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BOOK REVIEW

Learn to cook by understanding the concept

‘Twenty’ stirs insights, advice into its recipes

DONNA TURNER RUHLMAN

Michael Ruhlman latest cookbook, “Ruhlman’s Twenty,’’ mixes rigor, thoughtful tips, and real decadence among his recipes.

If you are a food geek, you have probably heard of Michael Ruhlman and his ratios. Although Ruhlman has a pedigree of over a dozen books, it was “Ratio’’ (2010) that brought his approach - and its promise of cookbook-free accuracy and smarter kitchen skills - to the mainstream.

The 20 in “Ruhlman’s Twenty’’ are, at first glance, arbitrary. Some (water, salt, eggs, butter) are ingredients. Others (grill, roast, braise, fry) are techniques. Still others are more complex kitchen standbys (batter, dough, soup). And there is that first one: Think.

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The one-word chapter titles give their subject a borrowed profundity which I found rather infectious. Looking at my pencil, I thought: “Yellow.’’ “Hexagon.’’ “Graphite.’’ “Write.’’ But in the end, it’s just a pencil.

Because the recipes are illustrative of “Ruhlman’s Twenty’’ concepts, there is a certain randomness to how they are assigned to the chapters. “Perfect Roast Chicken,’’ for example, is under Roast, but it could as easily go under Salt, or maybe Onion, and definitely Think.

Regardless of category, the roast chicken recipe is a solid rendition of a classic recipe. As you would expect, Ruhlman’s technique for this simple dish is impeccable, and in his preceding essay he takes the trouble to explain what is behind the standard elements: the liberal salting, the high heat, the trussing, even how to judge when it’s done. I had less luck with his pan sauce; the recipe called for cooking the juices down over high heat for a minute, but the liquids from my bird were mainly fat, not juice, and my sauce had a distinct burned flavor. Surely every bird is differently juicy, I thought.

With a basic understanding of kitchen chemistry, you can make ingenious, simple dishes: In a raw zucchini salad, for example, salt the julienned zucchini shreds briefly to give them the perfect flavor and crunch; they become neither as greenly aggressive as the raw item or as damp and wilting as the cooked. The recipe comes in the “Salt’’ chapter, and “Salt,’’ you soon realize, is a verb, like “Roast,’’ which follows several chapters later.

Many home cooks roast vegetables, but roasting can also produce spicy green beans with cumin, with good color and vibrant seasoning.

I liked the thoughtful tips Ruhlman provides in the “Grill’’ section for a branzino with fennel, lemon, and shallot. Enclose the stuffing with toothpicks if you wish, oil the rack, use an instant-read thermometer to judge the doneness; count on 5 minutes to let the fish rest while you finish everything else. You get the feeling that despite his analytical tendencies, Ruhlman’s a practical, real-life cook who gets just as flummoxed as you do when the skin sticks to the grill.

Indeed, for all its rigor, “Ruhlman’s Twenty’’ has moments of real decadence. Butter-poached shrimp with grits calls for a full two sticks of butter (that would be for four people), and even the butter-lovingest among us didn’t feel our sprightliest afterward.

Braised pork belly, a sumptuary violation all on its own, is gilded with a caramel-miso glaze enticing enough to make it very difficult to stop eating. Also in the “best taken in small quantities’’ category: a caramel pecan ice cream so studded with praline that it rivals the cone for crunch.

No one could accuse Ruhlman of being an ascetic. Neither is he an innovator, at least in this book, with its carefully dissected, iconic meatloafs and pulled porks, onion soups and cheesecakes. But that’s exactly its charm. If “Ratio’’ appealed to the food geek, “Twenty’’ appeals to the perfectionist - the cook who has to know the reason behind every move she habitually makes at the stove. And if those moves are illustrated with step-by-step photographs and expository narrative, so much the better. Because when it comes to schooling, a cook’s education is never done.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.
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