations, techniques rather than recipes and Rhulman’s 20 is brilliant, because that’s exactly how it’s written.

    And, that sucks about the lamb – which is so wonderful – but it’s such a distinct and strong smell that I can see how if you ended up with bad lamb, it would be very difficult to eat again.

  8. Had a similar encounter with lamb (several, actually) as a child. It was the meat of choice at big occasions for my Greek-American family and it was awful. Years later, a friend who worked at the meat market my mother frequented told me, “That wasn’t lamb. You couldn’t get lamb in those days, so we sold leg of mutton as lamb.” Still, eating real lamb later (outside of gyros, a guilty and genetically excusable pleasure), the gamy taste offended. No matter. I’m pretty much a vegan these days (which didn’t stop me from making a meaty, cheezy pastitsio on Saturday), but looking forward to getting Ruhlman’s book nonetheless.

    Men who love baseball and cooking. I didn’t know there were any others.

  9. Count me as another who loves baseball and cooking. As well as cars, gardening, reading, fly fishing, and first person shooters.

  10. Bought this cookbook on your recommendation and I love it. My favorite recipe (so far) is the grilled butterflied chicken with butter baste, it is amazing, maybe the best chicken I’ve ever made, and very easy. Might replace Judy Rogers’ Zuni roast chicken with bread salad I make for Thanksgiving and Christmas . . .


  1. […] recipe I mentioned as my favorite sauce for fried foods; it’s just the mayonnaise recipe from Ruhlman’s Twenty (also found in his earlier book Ratio), with one or two chipotle peppers, pureed with 1-3 tsp of […]

  2. […] own four other books by Ruhlman, none better or more heavily used than Ruhlman’s Twenty, an absolutely essential cookbook that I reviewed in November. It goes through twenty ingredients […]

  3. […] Render the bacon in the saute pan. I prefer the method from the indispensable Ruhlman’s Twenty, in which you just barely cover the meat with water in the pan, put the lid on, and heat it on high […]

  4. […] rookie but, if you try some of the recipes, will leave you impressed with your own capabilities. I reviewed Ruhlman’s Twenty in full last […]

  5. […] * We get another discussion of losing dishes at the dinner table, which I think is a great change to the format. Chrissy’s salad gets trashed. Carla’s squab had the breast plate left in and was overcooked. CJ’s lamb had no flavor, was both tough and mushy, and wasn’t seasoned well. This sounds absolutely disgusting, like something you’d get at a school cafeteria. Josh’s soup had so much salt and no bubbly cheese on top. I’m inclined to say that his failings are the worst because French onion soup is still a popular dish, and because proper cooking of onions is a cooking 101 thing – the onion even gets its own chapter in Ruhlman’s Twenty. […]

  6. […] for the duck meat itself, I use the braised legs recipe from Ruhlman’s Twenty, which is foolproof and can be made a day or two in advance – it’s a great thing to throw […]