When I first heard about the Elements of Cooking - from Ruhlman's blog, no less, gotta love the old blogosphere - I was completely intrigued. At first, the idea of the cookbook seemed a little mundane - revisiting the classics, etc. etc., but this book is about reinterpreting the cooking of the chef for the home cook. Frequently, for those who have never trained as a chef (or line cook or even server, for that matter) can lack a fundamental understanding of just what it is which makes restaurant food so good, and so much better than home cooking. It's something Bourdain touches on in Kitchen Confidential (it appears I am incapable of reviewing any book without somehow referencing Bourdain. I wonder what that means), when he talks about why you can't cook better than a chef. Home cooks make lots of mistakes - using cheap, old, or inadequate ingredients, overcooking everything, being afraid of high heat, strange ingredients, or strange shopping locales, being intimidated by fishmongers or butchers, being afraid to ask questions, all sorts of things. This book confronts all of those fears. And it points out a few you might not realize you have.
The book begins by explaining a few basic ingredients in great detail - stock, eggs, butter. It explains why you need the very best of each ingredient, it tries to explain the importance of veal stock - I think it's one of those things you just have to use to understand; most people have no idea how much veal stock they consume, as it is a base in many meat-accompanying sauces in restaurants. Using stock as a base, many different types of sauces and other ways to use stock are discussed. This section also goes into great detail about salt - how to salt, how to salt water for starch or green vegetables, how to brine. This section is of particular interest because many home cooks are afraid to salt heavily, especially when cooking starches. The different types of heat are also discussed - dry heat, steaming vs. boiling, braising, etc.
The remainder of the book is an alphabetical listing of cooking terms and helpful hints. When I say helpful hints, I'm not being trite. There are tips for making your own croutons, buying meat, and cutting vegetables. Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the book is in translating "chef" cooking terms for the home cook. There are lots of terms restaurant people and cooks tend to throw around which the lay person might not immediately understand. Even I am guilty of doing this in recipes, I think - I might say "deglaze the pan with 1/2 bottle of red wine," because I think everyone knows what deglazing is. Or exactly what "nonreactive" or "reduce" mean. There are also helpful hints I always think of writing about, but never do, such as "Keep a Sharpie on hand in the kitchen and label and date your food," a favorite trick of mine, being that I have the worst memory.
There are very practical hints for buying cookware - what you really need, such as a chef's knife and a good, large saute pan.
The book can also help diners parse out menu terms; rouille, jus, cured, sous vide - even terms such as saute or risotto, which I am always amazed when diners don't recognize - are explained in great detail along with advice on how to use these terms in one's own kitchen.
The book also includes a list of Ruhlman's own favorite sources, many of which I also have constantly at hand, which should be used as a guideline for any wannabe foodie. Occasionally I will be talking to a table and I'll start to discuss some term or cooking method, and a guest at the table will say "How do you know that?" and I'll just shrug and say "Harold McGee." Ruhlman also sites McGee a lot, typically with a (see McGee) at the end of a statement, something I plan to copy.
Elements is an extremely accessible and very smart kitchen companion. It can be read cover to cover or in fits and starts. I highly recommend it for any home cook who wishes to move from the level of casserole to cassoulet.