The Elements of cooking
Michael Ruhlman has a new book out called ‘Elements of cooking’ with a blog to accompany it. blog.ruhlman.com/elements_of_cooking/ It’s all about the basic principles of cooking, as in let’s put the recipes aside and try to understand what’s going on. I love that approach, and I think it’s especially relevant these days in the era of flashy food TV, when foodies are heading to the kitchen armed with star chef signature recipes and no hand me down knowledge from their grandmas. The emphasis in the food media is on the recipe, like that’s all it takes to turn out a successful dish. Even professional cooks themselves are busy getting carried away with new techniques while young cooks are leaving school without knowing how many millilitres are in a cup, focused on creating or on how fast they can chop. Just about everyone has lost sight of the basics.
But the beauty about the basics is that once equipped with a certain understanding of them, you rarely need a recipe for more than inspiration, you are liberated, and better equipped to play around, to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. And for the professional, a look back to the basics is only a good reminder tool to help make sense of all the new stuff going on. The oft overlooked underbelly of fine cuisine is the unglamorous, ‘boring’ study of the elements, essential to any cook.
So, yes – let’s study water as a vehicle and cooking medium and let’s talk about the ‘aromats’, the common building blocks of soups, sauces and braises. Let’s review the different kinds of cooking methods, the different cuts of meat, let’s delve into the process of thickening things and emulsifying things. Harold McGee’s article in the Times about heat (the invisible ingredient) is another perfect example of some basic information more helpful to any home cook than some fancy recipe.. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/dining/02curi.html?_r=1&ex=1357102800&en=8a147e3904430a08&ei=5089&partner=rssyahoo&emc=rss&oref=slogin
Breaking things down into the elements, we can look at the properties of ingredients and pick apart basic technique, but in effect all we are doing is drawing on what generations past have done, and allowing science, as it slowly catches up, to qualify it some. In our imperfect grasp of food and cooking phenomena, knowledge of the classics or culinary history in general is still key, science secondary. Knowing that something has been done for hundreds of years a certain way does have some merit, which doesn’t mean we can’t dissect it, try to understand it and riff on it. With empowered superchefs and molecular gastronomy the rage, novelty and science are in the forefront, so tradition and history are easily sidelined, especially here where we have little tradition and history. Yes, every once and a while, there might be a true modern improvement or invention, but mostly we’re just revisiting the old with new eyes. The way I see it, keeping that tie to the past is a big part of what’s fundamental, and something that's become clear to me with time.
Of course, it’s natural that a cry for ‘the elements of cooking’ would strike a chord with me. As a cook with a scientific background, I’ve always been someone who is drawn to the how, the why - I ask questions. In my early days, even now, I read passionately. If I look to a recipe, I look at 20, I look for common threads, I draw my conclusions, form a mental master recipe of general guidelines before trying anything. I gobbled up Harold McGee’s ‘On food and cooking’ in 94 when it was the only thing out there on the science of food and cooking. I always gravitated towards general manuals over cookbooks, to publications like Cooks Illustrated over the flashier recipe dense magazines. I tackled the concepts before taking down crates of chicken or peeling tubs of potatoes, the opposite path of most cooks. But performing the menial tasks in a kitchen are just as important as grasping the elements, hence the common prejudice against the ‘theory’ side. But you just can’t turn out consistently good food or climb the ranks in a professional kitchen without both.
That said, I certainly didn’t move forward thanks to my speed and technical skills or any fancy French CV. Besides being organized and being a fighter (which every cook requires), my force has always been more idea based. My focus has always been on the big picture, and so slowly, a certain creativity and vision has come along with it, however immature. But I always knew that it was a knowledge of the basics, both in terms of science and tradition, that would enable me to see the links, to see that such and such is just a derivative of such and such, that an ingredient is flavouring and not a building block so that it can be changed, how to pick apart or create a recipe, etc.. Hence my mission of ‘Desperately Seeking Truth’ through constant reading and in my need to go commando in the kitchen. It’s all an effort to clear up some of the fuzz in my big picture, to connect more dots, to find another piece to the puzzle. And to have a better ally when trying new things, a bridge between the old and the new..
I’ve noticed that when I stray too far from planet earth by getting too experimental and flaunting or forgetting some basic principle, it inevitably backfires and I resurface feeling stupid. I am personally somewhat of a schizophrenic in that I jump forward wanting to try it all, and then I back up and cherish the old ways. I’m dying to make spheres out of beet-wild ginger juice, wanting to push limits; then again, I’m very into lying down next to Escoffier. I love tradition and simple food, but I love stretching the brain and tasting new things. I go through my push-pull phases, always playing around, rarely doing the same thing twice, making up recipes when I could easily follow something tried and true. Then again, I want the focus to remain on taste in my cooking, and on the products we have, not on any of my kitchen antics. Nonetheless, within every freshly executed dish or unscripted kitchen exploit, eventful or not, lie a few kernels of truth to add to my arsenal of cooking knowledge, a line or two to draw on my map. You see, a reverence for the elements of cooking keeps me grounded while spurring me on to new challenges, truths and tastes.
In contrast, following recipes blindly doesn’t offer anything beyond a crapshoot at something edible. It is actual cooking, critical thinking and paying attention to the principles at play that make for real progress and satisfying time in the kitchen.
So, next time you find yourself tackling a recipe for which you don’t have all the ingredients or the proper equipment, plough forward anyway, use your head and learn from it. When you pick up a cookbook, take the time to read the background information on the recipe if its there. Repeat the same recipe a few times with alterations in ingredients or technique, and see what happens. Try to free yourself from the fear of failure and the printed recipe by grasping on to the bottom line, or just by having fun.
On the other hand, if you are working the line in a kitchen, then just listen to the chef and think about it all later. Sometimes too, it doesn’t hurt to be forced to do something foreign to your own thinking if only to learn why you would never choose to do it the same way in the future.
Understanding everything is impossible, which is why cooking is so endlessly fascinating. Maybe understanding the elements is not everything, but trying to seems like a natural starting point and the eternal home base for cooks. It can prove an undeniably powerful tool, is definitely enriching, and not at all boring. It wouldn’t hurt all cooks to pay attention. I welcome more books like Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking to the culinary landscape.
There’s so much interesting stuff being published (along with the junk) these days – its overwhelming and heartening. Maybe one day, we’ll actually understand as much about food and cooking as we do about microchips and putting men on the moon.