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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Hi all,
Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ve been out of town all weekend. Thanks for all your thoughtful responses – fascinating to read.
Brett, those are your forks – I shot that photo in your kitchen.
WithASong – touche’! Nearly every post 😉


What a great post! There is nothing I love more than reading a recipe – imagining how it will turn out in my kitchen… Loved reading Ruhlman’s essay!


Daniel Paterson’s essays in Food & Wine are always great—I like one he wrote several months back called “The Power of Touch,” in which he argues that your hands should never be at too much of a remove from the food you’re cooking.


It wasn’t until I started blogging that I began paying more attention to recipes. I’m an “ish” person – meaning I don’t really use measuring cups/spoons and don’t follow directions to the “T” – but instead play in the kitchen and consider cooking like artwork. But that technique doesn’t translate well when WRITING recipes.There seems to be a standard way to write recipes – but I wonder if there is a better way to write recipes – one that is maybe more loosely structured, intuitive and creative.

Steamy Kitchen

First random off-the-topic comment: those look like fish forks in the photo! What are you doing with those?
Love Ruhlman’s books. I’m looking forward to checking out his new one. Second random comment (after seeing his author photo): do Ruhlman and John Tesh go to the same hairdresser?


I am always mystified when I give recipes to friends who expect a recipe to be so exact. It is great to hear from icons like Ruhlman, that that is not how it should be. I love the Patterson driving analogy too. The equivalent in cooking could be just as tragic!

Deborah Dowd

Dear Heidi,
Our 83-year-old Pedatha (oldest aunt) said when she was teaching us her recipes, rather, passing on her culinary wisdom to us, “dont look at the time, look at the pan”. Enjpoyed reading your post…cooking is much much more than ingredients, then the method, than knowledge. It is wisdom, it is love.


What a great excerpt from Ruhlman (I love the comparison to sheet music and a beginner vs. Yo-Yo Ma), and Patterson’s analogy is dead on. Great post!


Heidi, your second sentence in this current post says “And while each new entry on the site culminates in a new recipe…”; and so, after reading the current post by you from beginning to end, and wondering all the time just what recipe would certainly culminate “this” interesting current thread, I found no recipe. Oh no! Did I miss it! No recipe? I guess I’m such an addict that I just assumed there’d be some precious recipe at the end. Alas!
I avoid the Iron Chef series, since I seldom learn anything from it and it seems far more like a game show or race than a cooking show. I’m certain, as Michael suggested in a post above, that how people appear on this show is quite controlled and scripted to make them seem more like highly-trained competitors than artists. It’s good to have you review him and show him in a better light than presented on the Iron Chef. I’m pleased.
I’m an avid cook in my 60’s and I have been cooking since I was a teen under the tutelage of my Mom, and some of the recipes she gave me are some of my most prized possessions (and I do tend to follow “them” exactly, because they’re TOO precious). Other recipes, I tend to follow exactly at least the first time (and I advise all new cooks to always follow, as much as possible, the recipe exactly, “at least” the first time, because otherwise they won’t know what the original might have tasted or come out like), but after the first time, I vary the recipe according to my experience or to the ingredients at hand (and I tend to keep dated notes on Post-It’s about what variations I did and I put the notes right on the recipe, so I can either repeat my variation or avoid doing it that way in the future).
Although this is my first post, I am a regular reader and copier of the recipes you present, and I return to your webpage more frequently than any other recipe site. Thank you, indeed, for both your very interesting opening comments and the recipes you always share!


I totally agree with Mr. Ruhlman’s sentiments and Heidi you’re site is truly an inspiration to all of us flood bloggers out there.

Foodie Princess

I love the evocative image of you journaling on your cookbooks, I have found scattered bits of paper in my grandmother’s handwriting with recipes and very detailed information about certain recipes, and I cherish them. (Sometimes I wish for MORE details!)
Great posting, Heidi, as usual!


His idea on recipes is very interesting. I agree with him on the whole. Recipes aren’t science manuals, but they do require a certain following. Adaptations can be made, but recipes are there for a reason.
I’ll have to check out this book in the near future.


I’ve always been a good recipe follower and devotee to my cookbooks – recently though I have been changing recipes, adding ingredients I have on hand, combining recipes and loosening up a bit. I have now started, in a way, journaling directly on my cookbooks – I write in the margins, make notes about ingredient changes, write in dates and things that could have been better or notes on the weather, who was going to share in the recipe or what it reminds me of.
Ruhlman’s excerpt was fabulous – thank you for sharing.


Semi on-topic as far as the recipe writing question goes…
My fourth grade teacher made us write out recipes (I remember a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a root beer float, I think there were a couple more). Then she’d get the ingredients for the recipes and make each of ours /exactly/ as we explained it in front of the class.
Sure, they’re simple recipes, but it was more a thinking exercise than anything else – lots of kids had their root beer floats explode over the rim of the glass because they didn’t think that putting the soda in first would cause everything to foam up when you dropped the ice cream in. Quite a few got sandwiches with the peanut butter and jelly faces pointing outward. One I remember clearly was a boy who didn’t specify how to get the jelly out of the jar, so the teacher stuck her fingers in and put a big glop on the bread…another who didn’t think to put the process of assembly of the parts in got two pieces of bread and a glob each of peanut butter and jelly on a plate.
I don’t actually remember how mine turned out, so I’m guessing it can’t have been terribly embarrassing.
Point being that thinking through the instructions for how to do something is quite an illuminating process.


sounds like it should be named “elements of french cooking”…not that anything is wrong with that! the rest of world has gotten along fine without written manuals of definitions or essays on food.


Okay, okay, I’ll be better about mise en place. Does it count if I do it in my head?
My all-time favorite cookbook author is Maida Heatter. [Though my friends, clients, acquaintances and even strangers will tell you I promote your blog with addiction, Heidi.] Her headnotes let me know how the recipe feels in her head, her hands, her mouth, and the enjoyment her guests get from it. Her instructions are so precise: “with your left hand hold the”… “if it looks curdled that’s okay, keep beating”… “bake for 33 minutes, they will look glossy but they will be done.” I remember a recipe where she says “If your fingernails are long you cannot make these cookies.” HA! I love that!
As for doing a recipe over and over again – I have a personal rule: once.
There are so many opportunities in the world, making a recipe more than once means loosing the opportunity to try something else. Yes, we violate the “don’t try anything for the first time for guests” rule with every dish at every dinner party. No one has complained; if they did we just wouldn’t cook for them again!

Wendy Kinney

“Recipe” is my favorite word. It conjures up so much. There are so many…
Recipes are about good intentions, sharing and deliciosness; the precarious beginning or fruitful result of a creative and often enjoyable kitchen adventure.
These days it is easy for me to personalize most every recipe I try. After cooking and baking for 30 years, I finally know what I like (more chocolate, less sugar). I read recipes carefully before I choose them. I visualize the steps, imagine flavors. Sometimes, I swear I can smell the finished dish before I have bought the groceries. Generally, the more attention I pay to a recipe, the better the results. You have to devote yourself to the task. But at the same time, I have come to trust my instincts more. I used to follow the old adage, “Try the recipe exactly how it’s written the first time….”, but I have enough experience and preferences now, that I can be brazen the first time out.
I really appreciate a recipe that works (it is a beautiful thing); and authors who test their formulas before printing them. They earn my trust forever. Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver and Heidi Swanson come easily to mind.
I shall forever love recipes. Reading them. Trying them. Creating them. Although small and precious, I believe a recipe is one of the most generous gifts you can give or receive…v


Amen. I consider recipes to be suggestions, not rules. And thanks to Michael Ruhlman for justifying my growing collection of prep bowls.
Get brave. Get cooking!


The “mise en place” makes me think of the immortal words of the Chinese chef, “set aside’.


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 Ruhlman…it’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.


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!


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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