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The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchenby Michael Ruhlman
I remember clearly the moment I heard it — a bright Saturday afternoon, on the phone, seated at my desk in our old house. The truth of the news struck me like a spike. I was working with Thomas Keller on the proposal for what would become The French Laundry Cookbook. Relatively new to the world of professional cooking, I asked, "What's the most important thing for a cook to know in your kitchen?"
He paused, then said, "Seasoning."
"What do you mean, seasoning?"
"Salt and pepper." He paused again. "Salt, really."
"The most important thing for a cook to know is how to salt food?"
"That's right," he said.
The truth of it would only deepen as I continued to explore the craft of cooking. 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. Same with the water you boil pasta in. Before culinary school, I'd salted pasta water by putting a pinch into a giant pot of water. I don't know what I thought that was going to do — if I'd given it even two seconds of consideration, I'd have had to conclude that the salt had absolutely no effect. My instructor explained that our pasta water should taste like properly seasoned soup. This would ensure perfectly seasoned pasta. Or rice, for that matter.
We learned 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.
So even from the outset of learning to cook properly I had discovered that I wasn't doing one of the most routine kitchen acts, salting food correctly. Keller said it was one of the first things they taught new cooks at The French Laundry. I scarcely thought about it — salt had been an afterthought. That's what the salt shaker on the table's for, right?
Wrong. How to salt food. It's the most important skill you can have.
After my conversation with Keller nearly ten years ago, I paid a lot of attention to salt and how people used it. I also listened to the ubiquitous health warnings about the overconsumption of salt. I even wound up writing a book largely about salting food, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.
Judy Rodgers was the first chef I knew to address this matter head-on in her Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Common wisdom had always been that if you salted food early, it dried the food out. Looks that way. Salt a steak and a few hours later it's sitting in a puddle of red juices. But in fact the perpetual osmotic effect of salt enhances juiciness by changing the cell structure so that it holds more moisture. Salt also enhances the flavor of the meat by thoroughly penetrating it. And it dissolves the sticky protein myosin, so that in ground preparations — hamburger, sausage — the meat holds together.
Rodgers urges cooks to salt food early. The bigger the food is, the more salt it needs, and the more time with the salt that it needs. This is uniformly important with meat, but less so with fish; some fish is delicious after it's been packed in salt (salmon or cod) but some flesh is so delicate the salt can damage it if used too early. And it can even be true of vegetables. Vegetables with large watery cells are enhanced by early salting, such as onions, eggplant, peppers.
Rodgers learned about salt from French mentors for whom salt was not simply a seasoning. To them salt was, she writes, "the thing that keeps you from starving." Indeed, salt's role as humankind's all-purpose preserver of food — allowing for a surplus of food, food that could serve as a basis for an economy, food that could feed crews on ships during extended explorations — makes it one of the most influential substances on earth.
Salt should never be an afterthought.
Salt and your health:
Salt is so critical to our health that we have developed an extraordinary capacity for tasting it — in order to regulate it. When we eat natural foods, that is unprocessed foods or processed foods containing only a few ingredients, we can use as much or as little salt as tastes good to us and do so without health concerns. Salt has become a problem in this country because we rely on heavily processed food (food that comes in boxes and plastic bags), which is infused with salt we don't necessarily detect, and we can easily consume far more than our body needs.
Some people have problems with high blood pressure and hypertension and must restrict salt intake. But generally speaking, salt is not bad for you. If you eat a lot of processed food, salt might be a problem, along with other health concerns. If you are healthy and eat good food, you should feel free to salt food to levels that taste good.
How to salt food:
There are only a few dictates when using salt. Use kosher salt, which is both economical and available everywhere, or sea salt, or another specialty salt if you wish. Never use iodized salt (iodide deficiency is no longer a problem in this country). Salt early in the cooking process, whether seasoning meat or seasoning a soup. Taste your food continually throughout the cooking and season it appropriately as you go.
Most meat can be salted as soon as you get it, regardless of when you intend to cook it. Salting meat as early as possible not only allows the salt to distribute itself throughout the meat, it keeps the meat fresher. Salt prohibits the growth of microbes responsible for food's going bad.
Ironically, you need to be careful about salting creatures that lived in saltwater. Some fish is so delicate salt crystals will "burn" the flesh rather than distribute itself through it (scallops are a good example; they should be seasoned shortly before cooking).
There are two levels of salted water. Heavily salted water is used for boiling green vegetables and anything else that is not going to absorb a lot of the water. Moderately salted water, water that simply tastes seasoned, is used for rehydrating foods, such as pasta, rice, and legumes. See salted water in the glossary for recommended quantities.
Brine — salt dispersed throughout a very dense medium — is an extremely effective salt delivery system, infusing food uniformly, predictably, and quickly. A good ratio for a brine is between six and eight ounces of salt per gallon of water; the stronger it is, the faster it works. The water can also be infused with aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices; the salt helps to carry this flavor into the meat. Food that has been brined benefits from resting outside the brine before it's cooked so that the salt concentration, heavier at the exterior, equalizes throughout the meat (not dissimilar from allowing meat to rest after it comes out of the oven).
Preserving with salt:
Just about anything can be preserved with salt — meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit — with varying results in terms of quality and culinary uses. Pork is the meat most often preserved because it tastes so good. You can preserve beef tenderloin but why would you? Better to preserve a beef brisket (called corned beef, or, if smoked and spiced, pastrami).
Food can be preserved in dry salt. Bacon, salt cod, and duck breast are items typically cured this way. And it can be cured in a brine — Canadian bacon (pork loin), beef brisket, and vegetables. And some food starts out in a dry cure but releases so much liquid, a brine is created — salmon, cabbage (sauerkraut).
Even a sprinkling of salt, as if you were simply seasoning the food, has curing effects. Meat can be dredged in salt and left to cure. As much as a cup of salt per gallon will make a good curing brine. For natural pickles, that is a pickle that creates its own acid through fermentation, a precise 50 grams of salt per liter of water is perfect (a little less than 2 ounces, about a quarter cup of Morton's kosher salt, per quart).
All food behaves a little differently in salt. Ultimately you have to pay attention. Taste. Remember. Salt, taste, remember. Learn your own salt levels in cooking. Put a little soup or stock in a bowl and salt it, then compare the salted against the unsalted. Taste an unsalted tomato, then taste it with salt. Teach yourself about the effects of salt.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Ruhlman
Biscuit: a type of cake made with flour and liquid, approximately a 3 to 2 ratio, with solid fat first "rubbed" into the flour before the water is added as with a pie dough or pÂte brisÉe. They can be free-form or rolled and cut. Some of its leavening comes from the fact that the fat remains in chunks and separates layers of dough (in the same way a pie crust becomes flaky).
Bisque: A thick, creamy, crustacean-based soup. Once bread-thickened, bisques are now more commonly thickened with roux. Restaurant menus and contemporary cookbooks occasionally use the word to describe a non-shellfish-based soup such as a vegetable puree. This usage is what H. W. Fowler, a respected commentator on English usage, would have called a slipshod extension; when bisque becomes simply a synonym for "thick and creamy," its meaning is diminished; thick, creamy vegetable purees should be called purees; thick, creamy shellfish soups should be called bisques.
Bistro: A word that has become a virtual synonym for "casual" when referring to restaurant styles, and therefore all but meaningless, bistro should be used to describe a style of restaurant that originated in Paris in the early nineteenth century. A bistro was then and remains today a restaurant serving economical French fare including sandwiches, egg dishes, soups, stews, roasts, and quickly prepared dishes using inexpensive ingredients (dishes that can meaningfully be grouped under the heading bistro cuisine).
Bivalves: Bivalves — clams, mussels, oysters — can be eaten raw or cooked. Clams and mussels are best simply steamed until they open, often with some white wine, garlic, and thyme. Oysters are prized as a raw food (it may be the only creature we commonly eat while it's still alive), but they can be broiled, roasted, fried, or used as a component in any number of dishes. All bivalves are filter-feeders and often trap toxins; it's not unwise to know where they came from and how they've been handled and, once you have them, keep them cold and eat them fresh. With all bivalves, freshness is paramount — the sooner you get them once they've left the water, the better.
Bladder (pig's): the sturdy sac is an extraordinary cooking vessel (to enclose, for example, a stuffed chicken in the dish poulet en vessie) and further proof of the pig's elegant efficiency.
Blanch: This word has several different meanings depending on who's using it, so it almost always needs some qualification or explanation. Technically, to blanch means to plunge a fruit into boiling water for a minute or less to make the skin easy to peel (as with a tomato or a peach) or to change, or "set," a green vegetable's color from flat to vivid green while keeping it, in effect, raw. Some kitchens use the word to mean parboil, to cook a vegetable halfway, then shock it so that it can be finished later. French fries are often blanched in low temperature oil so that they can be finished quickly (and crisply) in hot oil later. Many chefs use it to mean plunging a vegetable into heavily salted water that's at a rolling boil (1 cup of kosher salt per gallon is a good ratio), fully cooking that vegetable, then removing it to an ice water bath (see shock). To blanch can also mean to cover bones with cold water and bring them to a boil, then strain and rinse them in order to clean them for a white stock.
Blanquette: A blanquette is a white stew, often veal, in which the meat is first blanched to prevent impurities from compromising the cooking liquid, notable for its elegance and refinement. A fricasse, by contrast, is a white stew in which the meat has been sautÉed without color to begin the preparation.
Bleach: Keeping a mild bleach solution for occasional use is a good way to keep boards, countertops, and sponges sterile. Clorox recommends 3 tablespoons per gallon of water for a kitchen cleaning solution. Bleach is volatile, so make such a solution regularly in small quantities.
Blender: A blender is one of the most important tools in the kitchen, used for making soups, sauces, and quick emulsified butter sauces, emulsifying vinaigrettes, and pureeing food for drinks. It can even be used in conjunction with a chinois in place of a vegetable juicer (vegetables can be pureed in a blender and the liquid passed through the sieve). (See also immersion blender.)
Blind bake: Blind bake means to bake a pastry shell or pie crust before it's filled. When a pie shell or pÂte brisÉe is to be filled with a liquid mixture (a quiche, for example) or a mixture not to be cooked, the shell must be baked first. In order to prevent the bottom of the shell buckling up, some kind of weight is put into the shell to keep it flat as it cooks. Pie weights are made expressly for this purpose and are convenient, but a pound of dried beans on top of a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil will work just as well.
Blood: Blood can be either a detriment or an asset. In stock and stews, it's an impurity we take out, usually after it has coagulated and floated to the top early in the cooking. But toward the end of cooking, blood can be added to a sauce to thicken and enrich it (often in the case of game birds and game stews such as civet). And in certain sausages blood is the defining ingredient; its delicate, custard-like texture, and rich, deep flavor make an extraordinary sausage called boudin noir (black pudding).
Bloom: 1) Bloom can mean to hydrate gelatin, which, whether powdered or in sheets, must absorb water before it can be melted and added to whatever it is you're thickening or gelling. 2) Sometimes chefs refer to putting spices or aromatics in oil so that they bloom, or release their flavor into the oil. 3) Bloom can refer to beneficial flora that can grow on some fruits and vegetables (grapes, cabbage). 4) Bloom can refer to the chalky white coating (separated cocoa butter) of improperly stored chocolate.
Body: What we mean when we say that a liquid has body is that it has a degree of weight and texture on the palate. Body does not reflect flavor. Think of water as the zero mark — water has zero body. If the liquid has almost the feel of water, it's doesn't have much body. If it feels more substantial, say a rich chicken stock, then we say it has body.
Boil, boiling, boiling point: About the only foods that should be boiled are green vegetables, vegetables needing peeling, bones for white stock (see blanch), and pasta — that is, items requiring the highest possible moist heat. In most other instances, and even sometimes in these instances, the high heat and vigorous agitation of boiling water cooks exteriors too fast, breaks things apart, and emulsifies impurities into the cooking liquid, effects that a cook should be aware of. This is why potatoes and dried beans should be cooked gently, why stocks are cooked at a mere tremble.
The boiling point — the temperature above which water cannot rise — is another idea to be conscious of and to put to use, most notably in the form of a water bath, a bain-marie; vessels (including food wrapped in plastic) can be cooked in water to ensure steady gentle cooking.
It should be noted, too, when even a small amount of water is in a pan, any food touching that water cannot be heated above the boiling point, 212°F; you can't sear or brown meat if there's water in your pan.
Bone marrow: An underappreciated ingredient in the kitchen, bone marrow makes an extraordinary garnish to a sauce, or it can be cooked and spread on a toast point as a canapÉ; it will flavor a savory custard or can be served roasted in the bone, seasoned with coarse salt, and served as an accompaniment to a beef dish. It should be soaked in salted water to remove residual blood, which will discolor and coagulate when it's cooked.
Bone out: To bone out is chef-speak for "remove the bones from" or to describe meat that has had the bones removed (e.g., a boned-out leg of lamb).
Bones: Bones are valuable because they are composed mainly of connective tissue that adds gelatin, and therefore body, to stocks, stews, soups, and braising liquids. Bones don't contribute good flavor, so they are almost always used in conjunction with flavorful ingredients such as meat and vegetables. Bones of animals bigger than chickens are often roasted or blanched before being used to make stock to coagulate the surface protein and reduce the amount of impurities released into the liquid, and, in the case of roasting, to add flavor.
Botulism: Botulism is a serious kind of food poisoning caused by the toxin released by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which only grows in an oxygen-free, warm, low-acid environment, such as in a can, food held in oil in jars, such as garlic, and dry-cured or smoked sausages. It is prevented in canning by rigorous sterilization and in food by sodium nitrite. The three important parts of the botulism equation are these: botulism spores, abundant in soil, are not toxic, nor are they easy to kill; given a room temperature oxygen-free environment — canned beans, a hanging sausage — the spores can produce the bacteria, which aren't dangerous in themselves. But give the bacteria the conditions and time to multiply, and they will produce the deadly toxin, which is immobilized only at high temperatures. (See also bacteria.)
Boudin, blanc and noir [boo-DEHN blahnk, nwoir]: Boudin blanc and boudin noir are special kinds of sausages with a delicate texture — pudding-like, thus the name boudin. Boudin blanc is typically made with pork and an abundance of egg and cream and seasoned with quatre Épices, and is distinct from Cajun boudin blanc, which is seasoned differently and often contains rice. The primary ingredient for boudin noir is pig's blood, which solidifies and binds interior garnish such as onion, apple, and diced, blanched fatback.
Bouillon: Bouillon is the French term for broth.
Bouquet garni [boo-KAY gar-NEE]: A bouquet garni is a bundle of aromatics bound together with butcher's string so that it can be easily removed from the food, like a sachet d'Épices, after it's flavored the food. It customarily includes parsley, thyme, bay leaf, leeks, celery, or other aromatics.
Brains: See offal.
Braise, braising: To braise means to sear meat in hot fat, then submerge it in liquid and cook it slowly and gently. The method is used for tough cuts of meat, shoulders and shanks, muscles with a lot of connective tissue that must slowly be dissolved into gelatin before the meat will be tender. It's sometimes called a combination cooking method, using dry heat (that is, very hot fat) followed by moist heat (lower than boiling temperatures). Compare with stew, which does not necessarily imply searing, and usually refers to the cooking of smaller pieces of meat.
The key factors of excellence in braising are these: Meat is seared for flavor, color, texture, and for clarity of the cooking liquid. Raw meat cooked in liquid will release blood and proteins as a kind of gray scum. Meat can either be blanched (as in a blanquette) or seared; both methods diminish the amount of impurities that wind up in the finished stew. Meat is first seasoned with salt and pepper, floured, then seared in a pan large enough to give the meat room and also retain enough heat to brown the meat. Using too small a pan will crowd the meat, thereby trapping moisture, and cool the pan so that the meat steams rather than browns. The second step is to combine the meat, stock, and aromats, bring the liquid to a gentle simmer on the stovetop, then cover, loosely, with a lid or with parchment paper (which allows some reduction of the stock, and keeps the liquid from boiling vigorously; a covered pot in the oven will be about 20 degrees hotter than an uncovered one; see McGee), and put it in an oven no higher than 300°F. The liquid should not boil — the ideal temperature in fact is about 180°F. The meat should be cooked until it is fork tender (braises are overcooked when the liquid has leached all the meat's flavor and the meat has become dry and stringy), then allowed to cool while still submerged in the liquid. Last, the fat should be removed from the braising liquid either by skimming it off immediately or by chilling the braise and allowing the fat to congeal, which makes it easier to remove. Braises should be gently reheated and always served very hot. (See also stew.)
Brandade: See salt cod.
Brandy: Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine; the best tend to be from the Cognac and Armagnac regions in France. Brandy is a powerful flavoring device, not only for adding to custards and flaming over sweet crepes, but also in savory preparations, such as for a country pÂtÉ. As with any alcohol used in cooking, quality matters. Use in your food only alcohol that is excellent to drink on its own.
Bread: The quality of bread is expressed through its aroma, color, density, crust, crumb, and flavor. Pay attention to these attributes when buying bread. Breads can be categorized in terms of lean doughs (doughs that don't use fats) and doughs that use a variety of additional ingredients that may include eggs and fat, which tend to make the dough softer, and sweeteners and flavorings. Breads are also distinguished by the type of flour used — whether it's refined, or whole wheat, or rye, the latter two making a denser, more nutritious bread. We tend to think of bread on its own, eaten as is or as an independent part of a dish, for a sandwich, for croutons, or even saturated with a custard and baked to make bread pudding. But remember that bread, often in the form of crumbs, is a versatile ingredient, beyond coating items for frying, one that thickens or gives texture to sauces and soups, eggs, and salads. For this you should use fresh crumbs you make yourself. To make your own crumbs, avoid flavored breads and breads using fats or eggs. Use lean breads such as a country loaf with a high ratio of crumb to crust. The best bread for crumbs is day-old bread. Remove the crust and process in a food processor, spread the crumbs on a sheet pan, and toast them gently in the oven until golden brown (avoid the common problem of burning them by keeping your oven at 225°F or lower, below Maillard browning temperatures).
Bread flour: See flour.
Breading, standard procedure: The procedure for breading food that is to be fried is common: flour the item so that it is completely dry, dip it in egg, which clings to the flour, then dip it in bread crumbs, which stick to the egg. While the order and logic of standard breading procedure rarely varies, the details can vary greatly. The flour can be all-purpose, whole wheat, almond, or a pure starch such as cornstarch. The egg can be lightened with water or seasoned. The bread crumbs too can be seasoned; they can be soft bread crumbs or hard bread crumbs (see panko), or they can be substituted with another cereal or a ground nut. Given standard procedure, breading is open to the imagination.
Break, broken: When ingredients that do not readily join have been combined into a homogenous mixture, we call this an emulsion, and when the various ingredients separate from each other, we call this emulsion broken. Butter is an emulsion, and if you get it hot in a pan, it will break, the clear fat separating from the water and milk solids that were once held homogenously. Preparations that commonly break are emulsified sauces, a hollandaise, or a mayonnaise, fat emulsified into a small amount of water and egg yolk — when, in a once creamy luxurious sauce, the fat breaks out of the water and recombines with itself into a soup of fat. The reasons for such a sauce's breaking is typically that too much fat is added; too much heat will also break an emulsified butter sauce; an improperly mixed sauce will be unstable and may break. Broken sauces can be fixed by beginning the emulsion anew, starting with new yolks and adding the broken sauce as you would the fat; the emulsification should return. (See McGee for a thorough description of the structure of an emulsion.) Meat mixtures such as sausages and pÂtÉs in which the fat is distributed uniformly throughout are considered to be emulsions, and this too can be broken when it is cooked — the fat separating from the rest of the mixture. The cause for this is commonly that the meat and fat got too hot before they were mixed together or during mixing. A broken forcemeat such as this, however, cannot be fixed after it's been cooked.
Break down: To break something down is butchering vernacular for reducing larger cuts or whole animals to individual cuts.
Brigade [bri-GOD]: The brigade system, described by the French chef Auguste Escoffier, organizes the professional kitchen in terms of duties; each chef is assigned to a particular task — one to the preparation and cooking of fish (poissonier), another to sauces (saucier), general preparations (commis), et cetera — to make the work more efficient.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Ruhlman
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