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Michael Ruhlman wants you to think about cooking differently. He wants you to think about techniques—seasoning with salt and acid, using butter as a cooking medium and flavoring element, building sauces, adjusting heat and knowing when to turn and remove what you're cooking, knowing how to fry and to poach—as the core of cooking. Instead of recipes—shopping lists with specific quantities of this or that—he wants you to think in ratios, how ingredients relate to each other to make a dish work. It's pretty eye-opening stuff for those of us who treat recipes and ingredient lists like the starting point for dinner.
Of course, Ruhlman has also collaborated on more traditional cookbooks, working with Thomas Keller on The French Laundry Cookbook and Ad Hoc at Home (a Serious Eats staffer favorite), writing A Return to Cooking with Eric Ripert, and teaming up with Michael Symon for Live to Cook. So we were curious about his opinions about cookbooks in general as well as his favorites among his personal collection. Here's what he had to say.
What kinds of cookbooks do you love and what do you use cookbooks for? I look to cookbooks for new ideas. I don't usually follow recipes. In reviewing Deborah Madison's renewed Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I did her braised fennel. I love braised fennel but I'd never have thought to put arugula, goat cheese, and pine nuts on it. Works beautifully. And from there, the troika garnishing the fennel can really garnish any mild vegetable or salad.
Where do you keep your cookbooks? In the living room, the top row of books you'll see in [my wife] Donna's pic is devoted to non-fiction food, whether memoir, journalism, essay, etc. the lower shelves are for chef cookbooks, or major cookbook writer/teachers (Child, Hazan). A dear old friend I knew my whole life bequeathed to me his collection of Richard Olney's monumental Time Life series.
In the kitchen I keep ethnic, dessert, baking, and basic technique. In my office: Escoffier, New Pro Chef, McGee, Joy of Cooking, Oxford Companion to Food, and Food Lover's Companion.
Most treasured cookbook:
The New Professional Chef, 5th edition from the CIA. It was the book I learned from when I was writing The Making of a Chef. I still refer to it as the best standard reference I have.
Favorite book about the science of cooking: McGee's On Food and Cooking is comprehensive, elegant and unsurpassed, and likely to remain so during our lifetimes.
Thoughts on most essential cookbooks for beginning-to-intermediate home cooks: I must modestly say my own book Ruhlman's Twenty, wherein I break down all of cooking into 20 fundamental ideas/techniques, which, if embraced, allows you to cook virtually any dish you want without having to blind yourself by staring down at a recipe.
"When we are staring at a recipe in a book or a magazine or a blog, it is a form of culinary blindness we should recognize."
And honestly I do say, now that I've just written this, it strikes me how true it is. When we are staring at a recipe in a book or a magazine or a blog, it is a form of culinary blindness we should recognize. That's not to say that recipes are the cause of the culinary blindness. In order to learn we often must follow a made path, just as when we're driving somewhere new we need directions. But, as one learns in cooking school, without fundamental techniques, you are forever limited.
For the same reason, I wrote Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, which reveals that most recipes are in fact not really amounts of ingredients but rather proportions of ingredients.
So I love technique books, and books about the basics. There's actually a lovely little volume called The Basics: The Foundations of Modern Cooking. Beautifully published. The Madison book on cooking vegetables is really about enlightened cooking. McGee for why food behaves as it does. Jacques Pepin's La Technique, of course. Richard Olney's monumental Time Life series.
My favorite cookbooks are by those people who can really write: David Lebovitz (My Paris Kitchen), Dorie Greenspan (Around My French Table), David Tanis (One Good Dish), the late Judy Rodgers (Zuni Cafe Cookbook)—there are many but they get lost in the sea of books crashing ceaselessly on the beach.
Any newer cookbooks impress you? When I wanted to learn more about Paleo cooking (because I think our reliance on refined grains really is a fundamental problem in our diets), I turned to Nom Nom Paleo and the Slim Palate Paleo Cookbook, by the teenaged Josh Weissman, whom I continue to promote because I find him so inspirational. Here is a kid who transformed his life by cooking (and then by writing about it). He was a bullied fatso reliant on junky food, who turned his life around by eating carefully, and thoughtfully. So I guess those are my favorite books now, those that one, tell stories, and two, help us to eat more thoughtfully.
Are cookbooks in printed form here to stay? Cookbooks that have good photography and reliable recipes and information have never been more valuable because there's so much dreck out there.