Shoulda known butter: The basics from Michael Ruhlman

As a cookbook author, I shouldn't tell you this, but I'm going to anyway: You don't need half of my recipes … or anybody else's. One recipe gives you one dish, but one technique and you can eat for days.

This was the inspiration for Michael Ruhlman's basics cookbook, Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook's Manifesto.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: This book is not arranged the way most cookbooks are, from appetizers to desserts. It's arranged by techniques.

Michael Ruhlman: Yes, techniques. How to use the tools in the kitchen and basic techniques of applying heat and also taking heat away.

LRK: One chapter is Water. Tell me about that.

MR: We don't think about water, but it's really a remarkable substance. If we recognize it for the powerhouse tool in the kitchen that it is, then we become a better cook. It's a flavor extractor, it's a heat extractor, it's a heat conveyor.

It's its own thermometer; it won't go above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. So when you cook something in water, you cook it very, very gently.

LRK: You mention something in that chapter that I don't think people do. You put food in a container and then put that container in a water bed.

MR: It's a very valuable tool. When you make a meatloaf, for instance, you need a certain amount of fat in the meatloaf for it to be juicy. But if you cook it too hard, that fat can cook out, break out of the mixture, and you're left with a dry rubbery meatloaf. But if you put it into a tree mold or some kind of a baking pan or loaf pan, then put the pan in this gentle water in a moderate oven, you will slowly cook that meat until it's done and all the fat and flavor will stay in the meat.

LRK: Let's go to the other end of the spectrum: butter.

MR: Butter is more than just something that's spread on your toast. It's its own tool. It's a ready-made sauce -- a mixture of fat and water.

It's also a cooking medium; you can cook things in butter. Like water, it will cook very gently, but the density of the fat keeps the flavor and juices in the meat and in the fish. We put butter in shrimp for a very succulent, very juicy, very delicate shrimp. You don't want to cook shrimp really hard because it will become rubbery and dry. When you cook it gently, in a very dense environment of some butter that's kept emulsified but is still liquid and warm, you have this beautiful, luxurious, succulent, delicious buttery shrimp. It's fabulous.

LRK: How exactly do you do that butter poaching? Can you walk us through that?

MR: What you need to do is melt the butter while maintaining the emulsification. Butter is composed of fat, some butter solids and about 15 percent water. If you start melting the butter in chunks -- in a little bit of water, whisking continuously -- you can melt the butter and keep it emulsified, so it's homogenous.

If you melt butter for popcorn or something, the fat rises to the top and the water separates out and you get clear butter. But this way, if you keep it emulsified, you get this opaque, thick, wonderful, creamy cooking device. It's a great basting tool and it's great to add to sauces.

In professional kitchens, it's often referred to as beurre monte; they use it to enrich sauces.

LRK: And so you whisk the butter with a little bit of water and then you slip in the shrimp?

MR: Yes. You get all your butter melted so you've got a few inches in your pan. (Choose the right size pan so you don't need too much butter.) Then pop your shrimp in and keep it warm. The butter will stay at about 150 degrees, and that's a perfect temperature to cook shrimp. Shrimp cooked this way will not seize up on you. They will be very tender.

LRK: I guess you could cook almost anything that way. You can do it with chicken breast.

MR: Right. That would be a way to sort of redeem the skinless, boneless chicken breast -- to cook in butter.

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