Ruhlman on Recipes Recipe

A passage about recipes from author Michael Ruhlmans new book, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen.

Ruhlman on Recipes

101 Cookbooks is a website about recipes. And while each new entry on the site culminates in a new recipe, the whole endeavor is rooted in something more. It is the 'something more' that gets me excited to share with you every few days. To me this is a website about recipes, but I hope it also functions as a site about creative thinking, a site that inspires others to search for their own culinary point-of-view, and a place to share ideas and experiences. In my life recipes are so much more than a simple set of instructions - they are confidence builders, teaching tools, a way to invite some of the worlds great cooks into my own kitchen, and among other things, a way preserve the memory of a loved one. The recipes are the heart of the site around which everything else circulates. I came across great essay on recipes in Michael Ruhlman's new book and wanted to share it with you before we all dive headfirst into the holiday cooking season. Here's what he has to say:

Recipes: 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. Recipes are sheet music. A Bach cello suite can be performed at a beginner’s level or given extraordinary interpretation by Yo-Yo Ma—same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.

How to use a good recipe: First read it and think about it. Cook it in your mind. Envision what it will look like when you serve it. Try to know the outcome before you begin. Read a recipe all the way through not only to understand it generally, but to make your work more efficient and to avoid making errors or taking unnecessary steps. Perhaps a dough needs to chill for an hour in the middle of a preparation, perhaps meat needs to be salted for twenty-four hours, or a liquid must be simmered, then cooled. The recipe suggests adding the flour, baking powder, and salt one at a time, but perhaps you can combine all the dry ingredients ahead of time while you’re waiting for the butter to get to room temperature so you can cream it with the eggs. Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time and prevent errors.

Measure out or prep all your ingredients before you begin. Don’t mince your onion just before you need to put it in the pan, have it minced and in a container ready to go, have that cup of milk and half cup of sugar set out before you. Good mise en place makes the process easier and more pleasurable and the result tastier than preparing a recipe with no mise en place.

If you’re unsure about an instruction, use your common sense. You’ve already imagined in your head what the goal is. Work toward that goal using all your senses.

How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again. That’s what chefs do. Often great cooking is simply the result of having done it over and over and over while paying attention. Great cooking is as much about sheer repetition as it is about natural skill or culinary knowledge. - Michael Ruhlman, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen

For those of you who might not know Michael, you can find him passionately defending the value of the word consomme in his role as a judge on the Food Network's Next Iron Chef, exploring the lives and practice of chefs in his top selling Making of a Chef series of books, and exploring topics like the merits of artisanal butter on his increasingly popular blog. Alton Brown calls Michael "the culinary technique freak."

Michael Ruhlman

The above 'recipe' excerpt is from The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen, a book modeled on the Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style. From acid through zester the book is the slightly-larger-than-pocket-size guide to everything a cook needs to know - a book of culinary terms, definitions, techniques and ideas. This sounds useful, but a bit dry - I know. Don't worry, it's not your standard reference. What makes it good is Michael's voice, his direct point-of-view, and the undercurrent he weaves throughout the entries always reminding us to breath, look, listen, smell, taste and trust our intuition along the way. His essay on finesse is alone worth the price of the book and should be required reading for chefs and non-chefs alike.

And back to the topic du jour, I'm curious - how do you approach recipes or recipe writing in your own kitchens? Who are your favorite recipe writers? I'll sign off with a few related links on this front:

The legendary Judith Jones on writing a good recipe.

I also love this passage from an article in Food & Wine by Daniel Patterson of Coi:

"When I wrote my cookbook, the how-long-should-it-cook-for question reared its head early and often. My publisher seemed to assume that the recipes would be followed by people who were inattentive and easily confused. I did my best to be accurate, but telling someone to cook a piece of fish for exactly five minutes is like saying, "Drive for exactly five minutes and then turn right." Sometimes you'd hit the road, other times the side of a building." - Do Recipes Make You a Better Cook? - Daniel Patterson of Coi in Food & Wine magazine

The Amateur Gourmet's Q&A with Michael Ruhlman about The Elements of Cooking, bloggings, and what five historical figures he'd like to site down to a meal with.

And last but certainly not least, a review of Elements coming in from Elise at Simple Recipes.

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I tend to gather, read, modify, and then see what happens. Except when I bake. Well, and then sometimes then, too. I only write down a recipe I've 'done' if I like it enough to make it again (which is only sometimes). I've recently discovered that somehow I've accumulated enough knowledge to usually 'throw together' something yummy from stuff I happen to have. What a blessing! By the way, I came to your blog because my brother just gave me your Super Natural Cooking book, and now I'm hooked. I wrote this posting about it, on my cooking/recipe blog (which I think might soon be wrapped into my regular blog... hmm..)


Love that paragraph by's indeed how one should treat a recipe.


Like most of you here, I use recipes primarily for inspiration, and sometimes for guidance or reference. EB, I have some trouble with baking, too! I always use the "cooking in my mind" tactic when I'm making something new, and I'm rarely surprised by the outcome. I generally don't write down recipes at all, unless someone asks for one, or I do something wonderful and want to remember how I did it! Having said all that, I do think that well written and easy to follow recipes are essential for novice cooks - my husband would come unhinged without something to follow! I agree, too, that they provide an important connection to loved ones. I'm currently trying to track down recipes for dishes my grandparents used to make - something I should have done long before they passed away. It is, of course, more difficult now.


My favorite way to follow a recipe is to...well, not. If I'm making something new, I like to read four, five, even six versions of the recipe. I'll think about the outcome in each case, and incorporate the elements of those I like best into the "recipe" I finally decide on, which is a melange of other people's experiences with the dish. Even then, my decisions will serve as a guideline, because sometimes inspiration strikes in the midst of preparation.


Great blog entry. I try and read each recipe before I cook it but that doesn't always happen. I do agree that you should put together your mise en place beforehand. I learned to do this from cooking chinese food. Everything is chopped, minced or sliced and put in order on my work area before I turn on the pans. So important. Makes the recipe go smoothly IMHO. I don't always agree with Michael on The Next Iron Chef but I agree with his ideas on recipes. Thanks for passing them on.


Thanks for your great take on my recipes. I LOVED the Patterson analogy to driving, perfect. And Bruce, it's IMPOSSIBLE not to look like a snob on that show, i'm much more balanced in person! (Though consomme should be perfectly clear or the word doesn't mean anything.)


Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing Michael's essay. Good food writers are as enlightening and entertaining as good recipe developers. I, too, am an Elements of Style (the Little Book from Cornell) graduate...the reference makes the book all the more compelling!


As a professional copyeditor, I appreciate the comparison of Ruhlman's book to Strunk and White's! It makes it sound that much more enticing. I like his emphasis on repetition. I know that a lot of people cook a dish once, in one way, and see it as the only way to cook it. Even in repeating a single recipe, you refine methods. I also know of a lot of people who've cooked a recipe once, went astray somewhere, and blame the recipe, when it really wasn't the recipe's fault. This especially bothers me in impromptu cookbook reviews, like those for cookbooks on When I write out my own recipes, I follow a format similar to Michael Chu's Cooking for Engineers--listing ingredients to one side, then diagramming the dish's process to the right. To me, it's the most streamlined and effective way to describe the cooking process. It also makes the physical recipe a quick and accessible reference, and it seems to leave me more room to play with ingredients and methods, since it doesn't seem so bound to set lists and instructions.


I can not stand him - on the Next Iron Chef...such a food snob. Even if he has such great stuff behind him....I can not stand his attitude and presence on that show. Bruce


I love the quote "recipes are not assembly manuals." This is something I need to keep in mind more. I'm definitely a "stick to the recipe" person and am sometimes afraid to venture out, unless it's a recipe I've made many times previously. I'm too scared to screw it up and ruin dinner!


Hi for the first time. I've been reading your blog for a while but this is my first comment. I started food blog just few months ago and I already can feel the impact of "systematizing" my thoughts. I usually improvise while cooking using the recipe just as an starting point, which is great and creative but I have problem repeating the creation. Since I started blogging I'm forced to "take a moment", to think "what did I do" before a post about it That motivates me to rethink about some things and try it again to proof it or to enhance it. I have to admit that it helps me develop concentration that I lack in my life in general and I feel improvements in other areas of life beside cooking! Sanja


For savoury dishes I rarely use a recipe and just do what I think I should do. I have a lot of cookbooks but use them mainly to get inspiration. When I bake or make other sweet stuff I do use recipes and try not to mess too much with the most important ingredients. As for the actual preparation I adjust things if I think I know better ;) I agree with Jeannie about your recipes.


Heidi - Your recipes are great to follow and well written. What I appreciate on your blog, which a lot of people don't do is that u mention the pitfalls that can happen, those points on the decision tree when u can take the wrong path on a recipe, that happens. And I appreciate your being specific on ingredients and with ideas on where to source them. I live in Chicago but I have my friend Holly who lives in SF hooked on your recipes as well. I found out about your website through Ruhlmans blog,so it all comes around.....


This is a valuable essay. Many thoughts to keep in mind. The prep of ingredients is something I need to be better about, but I never seem to have enough counter space... I'll look for Michael's book. (He's not too hard on the eyes either! ;>)

Emily B.

I love the part about mise en place. Now that I cook frequently with a curious toddler by my side, that's even more important (and even more frequently overlooked).

RookieMom Heather

I read the Patterson article when it was first published. At that time I thought it was right on the mark and still think so.


I love to read recipe books, especially those with lots of great pictures. When flipping through a cookbook or website, I tend to chose recipes that sound interesting, creative or just plain delicious. Then I begin by reading the recipe and removing the ingredients I don't like or don't have on hand and replacing them with something else without changing the integrity of the recipe (at least most of the time). I try to visualize what the dish will taste and look like when done. In the end, I usually am left with a recipe I know I will enjoy. I always write these changes next to the recipe for the next time, and sometimes I change it again the second time around. It is very rare I make a recipe just the way it is written. I tend to use them more as an inspirational/creative guide. Of course, the downside is if I really love the recipe, I have a hard time making it the same way again!


Like Ruhlman I take recipes to be very wide guidelines, just suggestions really. Which is probably why I'm such a crap baker! It tends to be quite a process when writing my own recipes! I don't write them down until the mutation of the dish is complete. Whatever it started out to be... it never ends up to be. I don't even attempt to write a recipe down until I've made it at least 10 times.


I just got my copy Of "Elements" and am looking forward to reading it, but I have to say I savored *your* brief comments on recipes, particularly their ability to bring great chefs into our own kitchen as well as their preservation of memories of food cooked by loved ones. Lovely.


I think I've found a new book for my shelves! I love the excerpt. Sometimes I think I do too much 'cooking in my mind' - nice to know I'm not going over the top.... er, yet...


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