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Michael Ruhlman’s new cookbook mines recipes for teachable moments

Food writer Michael Ruhlman struck pay dirt in 2010 with Ratio, a cookbook that, in many ways, redefined a genre. Rather than being a catalogue of recipes, the book explored the relationships between the culinary base materials that underlie most preparations.

Ratio encouraged home cooks to bake the ratio for a cookie (a delectable ménage à trois of one part sugar, two parts fat and three parts flour) into their brains instead of mindlessly returning to a recipe on the back of a package.

In the just-released Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook's Manifesto, Mr. Ruhlman once again mines recipes for teachable moments. Though it doesn't have Ratio's signature formulas, Twenty inherits its predecessor's didactic bent and overarching theme. Mr. Ruhlman offers a basic culinary education in 20 chapters, each focusing on an essential technique (roasting, braising) or ingredient (water, salt, sugar).

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Many will approach Twenty as simply a collection of recipes rather than an educational tool, and to Mr. Ruhlman's credit (and, perhaps, his chagrin) they will be richly rewarded all the same.

The recipes are, with a few minor exceptions, accessible and delicious. Mr. Ruhlman's pork belly is simply the best I've ever cooked, and it illustrates how neatly the various elements of the book tie together. The recipe is the tasty conclusion of two chapters: braising, to which it owes its tender texture, and sugar, from which it derives the caramel-miso glaze, a syrupy-sweet complement to the savoury qualities of the pork.

Readers who go no further than following the recipes and gawking at the superb photos will miss out, however. Cooks who read this book as a chance to deepen their craft are in for a far richer treat: for kitchen novices, a grounding in kitchen fundamentals; for experienced home cooks, a sharpening of skills.

After preparing more than 10 recipes from Twenty, I have only minor quibbles. First, I found the cooking times for some meat dishes far too short. Second, the organizing principle of the book doesn't make it easy to find recipes. Desserts aren't a section at the end of the book, for example, but are dispersed throughout nine chapters. But a strong index goes a long way toward mitigating the issue.

It's hard not to love Twenty, and even harder not to love Mr. Ruhlman's refreshing perspective on what a cookbook can be. I like to think of it this way: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to sauté, and you feed him for a lifetime.

The grade (out of 5)

Quality of recipes: 4.5

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With only a few exceptions, the recipes work and, most importantly, they are uncomplicated and delicious.

Photos: 4.5

The images in the book are appetizing, and occasional step-by-step preparation photos make it easy to climb the learning curve.

Text: 5

Mr. Ruhlman may be the most talented wordsmith on the North American cookbook scene. His prose is thoughtful, elegant and informative.

Accessibility: 5

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Home cooks of all skill levels can learn from this book and enjoy easy-to-prepare meals in the process.

Overall: 4.5

Novices making their first foray into the kitchen will be hard pressed to find a more helpful introductory text, and more advanced cooks will improve.

Special to The Globe and Mail

You can follow Rob Mifsud's culinary experiments at hungryinhogtown.com.

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