Not everyone who cooks will end up pursuing a career working in kitchens. However, that doesn’t mean that home cooks should deprive themselves of the same tools and resources that aid professionals in their day-to-day lives. What then should amateur cooks equip themselves with in an effort to refine their skills? An obvious answer would be well-made knives, sturdy pots and pans, a cutting board that won’t splinter and break within six months, and so forth. Of course, these things are all essential cooking implements. But they can only carry one so far. In order to use any tool or successfully execute any creative project, one first needs instruction and inspiration—both of which one can find in a well-written cookbook. This is the first article in a series devoted to highlighting tips, techniques, and noteworthy ideas that we’ve learned from our favorite cookbooks. First up: Michael Ruhlman’s “Ruhlman’s Twenty.”

Mise en Place

Mise en place is a French culinary phrase which translates to “putting in place.” In professional kitchens, it means that everything that will be used during a shift—sauces, meats, spices, vegetables, and so forth—should be efficiently arranged and organized in order to ensure smooth cooking. Mise en place is a concept that’s also quite beneficial for home cooking, as well. Recipes are written in a sequential, linear fashion and the steps almost always build upon one another. Usually, this leaves little time in between steps to prepare and make other arrangements. It’s assumed that all the necessary prep work will be done ahead of time. By organizing yourself prior to cooking, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress and potentially irreversible errors.

'Tis the Season to Season!

Ruhlman recounts working with chef Thomas Keller to author The French Laundry Cookbook. He asked Keller, “What’s the most important thing for a cook to know?” To which Keller replied, “Seasoning.” Specifically, seasoning with salt and pepper—especially salt. This may seem like painfully obvious advice—and perhaps it is—but, as with most things in life, the most basic truths are the most important. Salt is the most basic, powerful seasoning agent in cooking, but it should be used with caution. Remember, you can always season more, but you can never season less. Ruhlman proceeds to elaborate on the various types of salt and their respective uses; however, for the sake of brevity we’ll stick to paraphrasing his most straightforward advice: season with salt!

Brighter is Better

In addition to salt, acid is another indispensable seasoning agent. Acids like vinegar, citrus juice, wine, mustard and so forth. One of our five main taste sensations, sour, is what detects acidity in food. We’re naturally equipped to pick up the bright flavoring that acids add to our food and a small amount in cooking goes a long way. As Ruhlman says, “Less often stated is the importance of using acid as a seasoning device.” It’s second only to salt in its potential for elevating the flavors of your cooking.”

Always Have an Onion on Hand

Here’s another clue for you all: have at least one onion on hand at all times! As Ruhlman says, “I buy onions every time I’m in the grocery store, not because I need them, but because I fear not having an onion when I do need it.” This is a culinary gospel truth. Onions are a very versatile aromatic vegetable, capable of adding myriad flavors to food, depending on how they’re prepared. For example, raw onions are quite sharp and immediately noticeable on the palate, whereas caramelized onions are sweet and less aggressive. Whether you’re sweating them in oil for a stew or lightly pickling them in red wine vinegar for tacos, onions are an indispensable kitchen staple.

The Sauce is the Boss

Whether it’s a dollop of crème fraiche or a delightful beurre blanc, sauces are the metaphorical wind beneath the wings of whatever you prepare. They add a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) elegance to vegetables, proteins, and everything in between. Use them. Embrace them. Love them. Ruhlman provides a handful of great sauce recipes, ranging from simple butter sauce to peppercorn and cognac cream sauce.

Take it Home

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