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Veal Stock -- a personal reflection


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#61 Chris Amirault

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Posted 20 November 2007 - 08:08 PM

Nothing whatsoever in my review was disingenuous. I meant everything I wrote, and I'll bet that Ron, Dave, and Rachel would say the same thing. That we don't all agree is a sign that it is, in fact a book that we all read from our own perspectives. If you'd like to point to a specific statement that is insincere or snarky, I'll be happy to try to explain whatever I've written. Such explanations aren't likely to lead to agreement, though!

The claim that all formal or 'formal' (I'm not sure of the distinction) culinary training is largely French-based is both inaccurate and a good example of some of the problems I had with the book.
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#62 racheld

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Posted 20 November 2007 - 08:48 PM

I do and I did, and I said it like I say everything.

Now I gotta get some sleep. I have a date tomorrow to go cloud-watching with Charlie Brown.
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#63 maggiethecat

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Posted 20 November 2007 - 09:17 PM

I'm grooving on this debate -- it's what I live for. But I deplore the questioning of the motives of my reviewers. Because the publisher not only agreed to but wanted reviews, I chose five people I knew I could trust to read close, write well and keep a deadline. They worked hard, wrote well, met deadline. It's inappropriate to question their motives -- there are going to be legitimate differences of opinion about this -- or any -- book. Please confine future comments to the substantive issues surrounding the book. Personal attacks, innuendo or suchlike will be dealt with according to the member agreement. These are smart, good folks, doing what I asked them to do. Exploring this format exposed them -- and me -- to a whole lotta grief. In my position here, controversy and crap stick to me like sugar syrup. It's part of the job. But as editor, I cherish my writers, I know them, and I admire them for sticking their necks out. Thank you Chris, Ronnie Rachel and Dave. Next up, Steven Shaw.

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#64 hjshorter

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 03:58 AM

The claim that all formal or 'formal' (I'm not sure of the distinction) culinary training is largely French-based is both inaccurate and a good example of some of the problems I had with the book.

I'd like to see this idea expanded. Are there many culinary schools in the US that don't base their instruction on French? This is probably my training and bias speaking, but I wouldn't question that claim. In fact, I would wonder that it needed to be spelled out at all.

I wonder what they call a mirepoix at those schools?

Edited by hjshorter, 21 November 2007 - 04:00 AM.

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#65 Chris Amirault

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 07:11 AM

This is what I meant by wobbly categories. If "formal" means "continental" or "French," then you've answered your own tautological question; if by "schools" you mean CIA, J&W, etc., then you've done the same.

But if you expand your frame of reference, there are Chinese, Indian, German, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, and Japanese culinary academies all over the globe (to name a few), as well as several in the U.S., that offer formal instruction in those cuisines and techniques, each of which has a distinct set of foundational skills, methods, and dishes. My point is precisely that we live in a much smaller world these days, and the best chefs draw from global traditions. Why limit the scope when defining the essential elements if they don't?

As for mirepoix, my guess is that mirepoix means mirepoix throughout the international cooking world, just like bhuna and dashi do. I don't think anyone's proposing kicking the French tradition and all of its terms out of their kitchens. Again, I reference my own freezer! :wink:
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#66 Fat Guy

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 07:19 AM

Even at the CIA, in the B.P.S. curriculum, in freshman year second semester there are required courses on "Cuisines of Asia" and "Cuisines of the Americas," and in senior year there are required courses on "History and Culture of Asia" and "History & Cultures of the Americas." There's also a required Italian cuisine class (indeed, there's the whole Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine) and the required "Cuisines of Europe and the Mediterranean," which includes units on the Middle East, Spain, Italy, and Eastern Europe (and France). These courses are part of the curriculum because the CIA considers a basic understanding of the cuisines of the world essential for today's culinary professionals.

On the mirepoix question, the idea of an aromatic base for soups, sauces and stews is something just about every culture has come up with. Here's a good summary by James Peterson that appeared in Fine Cooking. Some examples of other cultures' equivalents of mirepoix:

A Catalan sofregit (soh-frah-ZHEET) starts with a slow sauté of onions in olive oil and is then enriched with tomatoes. A Spanish (or Castilian, to distinguish it from Catalan) sofrito, used to flavor classic rice dishes and rich braises, will usually include onions and garlic, and sometimes peppers, like its Portuguese equivalent, refogado (rah-foh-GAH-doh); tomatoes are often added.


and

When you move on to the Eastern cuisines, you'll notice that cooks from non-European traditions work with a wider and more varied palette of aromatic vegetables and spices. A typical Indian base mixture for a curry may contain onion and garlic, hot chiles, and chopped ginger. And just before liquid is added, sophisticated hand-blended curry powders are added and quickly sautéed to release their fragrance. Indonesian cooks have an especially exotic base mixture—called bumbu—that includes shrimp paste, powdered galangal (an aromatic rhizome similar to ginger), and kemiri (or candlenut), an oily nut that gives a particularly unctuous texture to Indonesian stews.


I think Chris made a fair point. I don't necessarily agree with the whole point -- I think the world can always use another book on classic cookery -- but I do think there's a disconnect between the book's proffer and what it delivers. Which is not to say that what it delivers is bad. You'll find that my review, still to be published (though written a few days ago), is mostly favorable.

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#67 violetfox

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 10:26 AM

I'm basing it on a comparison of what the book is and what it claims to be: a compendium of the essential elements of cooking. It's a compendium I find lacking for the reasons I stated above. But, hey, YMMV (ETA: when you get and read the one you ordered!), as can be seen by the variety of responses here!

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I bought Elements last week, and hadn't started reading it when I began reading the reviews here. I wondered - not too hard, because I've read and loved Ruhlman's other books - if I'd be disappointed by Elements.
Well, I needn't have worried. I started reading it this week, and I love it. As several people have said above, criticisms here seem to be of a book that Ruhlman wasn't writing. Elements is clearly intended as a compact, useful, opinionated (ah yes, it does say that on the leaf!) discussion of some elements of cooking, and it is perfect for what it is. It's clearly not intended to be encyclopedic, and I think it's foolish to critiize it because it isn't. If I want the long, thorough version, I'll turn to McGee or the Professinal Chef - if I'm looking for quick, useful information, I'll grab Elements.
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#68 Fat Guy

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 11:15 AM

It's clearly not intended to be encyclopedic, and I think it's foolish to criticize it because it isn't.

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It's neither foolish nor defective in any way to hold a book up to the standard it sets for itself. Ruhlman has characterized the book as "everything I think cooks need to know in the kitchen." I think it's entirely reasonable -- nay, required -- to evaluate whether a statement like that makes sense.

The book promises as follows:

. . . Not only does this book deconstruct the essential knowledge of the kitchen, it also takes what every professional chef knows instinctively after years of training and experience and offers it up cleanly and brilliantly to the home cook.

With hundreds of entries from acid to zester, here is all the information -- no more and no less -- you need to cook, as well as countless tips (including only one recipe in the entire book, for the "magic elixir of the kitchen") and no-nonsense advice on how to be a great cook. You'll learn to cook everything, as the entries cover all the key moves you need to make in the kitchen and teach you, for example, not only what goes into a great sauce but how to think about it to make it great. . .


Normally I might be inclined to say that those statements, from the publisher, are marketing puffery that Ruhlman doesn't really endorse. However, the "everything I think cooks need to know in the kitchen" claim, penned by Ruhlman, seems to run along the same lines as the jacket copy.

So I don't think the book delivers on that basic promise. Does anybody? Elements is enjoyable and useful in many ways, but "you'll learn to cook everything" is not one of them. In that sense, yes, some folks are indeed criticizing a book Ruhlman didn't write.

Edited by Fat Guy, 21 November 2007 - 11:24 AM.

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#69 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 11:47 AM

Decoder Ring

by Steven Shaw aka Fat Guy

Most cookbooks are part of a big con designed to keep amateur cooks in the dark. The high priesthood of cookbook editors has been sending a loud and clear message to homemakers for a century: “You can’t handle the truth!” In the Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman breaks the code of silence. If he and the rogue editor who allowed this book to happen go missing, look for them underneath the remaindered cookbooks at the Barnes & Noble Distribution Center in Jamesburg, New Jersey.

The most enjoyable part of Elements, for me, is the front section of opinionated essays. With each revelation about real professional cooking, the conventional wisdom comes crashing down. You need to make and use stock; there are no shortcuts. You need to add ten times as much salt to your pasta water as you’ve been using. Recipes are not gospel. Ruhlman writes:

Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can’t use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or the rec room Ping-Pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced.


Ruhlman is a champion of salt, and makes an even stronger case for salt than he does for stock:

It is true not just for cooks in professional kitchens, but for all cooks in all kitchens, everywhere: learning to salt food properly is the most important skill you can possess.

No surprise, then, that salting food is one of the first things taught in culinary school. When my instructor judged my soup to be flat he told me to take out a ladleful and salt it, then compare the two. This would help me to understand what he called "the effect of salt," he said. 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.


Elements is not a traditional cookbook. It is, rather, a tongue-in-cheek decoder ring for other cookbooks. It simultaneously helps home cooks not take cookbooks too seriously, and cook more seriously from them. It’s a book that needed to be written.

I do have some issues with the implementation of Elements’ great concept. I think there’s a tension between the encyclopedic proffer “Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen” and what in reality is a quirky, personal ramble through a thin slice of the culinary world. I was put off in places by what Publishers Weekly has, I think correctly, described as Ruhlman’s “finger wagging,” and also by what came across to me as bursts of affected staccato machismo, for example, “Wrong. How to salt food. It's the most important skill you can have,” and “How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again.”

But these are quibbles. Elements is a book to celebrate. It is that rarest of things: an honest cookbook.

* * *

The opinions expressed here are those of the reviewer and not those of the Daily Gullet or the eGullet Society.

#70 eas

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Posted 21 November 2007 - 08:29 PM

To the point of the excerpt, veal stock demi-glace is a staple in the home kitchen and is rightly an exceptional foundation. Way back when dating, finding this in my now wife's fridge was a moment of great satisfaction (and relief).

The book is on the holiday list so will wait to see what Santa brings (and hopefully penned in the Heights). That and hopefully some anitique marrow spoons.

#71 annecros

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 02:22 AM

Well, we are certainly getting a foodie's slant on this book.

I was considering purchasing four - seriously. Each year I gift every one of my children with a cookbook or a food/reference sort of book. This is my evil plot to insure that someone will be able to feed me decently when I am old and toothless. Veal stock would do well in this application.

I'm wondering if I shouldn't go straight to McGee for them this year? Or will reading "Elements" stage them for McGee next Christmas? I mean, McGee is sort of intimidating.

They need something - as they have become dependent upon "Mom cooks that" sort of lazy eating. I would like for the eventual grandchildren to eat well.

Is this book Freshman material?

#72 Chris Amirault

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 06:22 AM

I think that's an excellent question, Anne, and one that none of us can probably answer effectively, given that we're hardly first-years around here. I'd like to know what the rest of the folks think. My two cents:

It's hard to tell if the tone and scope would be a problem for your charges, and the lack of illustrations would hamper a lot of the information for some. Its level of detail regarding the French tradition might strike your fam as a bit off base when, say, they find seven (or nine, depending on how you count) entries that start with "Beurre" but can't find "Beets."

The book is nothing like McGee, as Ruhlman makes clear. I think it's far more approachable than McGee: the categories are fewer, the research less detailed, and the overall feel more useable for a newer cook. But I think that the book doesn't give a new-ish cook all of the tools needed even for the topics covered.

Here's a good example: the one-page entry on "fat." Unlike McGee, Ruhlman doesn't require that you go through the index and several different pages throughout the book to get the information you're seeking (and you don't get a lot that a newer cook wouldn't want). Ruhlman covers many of the basics connected to flavor, cooking, the unsatur/satur/hydrogenated categories. However, like many entries, it's missing a crucial (one might say elemental) point: the importance of fat in producing the Maillard reaction when browning food on the stove. That's a lost opportunity, and particularly essential for those starting to cook who are prone to "save calories" by using insufficient amounts of fat in a thin, non-stick pan and likely to scorch their proteins instead of brown them.

edited to fix spelling error and clarify -- ca

Edited by chrisamirault, 22 November 2007 - 08:30 AM.

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#73 JAZ

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 06:54 AM

Anne, I see this book as being a possibly helpful addition to a basic library, so I think it depends on what other books you've given them and where their interests lie.

I don't think it's anything close to a main text for a beginning cook; the information is too random and is not always reliable.

#74 azlee

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 08:28 AM

I think that's an excellent question, Anne, and one that none of us can probably answer effectively, given that we're hardly first-years around here. I'd like to know what the rest of the folks think. My two cents:

It's hard to tell if the tone and scope would be a problem for your charges, and the lack of illustrations would hamper a lot of the information for some. Its level of detail regarding the French tradition might strike your fam as a bit off base when, say, they find seven (or nine, depending on how you countt) entries that start with "Beurre" but can't find "Beets."

The book is nothing like McGee, as Ruhlman makes clear. I think it's far more approachable than McGee: the categories are fewer, the research less detailed, and the overall feel more useable for a newer cook. But I think that the book doesn't give a new-ish cook all of the tools needed even for the topics covered.

Here's a good example: the one-page entry on "fat." Unlike McGee, Ruhlman doesn't require that you go through the index and several different pages throughout the book to get the information you're seeking (and you don't get a lot that a newer cook wouldn't want). Ruhlman covers many of the basics connected to flavor, cooking, the unsatur/satur/hydrogenated categories. However, like many entries, it's missing a crucial (one might say "elemental") point: the importance of fat in producing the Maillard reaction when browning food on the stove. That's a lost opportunity, and particularly essential for those starting to cook who are prone to "save calories" by using insufficient amounts of fat in a thin, non-stick the pan and scorch instead of brown.

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The Maillard reaction is a type of non-enzymatic browning which involves the reaction of carbohydrates (simple sugars) and proteins (amino acids). More specifically, is actually a complex series of reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars, usually (but not always) at increased temperatures. The reaction is responsible for changes in color and flavor in foods.

#75 hjshorter

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 09:59 AM

I don't think it's anything close to a main text for a beginning cook; the information is too random and is not always reliable.

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(emphasis mine) Do you mean the information isn't accurate?
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#76 JAZ

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 12:35 PM

I don't think it's anything close to a main text for a beginning cook; the information is too random and is not always reliable.

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(emphasis mine) Do you mean the information isn't accurate?

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I mean, more precisely, that it's often incomplete, and thus not reliable as a sole resource (for a beginner). You and I know something about cookware, but a beginner who reads:

Two heavy-gauge, stainless steel saute pans, one large, one small, with metal handles. A large, heavy-gauge stainless steel pot that holds between 6 and 8 quarts, and a small one that holds between 1-1/2 and 2 quarts. . . . That's it for pots and pans, those four are all you need forever.

and uses it as a guide to buying cookware will soon find out that "heavy-gauge stainless steel" isn't a material that cookware is typically made from. I'm sure that Mr. Ruhlman means heavy-gauge aluminum clad in stainless steel, but that's because I know cookware. A beginner isn't going to know that.

And if I pick an entry at random -- this one about mustard -- I read:

Not only a great condiment for a charcuterie platter or a hot dog, mustard is an all-purpose seasoning for sauces, if not a sauce itself -- combining pungency with acid and aromatics. . . . Mustard powders are ground mustard seeds. Coleman's mustard is a seed blend that's very pungent. Dijon is a blend of mustard powder and acid and aromatics. They're all very different. . . .


Again, you and I know when he's switching from talking about prepared mustard to mustard powder (Coleman's) and back again (Dijon), but will a beginner? It's not clear, and I think a text designed for a beginner has to be clear.

So that's what I mean by unreliable -- there's some interesting information in there, but previous culinary knowledge is necessary to evaluate it. In my opinion, it's simply not a very useful book for a beginner.

#77 hjshorter

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Posted 22 November 2007 - 02:08 PM

Thanks for the explanation, Janet. I am really looking forward to reading it.

Edited by hjshorter, 23 November 2007 - 11:15 AM.

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#78 Andy Lynes

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 08:44 AM

"heavy-gauge stainless steel" isn't a material that cookware is typically made from.

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I searched for "heavy-guage stainless steel pot" and this was the second result listed click.

#79 Andy Lynes

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 08:49 AM

Again, you and I know when he's switching from talking about prepared mustard to mustard powder (Coleman's) and back again (Dijon), but will a beginner?

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Coleman's sell prepared mustards we well as mustard powder so isn't the distinction irrelevant?

#80 mrsadm

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 10:36 AM

Fat Guy/Steven,

In your review you stated, "Most cookbooks are part of a big con designed to keep amateur cooks in the dark. The high priesthood of cookbook editors has been sending a loud and clear message to homemakers for a century: “You can’t handle the truth!”"

Can you explain that a bit further? Do you mean that good cooking requires hard work and that to sell cookbooks, that fact is hidden? Or that there really are *special secrets* that only the privileged few know? It seems Ruhlman's book tends toward the latter.
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#81 Jon Savage

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 10:56 AM

I've been enjoying the varied opinions and reviews in this thread. I'll be buying a copy simply because I really enjoy Ruhlman's writing.

Jon

 

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#82 slkinsey

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 01:20 PM

However, like many entries, [the entry on fat is] missing a crucial (one might say elemental) point: the importance of fat in producing the Maillard reaction when browning food on the stove. That's a lost opportunity, and particularly essential for those starting to cook who are prone to "save calories" by using insufficient amounts of fat in a thin, non-stick pan and likely to scorch their proteins instead of brown them.

I'm not sure how you mean this. Fat, of course, is not a required component of the Maillard reaction. On the other hand, fat is very useful in providing good thermal conduction from the pan to the protein, and may also facilitate Maillard reactions by, in effect, serving as a medium through though which the various components necessary for the Maillard reaction are introduced to one another (e.g., one often finds that the second piece of meat browned in the pan browns more rapidly than the first -- this is because the pan contains Maillard precursors from the previous piece).

I suppose your post reinforces somewhat the point that you and Janet are making: that books, or posts, that presuppose certain knowledge may also be perceived to contain certain "holes" (cookbooks from 150 years ago clearly presupposed a lot more basic cooking knowledge than they do today, with instructions such as "prepare in the usual way," etc.). All of which is to say the section of text I quote above demonstrates that it's harder to write something "without holes" than one might suppose, considering that most readers would take the above to mean that fat is a necessary chemical component of the Maillard reaction.
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#83 azlee

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 01:45 PM

However, like many entries, [the entry on fat is] missing a crucial (one might say elemental) point: the importance of fat in producing the Maillard reaction when browning food on the stove. That's a lost opportunity, and particularly essential for those starting to cook who are prone to "save calories" by using insufficient amounts of fat in a thin, non-stick pan and likely to scorch their proteins instead of brown them.

I'm not sure how you mean this. Fat, of course, is not a required component of the Maillard reaction. On the other hand, fat is very useful in providing good thermal conduction from the pan to the protein, and may also facilitate Maillard reactions by, in effect, serving as a medium through though which the various components necessary for the Maillard reaction are introduced to one another (e.g., one often finds that the second piece of meat browned in the pan browns more rapidly than the first -- this is because the pan contains Maillard precursors from the previous piece).

I suppose your post reinforces somewhat the point that you and Janet are making: that books, or posts, that presuppose certain knowledge may also be perceived to contain certain "holes" (cookbooks from 150 years ago clearly presupposed a lot more basic cooking knowledge than they do today, with instructions such as "prepare in the usual way," etc.). All of which is to say the section of text I quote above demonstrates that it's harder to write something "without holes" than one might suppose, considering that most readers would take the above to mean that fat is a necessary chemical component of the Maillard reaction.

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slkinsey,
Your point is well made and exactly what I was driving at when I provided a definition of the Maillard reaction. While the addition of fat can affect the timing of the reaction it is certainly not a required component for the reaction. More critical would probably be some clarification of the differences between the Maillard reaction and carmelization. I haven't read Ruhlman's book yet, and so I do not know if he addresses that topic in the book.

#84 Chris Amirault

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 02:33 PM

I'm not sure how you mean this. Fat, of course, is not a required component of the Maillard reaction.  On the other hand, fat is very useful in providing good thermal conduction from the pan to the protein, and may also facilitate Maillard reactions by, in effect, serving as a medium through though which the various components necessary for the Maillard reaction are introduced to one another (e.g., one often finds that the second piece of meat browned in the pan browns more rapidly than the first -- this is because the pan contains Maillard precursors from the previous piece).


That's right. I was underexplaining in that sentence you quoted, surmising that most of us know about the conduction properties of fat in a skillet and that fat isn't required for browning. But that knowledge you detail here is not common knowledge for the cook just starting out.

I suppose your post reinforces somewhat the point that you and Janet are making: that books, or posts, that presuppose certain knowledge may also be perceived to contain certain "holes" (cookbooks from 150 years ago clearly presupposed a lot more basic cooking knowledge than they do today, with instructions such as "prepare in the usual way," etc.).  All of which is to say the section of text I quote above demonstrates that it's harder to write something "without holes" than one might suppose, considering that most readers would take the above to mean that fat is a necessary chemical component of the Maillard reaction.


Another good point -- and I'll also add here that I don't think Ruhlman is claiming to write The Book for Newbies. I was addressing the question Anne posed.

I mean, let's face it: there's nothing without holes. Every book on cooking has to make certain decisions about its presumed audience and then explain certain obvious things while presupposing others. I've found the cookbooks that Ruhlman has (co-)written have done a very good job of targeting this particular reader (especially The French Laundry Cookbook and Charcuterie), and the balance between useful detail and overkill has often been spot-on. Having said that, I now crave far greater curing and sausage-making detail than Charcuterie provides, and the "holes" in the book are far more annoying.

Given the fact that Charcutierie is precisely the book that developed my skills sufficiently to form that critique, such annoyance is minor and possibly even unfair. As an introduction to the craft, Charcutierie delivered on its promise. My beef with Elements is that, for me, it does not do the same.
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#85 Fat Guy

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Posted 23 November 2007 - 08:59 PM

Do you mean that good cooking requires hard work and that to sell cookbooks, that fact is hidden?  Or that there really are *special secrets* that only the privileged few know?

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It's more a question of paternalism mixed with pandering. The US publishing industry has decided, for example, that home cooks can't handle measuring dry ingredients by weight, so nearly all non-professional cookbooks published here contain less accurate volume measures. Countless times, I've heard editors and authors say things like, "Oh, home cooks will never make stock," and "Oh, home cooks will never weigh ingredients." As a result, mainstream cookbooks don't actually give you the tools you need. Ruhlman's book tries, with mixed success, to give everybody those tools.

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#86 annecros

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 06:51 AM

Thanks Chris and Janet for the input. I guess I'll need to read it myself to determine if it is applicable.

It is odd that my perception of where this book's niche is not in my collection (I have no problem finding a recipe for veal stock) but in my children's. It would be nice to demystify some things for them, and they tend to not take my word on some things.

"Sure, stock making is easy for YOU mom." as they roll their eyes.

I'm not sure where I got that perception from - probably a combination of the marketing, Ruhlman's own words, and the reviews here - and since I have never read the book, perhaps I am wrong.

But, let's face it, in the world of sales - perception is reality.

#87 Hombre

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 05:37 AM

As an enthusiastic home cook, I’m finding this book useful and entertaining. The Salt essay struck home as my wife and I too often take a first bite, look at each other, and say “more salt!” The recommendation to “salt early in the cooking process, whether seasoning meat or seasoning a soup” was a jolt, as mom taught me to season just before serving.

The Stock essay’s emphasis on veal stock was also surprising (and pretty convincing to me). So how do you get veal bones? Mr. Ruhlman offered some tips upthread that would have been helpful in the book. Frankly, I would also have appreciated a sentence or two on the ethics of eating veal. It’s not something I’m informed about, and would have liked an opinion on the subject.

Some of the criticisms here based on Michael Ruhlman’s comment about this book being “everything” a cook needs to know in the kitchen seem a bit harsh to me. Like The Elements of Style by Strunk, this is one guy’s take on the most important elements of a particular craft. It’s not encyclopedic. But there’s a lot to learn from this book for people like me who want to cook better. Worrying that it doesn’t measure up to the promised “everything” is like dismissing The Elements of Style for not being the Chicago Manual of Style. Which would you rather read?

#88 Andy Lynes

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 05:47 AM

In the Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman breaks the code of silence.

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If there is a "code of silence", which I don't really accept is the case, then Ruhlman broke it a long time ago with Soul of a Chef, The French Laundry Cookbook or A Return to Cooking.

#89 Fat Guy

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 08:04 AM

Not only do those books not contain anything near the collection of information Elements provides -- perhaps bits and pieces, but nothing approaching it -- but also they are categorically different from Elements. That's why Ruhlman wrote Elements instead of saying "See my other books."

Like The Elements of Style by Strunk, this is one guy’s take on the most important elements of a particular craft.

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I think both Elements set out to do something similar. The difference is that Strunk and White implement the concept brilliantly, and they therefore created a book for the ages. It is as comprehensive as a little volume can be, and it truly can catapult a beginning writer forward (and has done so for many). Every time I look at Strunk and White, I'm amazed at how much essential information is packed in there. It really is the one book you want to give to someone looking to advance. It really does replace books many times its size by separating the wheat from the chaff and focusing on the key essentials.

Ruhlman's implementation of the concept is weak by comparison. It promises more than Strunk and White, and delivers far, far less. I can't see why anybody would think it's unfair to point that out. Rather, I think it's a disservice not to point it out. Ruhlman took a brilliant concept and implemented it in a not-so-brilliant way. I'm glad he invented and wrote this book, but wish he had done a better job.

If you enjoy Rulman's writing, you'll enjoy this book. If you want to read some interesting albeit scattered insights on classical cooking technique, you'll get something out of Elements. If you want to see a few myths busted, I think that's the strongest element of Elements. But if you want a book that does what Elements says it's going to do, you'll find that Elements fails to deliver. Simple as that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#90 annecros

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Posted 25 November 2007 - 08:21 AM

It is incredibly audacious to set out to write a reference based upon the Strunk and White model.

Hell, I was a clueless advertorial writer for a small town newspaper in the early 1990's, and by God my publisher practically smacked me across the face with "Elements of Style" and I am so glad he did. We only paid lip service to it in college, and I was an English major and a personal pet of the creative writing people. If it were not for Strunk and White, I would not have been nearly as successful in my first real, live writing job. I sold a bunch of ad space. I also figured out how to break the rules in an effective manner. I owe those old guys a hat tip for all that.

I think that "Elements of Style" became what it is after publication. Essential. It is incredibly difficult to set out to write an essential reference from the get go.

Good on Ruhlman for taking it on. It is a high bar to set for one's self. I would be pretty sure I could jump it before announcing it, though.

But then again, maybe it is like quitting smoking. Other people's expectations are what makes it happen. If you announce it, you are obligated to follow through.