Thoughts on Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking

"Fat is good."

Michael Ruhlman wanted us to repeat after him.

"Fat is good."

Such simple lessons were at the heart of Ruhlman's demonstration last night at the Viking Cooking School in Brentwood: fat is good; salt is essential; listen to and touch food as you cook; above all, have fun while you cook.

As regular Gut Check readers know, Ruhlman came to St. Louis to promote his new book, The Elements of Cooking, a slim guide to important cooking terminology framed by the opinions Ruhlman has formed since attending the Culinary Institute of America for his book, The Making of a Chef.

The book begins with eight short essays on the most fundamental aspects of cooking: stock, sauces, salt, the egg, heat, cooking tools, essential reference texts and "finesse." The essay on salt is indicative of these essays -- and the book -- as a whole, descriptive and instructive, forceful but not at all condescending.

You don't want to taste salt in the food -- that means it's been oversalted. You want it to taste seasoned -- meaning that it has an appropriate depth of flavor and balance, is not pale or insipid.

...We learned [at the CIA] to "season as you go" -- that is, salt your food throughout the cooking process because food salted at the beginning of or during the cooking tasted different from food salted just before it was served. The former tasted seasoned; the latter tasted salted.

...Ulitmately you have to pay attention. Taste. Remember. Taste, salt, remember. Learn your own salt levels in cooking.

A theme to which Ruhlman often returned during last night's demonstration was the neuroses we Ameicans have given ourselves about such vital elements as salt: We've become so afraid of the negative conotations that processed food has given salt, fat, etc., and forgotten just how important -- and necessary -- they are in a more natural diet.

What makes The Elements of Cooking particularly useful is the balance Ruhlman strikes between what you must do (learn how to cook an egg, damn it) and what you, the busy person who might not have time to make veal stock, can do. From the essay on sauces:

Don't ignore water as the fundamental stock and sauce base. No, it doesn't have any flavor or body of its own, but it picks up flavor very quickly and so last minute pan sauces can be fast and easy even if you don't have stock on hand. Water is certainly superior to canned broths.

Whether you'll find The Elements of Cooking useful depends on your comfort level in the kitchen. If you've taught yourself to cook as you go -- following recipes, reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows -- it would serve as an excellent primer on why your favorite recipes work, how you can improve them, and how you can improvise on your own. Those of you who have the basics mastered might not find Ruhlman's lessons revelatory, but at the very least his book will provide a welcome refresher course and quick reference.

-Ian Froeb

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