Dine: Cookbooks teach home cooks best


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Cookbooks are an inspiration for what can be an immensely satiating process: cooking at home.

And it seems that more people are doing it, or at least have such intentions. As overall book sales fall, cookbook sales remain strong. It's largely due to women consumers, who bought nearly 70 percent of the cookbooks in 2012, according to the latest figures by Bowker Market Research.

While searching for recipes online might be easy and quick, cookbooks fulfill another mission: They teach home cooks to cook. "I think we are in an era of unprecedented home cooking," said Michael Ruhlman of Cleveland, author of more than 20 cookbooks.

Mr. Ruhlman wrote Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook" (Artisan, 1999) and "Ad Hoc at Home" (Artisan, 2009) as well as the just released "Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient" (Little, Brown & Co.).

His books help home cooks build comfort and control in the kitchen.

In "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking & Curing" (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), he taught chefs and home cooks the traditions behind and methods for aging meat. "Ruhlman's Twenty" (Chronicle, 2011) was his editor's challenge to Mr. Ruhlman's off-the-cuff comment that a cook needs about 20 techniques to be competent in the kitchen.

His latest book on eggs is an offshoot of that research.

"I write cookbooks because I want to learn something," he said. In the process, his readers learn, too. Even when it's something as seemingly ordinary as eggs. His book is in the top 20 cookbook sales on Amazon.com and is No. 265 in book sales overall.

Problem with online recipes

Independent publisher Chronicle Books claims 2013 is one of its best years ever for cookbook sales.

"It took discerning consumers a few years of swimming through the ocean of mediocre-to-bad online recipes before they became frustrated with 'free,' " Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at Chronicle, told Entrepreneur Magazine.

"Online recipes can be like Facebook memes. They are ubiquitous but don't really say anything," agreed Carol Blymire, author of "Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Plates" (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012) from Top Chef contestant and restaurateur Mike Isabella, who has restaurants in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

She developed a legion of fans by chronicling her experiences cooking through Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook" on her blog, The French Laundry at Home (carolcookskeller.blogspot.com), starting in 2007. The series focused on dishes prepared by Mr. Keller at his celebrated Napa Valley restaurant in California.

She followed it with Alinea at Home (alineaathome.typepad.com), which shows her experience cooking through Grant Achatz's book "Alinea" (Ten Speed Press, 2008).

Before cooking through a book, she had a repertoire of 10 dishes and found herself following recipes to the T.

By committing to a cookbook, "I built up confidence I didn't know I was lacking," she said. "That was revolutionary to me."

Ms. Blymire also likes technique-driven books such as "Ruhlman's Twenty." She especially likes his voice. "There's an emotional connection."

Though she'll occasionally consult blogs such as Elise Bauer's Simply Recipes blog, she prefers cookbooks.

Most cookbook editors require rounds of recipe testing while blogs don't require any.

The blog-book connection

Links between online sources and cookbooks can drive sales because the author's voice is fluid and accessible online as well as authoritative, since it has been vetted by the demanding book-publishing process.

Ree Drummond of the blog The Pioneer Woman is such an example. Her many variations on "The Pioneer Woman Cooks" (William Morrow, 2009, 2012, 2013), have landed her on The New York Times best-seller list.

Crowdsourcing recipe site Food52.com also encourages the cookbook blog connection with The Piglet, the winter NCAA-style tournament of cookbooks.

The panel of judges includes David Chang, owner of Momofuku and founder of Lucky Peach; April Bloomfield, cookbook author, previous Piglet winner, and chef at The Spotted Pig; and Sam Sifton, a New York Times editor and former restaurant critic.

This year's winner was Louisa Shafia's "The New Persian Kitchen" (Ten Speed Press, 2013).

"I think 'The New Persian Kitchen' is a great home cookbook," David Chang told Food52. "And that it has something to teach a professional cook like myself -- getting a better understanding of flavors that I don't know."

Cookbook canon?

People who get into cooking build a literacy that reflects who they're cooking for and how often they're doing it.

Restaurant chefs mention French bibles such as "La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking" by Jacques Pepin (Times Books, 1976) among go-tos along with "Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery" (Wiley, 2nd Edition, 2011).

Mr. Ruhlman says his most tattered book is the fifth edition of "The New Professional Chef" (Wiley, 1995) from the Culinary Institute of America. However, these days, he finds he's cooking simple dishes such as pasta carbonara with Caesar salad or roast chicken that he turns into a soup the next day. "I need dishes my kids can bolt," he said.

Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (Knopf, 40th Anniversary Edition, 2001) is a liaison book between chefs and home cooks, a competent home cook's French primer, with recipes as timeless as roast chicken and as dated as aspic.

For American home cooks, a handful of cookbooks can make cooking at home less overwhelming. The most-often mentioned of the genre include Irma Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking" (Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, Scribner Anniversary Edition, 2006) first released in 1936, which advocates shortcuts as well as cooking from scratch.

In "How to Cook Everything" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), Mark Bittman demystifies classic dishes and includes multiple ways to cook just about every ingredient. Another set of modern classics, the Cooks' Illustrated series chronicles the details of panel taste-tests in 20 years' worth of books.

Even Ms. Blymire will occasionally consult these standards. "Sometimes, I need a reminder of the temperature for pork tenderloin," she said. "Other times, I need to be pulled back from overly ambitious recipes on a weeknight."

From the tomes, cookbook fans cite personal selections.

One is Clifford Wright's prolific "A Mediterranean Feast" (William Morrow, 1999) that weaves the history of food from France to Greece to Sicily to Turkey and North Africa.

Or maybe it's something more American, such as "A Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis (Knopf, 2006), a 50-year-old text that explains how to cook Southern dishes.

These more specific cookbooks engage a reader like fiction. They put the reader in the shoes of the writer. They lead the reader to another place and expand the realm of life's possibilities.

Or at the very least, they open up options for dinner.

SOFT-COOKED EGG WITH BUTTERED TOAST FOR TWO

I love this recipe for its simplicity and the writing. When I followed up with Michael Ruhlman, author of the cookbook "Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient," he said it's his favorite recipe in this book.

That said, you will need eggcups to make it. And a percolator for coffee? Yes, he brews coffee in an electric percolator from the 1950s.

-- Melissa McCart

2 slices sourdough bread or good country bread

2 eggs

A gratuitous amount of butter

Abundant strong coffee, preferably a full fresh percolator

2 Bloody Marys (optional)

Toast the bread.

Meanwhile, cover your eggs with 2 inches water in a small saucepan. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and cover for 2 to 3 minutes. (I think 3 is perfect, but 2 will give you a truly soft-cooked egg.)

While your water is boiling, butter your toast and retoast till the butter is bubbling.

Kiss your spouse's crown and say, "Love you."

Transfer the eggs from the water to the eggcups, slice off the top 1/2 inch with an egg cutter or a knife, and serve with the toast and hot coffee, followed by a Bloody Mary, if desired.

-- "Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient" by Michael Ruhlman 
(Little, Brown & Co., April, 2014, $36)


Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.

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