As I begin to travel this week to promote my new book, I want to give away five personalized signed copies. But I want something from you. An “ah-ha” moment.

Earlier in the month, promoting my appearance at Butcher & Larder in Chicago, owner Rob Levitt asked people for just such a moment, a revelation, a moment when you tasted something, combined two uncommon ingredients, used a tool in a new way, that changed the way you saw food, the kitchen, cooking.

I’ve had many, and they’re always a thrill. I write about one in the new book, the time my chef instructor at the CIA, Michael Pardus, tasted my cream of broccoli soup and said, “This is good. But I want you to take this back to your station and taste it again. Then I want you to take a spoonful and put a drop of white wine vinegar in it and taste the difference.”

I did. A single drop changed that soup from fine, just OK, to very good if not better. It was a lesson that would apply not only to broccoli soup, or soup generally, but to everything. The importance of acidity and the ability to use it (Technique #5), would become something I’d consider in everything I made, from soups to stews to sauces, to sandwiches, to meats and fish, to whole composed plates, even to sweet things (I add cider vinegar to butterscotch sauce, for instance, just a few drops, all about balance).

I want to know what your ah-ha moment is. Four people who leave their ah-ha moment in comments below will be chosen at random this Friday (sorry Canada, it’s too expensive and headache making to ship across the border, so this is only for US residents, alas; take small comfort though that the book is dedicated to a Canadian!). Leave a working email (it won’t bet published or used in any way other than to contact you, promise).

The fifth signed copy will go to someone very clever indeed. I’ve included in the book THE twenty techniques I believe a cook needs to prepare virtually anything in the kitchen. But I left one out (on purpose). The first person who comes up with it, gets the fifth copy. If no one does, check back and I’ll give some hints, but I’m hoping someone figures it out.

I’ll be in Chicago this week as mentioned, also doing a demo at The Chopping Block, followed by an open signing from 1:30 to 2:30.

But if you miss those events, and even if you don’t, join me at Publican, one of my favorite restaurants, this Wednesday evening where Paul Kahan, one of my favorite chefs, and his staff have created a special menu, and where I hope to hold court with as many people as possible who care as much as I do about cooking! I’ll be there from 7 to 10—hope to see you there. (Call 312.733.9555 to reserve a spot; it’s not listed yet on their site but I will indeed be there.)

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465 Wonderful responses to “Ruhlman’s Twenty Giveaway:
Win a Signed Copy (Ah-Ha!)”

  • Jackie

    An “aha” moment for me was when I was shopping for skillets and the salesperson was telling me about how Pam will breakdown your skillets faster. She reminded me that a non-stick skillet shouldn’t need to be sprayed with anything to be non-stick… doh.

  • Guy

    I would suppose my “aha” moment was this — when laid off from a tech job in ’01 I was out of work for almost a year. My wife had been laid off at the same time. For a year, we didn’t go to a restaurant, or even buy anything carryout, rather we cooked at home. Prior to that, I’d thought of myself as a good cook (a home cook), but during that year it was like I was learning from scratch. I did it by borrowing books from the library and researching techniques and recipes on the internet. I now keep a few 3-ring binders with recipes that I’ve printed and adapted. Haven’t bought that many cookbooks in the last several years (no kidding, the exceptions are: Ratio and Elements). The job situation resolved itself eventually, but we still tend to cook at home, and make about 6 restaurant trips a year.

    About vinegar — when I was a teen, I worked in a summer camp kitchen (in SW Ohio). The wise old cook gave me a piece of advice, which was this: “you’d be surprised how many things can be spruced up with the addition of a shot of vinegar and a pinch of sugar”. At the time, I recall she was doing just that with a vat of canned peas — some butter, a shot of vinegar and a pinch of sugar.

  • Mari

    The importance of salt! I made my grandma’s Blonde Brownies recipe, and forgot the salt. They just tasted…wrong. Flat. The same goes for pasta in unsalted water, unsalted sauces, unsalted meat–the world needs salt, dammit!

  • Demetrius

    The importance of textures in food. While sharing a celebratory meal with my family this past week, we started our meal with a ceviche of diced red snapper in lime juice with tomatoes, onions and corn nuts. The salty, crunchy texture of the corn nuts contrasted with the sweet and delicate fish. It was outstanding.

  • Christina Spencer

    The importance of a GOOD set of knives! And for extra credit??? Realizing that I do not need to follow a recipe exactly. Years ago I would find myself rushing out to the store because I only had Russet potatoes and not the Yukon Gold the recipe called for… now… I throw in those Russets and don’t look back… I’ve actually come up with some great variations by getting creative with what I have on hand.

  • J. Matthews

    My ah-ha moment came when I realized that slow roasting vegetables greatly changes the texture and flavor of them. The simplest of ingredients acquire a whole different taste, therefore changing the taste of the entire recipe. Having been a vegetarian for more than 30 years I had thought that I had used taste/flavor combinations well – but I was wrong – roasting gives unlimited possibilities.

  • YOD

    my moment came when I learned that 10 seconds in boiling water makes tomato skins practically fall right off.

  • Ben

    My ah-ha moment came when I realized that, for me, it was more important (and fun) to learn the “why” and “how” versus any single recipe. When is braising best, how different flavors of wine when reduced impact a sauce, whats best to cook slow versus quickly, how is texture affected when I slice with or against a grain. I’m not a chef (actually a salesman) so I started cooking by recipes. But the true fun and excitement for me comes when I look in my fridge or pantry and can come up with a few dishes that go beyond a “usual” method of cooking. It’s the best and why I love learning more about cooking.

  • Matt

    Even though substitutions and creativity are encouraged, you need to know your ingredients before you start changing things around and just because it sounds the same doesn’t mean it is. Long time ago I wanted to make pesto and recipe called for whipping cream. None to be found in the house, but plenty of cool whip whipped cream. Needless to say even the dog wouldn’t eat the final product.

  • JoAnn

    My aha! moment was when I realized I could simmer down my cooking liquid from poaching chicken or fish and save it in the freezer to use as a basis for homemade stock — along with the veg scraps I was already saving.

  • Jamie

    This is very unsurprising, but my aha moment was realizing (after hearing people harp on the virtues of seasoning) that adding more salt than I ever would have imagined had a huge impact on the taste of a dish.

  • whistj

    My A-ha moment was making my first tomato sauce. Realizing how much better the product was than anything off the shelves with little effort was the beginning of my greatly reduced dependency on processed foods and toward making my meals using minimally processed, or fresh, seasonal foods.

  • Jeremy Hulley

    Lemon juice or vinegar added to polenta really deepens the flavor.

  • Laurie

    My ah-ha moment was learning to sear meats. I kept hearing chefs on various cooking shows mention the importance of this, so I tried it. Ah ha! It changed the way I cook as well as the way i choose my meals at restaurants. Tonight we are grilling steak at home, because we are from Texas where restauranteurs know the importance of searing a great piece of steak. How we miss that flavor. Here in Northern Virginia, we’ve yet to find a restaurant who knows how to do that. I think they need an ah-ha moment. Simple seasoning, a great sear on the steak and blue cheese butter makes the neighbors jealous. I think they need an ah-ha moment too!
    Laurie

  • allen

    Making beef heart for the first time, I researched a few recipes such as chili, or pickled to make tacos with an lime mayo and ended up making a simple shallot and olive oil marinade.
    The first bite was ah-ha! Why mask the good flavor of the heart? Feature the flavor you want to highlight and keep the recipe simple.

  • rob fettig

    Eating a taco al pastor in Guadalajara, Mexico for the first time when I 16 years old was my moment. The simple taco of pork, cilantro, onion, fresh salsa, and squeeze of lime was the perfect expression of what I have come to love about food. With good technique, great ingredients and passion for what you are doing, even a humble taco can be some of the best food you have ever tasted.

  • Alexis Muermann

    It was when I learned to use my intuition. I was making a recipe written by a well respected chef, and it just didn’t feel right. It was a sweet potato cake recipe and it didn’t call for an egg, but it needed one. I didn’t add it because I wanted to follow the recipe as written first. They were a complete fail. I made them again with an egg and they were amazing! Sometimes things get left out, so from now on I will trust myself.

  • Daniel

    My ah-ha moment came when I figured out that it’s more important to focus on learning techniques and skills rather than recipes. That Thanksgiving, I came up with the idea to fry won-tons filled with pumpkin pie filling. No recipe taught me this – just the knowledge of how to deep fry, wrap won-tons, and make a pie (filling).

  • Tiffany

    My ah-ha moment came in the midst of a proclaimed crisis when I accidentally used a little salt (thinking it was sugar) to bring out the sweetness in a homemade sorbet. Little did I know, my little mixup proved to be my best tip in the kitchen! A little pinch of salt brings out the sweetness in any dish! Now my favorite use of salt is in my spiced hot chocolate during the holidays. :)

  • Yoshiko

    My ah-ha moment was learning to use sugar in savory dishes to balance acidity.

  • amy

    I’d say it’s when I started using fresh herbs instead of dried. I grew up cooking with dried herbs so the switch to fresh made a huge difference.

  • Dee

    My moment arrived on the day I realized that the process was just as enjoyable as the product. The chopping, mixing and other mundane tasks became my moments of zen. I’m convinced my change in attitude improved my cooking and continues to do so. What once bored me, now is a source of wonder as I discover more about food and cooking.

  • Anu

    Biting into an heirloom tomato that had ripened on the vine — and realizing that a tomato is one of summer’s greatest gifts to us. Especially when it’s sliced, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and piled on artisan bread that’s slathered with homemade mayo. It drove home the importance of eating seasonally and simply, and enjoying the bounty of our Ohio farms.

  • Nancy

    My moment came at the age of 10. I had made a cake with my mother and while it was cooling (and she was taking a nap), I decided I’d make the frosting myself. I had the recipe in front of me and figured I could do it without help since no heat was involved. The recipe used egg whites, which I knew how to separate from yolks, and called for adding cream of tartar to the whipped egg whites. Not knowing what that was but recognizing the word “tartar,” I went to the refrigerator, found the tartar sauce, and used that. Needless to say, the frosting failed. Fortunately, my mother laughed when she woke up and saw what I’d done. And I learned to always question an unfamiliar ingredient and make sure I knew what it was and why it was used before proceeding with a recipe!

  • Marsha Nikooforsat

    My “aha” moment was when I realized that using the technique of “mise en place” as a priority for every aspect of my life (not just cooking) or in other words, working the hardest on the plan would make the desired outcome easier to attain!!

  • Jan Farrell

    My a-ha moment involves thickening, making sauces, and gravies. About ten years ago I was camping, cooking breakfast sausages in a frying pan on a camp stove, and I wanted to make gravy – I’d never HAD sausage gravy, but I’d heard of it. So I tried putting a little flour on the sausages, added liquid, and stirred the lumps out. And it got thick. The more it cooked the thicker it was. So I added more liquid. And it got thick again. It was like MAGIC. And it tasted wonderful!

    Then I learned to make a roux. I stopped thickening gravy with cornstarch and cooked flour and fat and added liquid. It tasted SO much better. And then my brother showed me how to use a roux to thicken broccoli soup, a lesson I use constantly to make cream soups.

    I am an ‘OK’ cook, but the people around me think I am a star because I can make soup or gravy or sauce that tastes great. I chuckle to myself, and I still remember the magic of that sausage gravy!

  • Sharyn Dimmick

    I had an “aha” moment when I realized I could roast butternut squash cut side down for soup and collect all the seeds, strings and empty roasted shells to make stock with — and de-glaze the roasting pan for the same stock: now my soup really tastes intensely of squash (I do add thyme, fresh ginger, tamari and some milk or light cream).

    P.S. Saw your “Ratio” book the other day — want to get it soon.

  • Birddogs

    I spent a summer in Spain right before I graduated from college. I had dinner at a local family’s house. They put a pan of paella and a salad and a dish of olives in the middle of the table and we all ate from the dishes. It was one of the best meals I had eaten at that point in my life. I realized that food is social–it’s best experienced with fun people. I learned to cook so I could eat, but I love to cook so I can eat with friends!

  • Christina G.

    My ah ha moment was when I realized that you can usually reduce greatly the amount of meat in a recipe (and thereby save money) by measuring how much protein is already in the rest of the recipe and side dishes. Thanks for the giveaway!

  • Michelle

    My ah-ha moment came in the 7th grade, my first home-ec class, Mrs. Binns, a very good teacher. She said, “Do not over-stir your muffin batter.” I won the blue ribbon for best muffins that year. She made cooking seem like magic. I was enthralled.

  • Michelle

    I’m not sure if hunger is a technique, but I find hunger is basically what drives most people to cook … a hunger for food, a hunger to please others, a hunger for creativity. Perhaps that is the technique you are talking about.

  • Jen in SF

    One of my ah-ha moments was learning to use (and trust) all my senses when cooking. Yes, you should always taste as you go, but you can also smell when a cake is done (even if the timer hasn’t gone off) and hear when the potato chips are done frying.

  • Angela

    My ah-ha moment was realizing how important it was to salt the components of a meal separately. I’d made jap-chae a couple of times before and could never get it to taste right now matter how much salt and soy sauce I added at the end. One day (after watching some chef say it on the Food Network), I tried lightly salting each vegetable as I sauteed it. The finished dish……magic! It wasn’t just that it was salty enough, but the whole dish had so much more balance, depth, and overall flavor!

  • Jess Warren

    I had my “Ah-Ha!” moment happened when I was 22. I had been cooking for a while, but always relied on recipes and cookbooks to guide me through. One day I was maing a rue for cheese sauce for my now famous mac and cheese. I said to myself, “Let’s see if I can do this without a recipe…” And, I did it! And, it was delicious! Now I only rely on recipes for inspiration.

  • Katya

    Strangely, for someone who meanders in recipes at her own sweet will, one of my breakthroughs came from following one–Martha Stewart’s recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Eggs in the buttercream changed everything, my whole approach to pastry. Such perfect stuff.

  • andy

    ah-ha moment: green tomato sauce with chocolate over ravioli, ces’t magnifique. The combining of these seemingly incongruous ingredients which resulted in a terrific dish. really my mind was like AH-HA!!!!!

  • Kelly

    Salt. Salt. Salt. As a teenager I realized that salt brings out flavor like nothing else can.

  • Jodi

    My a-ha moment was when I learned from a cooking show that meat doesn’t stick to a pan if you actually wait until the oil you are cooking with is hot enough. I know it sounds silly and really basic, but it took me years to get that. Maybe I was just too impatient to wait!

  • Daniel

    My ah-ha moment happened earlier this year when, after 8 years of learning to cook at home with steadily increasing sophistication and many “hmm” moments along the way, I realized that the best ingredient in any preparation is the one that you leave out so that the others can shine.

  • Jay

    As a competitive chili cook, I ah ha’ed at the addition of a small amount of anchovy paste mid way through the cooking process. It could not be identified in the final product but added a rich, deepness of flavor. (PS..6:00 am and I’m eating a burrito of guava braised chicken gizzards and sauteed swiss chard…YUM!)

  • Justin LeBlanc

    My biggest ah-ha moment was when I first learned how to make vinaigrette. I learned several things then:
    1. It’s way cheaper than the store bought stuff
    2. It’s way better.
    3. Once you figure out the ratio between the acid and the oil, the number of different dressings you can make are pretty much infinite.
    In fact, someone should write a book about that idea…

  • Paul C

    I had an aha moment recently when watching a video on how Grant Achatz builds a recipe by starting with a main component and then adding more components making sure each new one relates both to the main and every other component. With that understanding and a copy of ‘The Flavor Bible’ I can do the same thing at home whenever I have an ingredient that I’m not sure what to do with.

  • lewaletzko

    My ah-ha moment came form my husband. He eats only fish as protein and I had never cooked it before. Wow, was I overlooking some great dishes that are quick easy and fresh. Another would be the power of great sea salt compared to the unnamed iodized brand in the round container.

    As far as technique-my guess would be experiment. People get so caught up in cookbooks and online recipes and how “they” do things instead of using them as a jumping off point and making a dish that fits their own life and their own palate.

  • Patrick Snook

    My ah-ha moment became a humming happiness when I discovered how to taste using music. One day a few years ago, struggling to fix something not quite right in what should have been a yummy pot full of something saucy, I struck on the idea that I could think about the taste in musical terms, having notes arranged in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. I wanted not “harmony” in the usual meaning of “balance” so much as an interesting-tasting chord. My sauce lacked something, and as soon as I thought that I could translate my musical training in to tasting it became as clear as the nose on my face. I could taste the problem now just as easily as I can hear a dissonance in harmony, or fogginess in timbre (or instrumentation). My sauce needed perhaps more acidity, to brighten the top notes, or bring out the altos, or perhaps some pepper to draw attention to the earthy bass. . . . Or perhaps everything just needed a lift, with salt. . . . Or more umami, to tune the whole effect. . . .

    Incidentally, does the ingredient “music in the air”–essential to me for one during my time in the kitchen–make it in to your list of 20?

    Sounds good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

  • michael d

    my ah-ha moment was when i realized that cooking is a dance not a task…i’d been so focus on my end results that i wasn’t cooking in the moment. when i realized the dish and i are supposed to be working together i found that the true beauty of cooking lies in the process. it was like opening pandora’s box, now i see that in every stage from the ingredients to the plating a dish gives you the cues you need to make it wonderful. sometimes i lead and sometimes the dish leads me, but more than anything else learning to cook in the moment–enjoying the whole process from finding the ingredients to washing up–elevated my cooking from something i enjoyed to a life’s passion.

  • madeleine

    I’m guessing if the first technique is think, the 21st has got to be love…love the food, love the cooking, love sharing delicious food with everyone!

  • Melanie T

    Mine was when I realized that I don’t have to be afraid of heat. I was taught to cook without browning, braising, or searing. With heat, I have found awesome flavor and color.

  • Cay

    Aha. Going to a friend’s house for dinner as a child (probably 8 years old) and having spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce, which I had never been willing to try at my own house. I loved it! I still remember that moment, and going home to tell my mother that I DID like spagetti with red sauce after all. It made me realize that tastes could change, and that I could be open and decide for myself what to like and dislike. Result: I like almost everything I can put in my mouth!

  • Richard Suydam

    When I first tasted a meat from one of the hogs that we had raised in our woods. They were a cross between a Berkshire and a Large Black. We fed them a diet of organic grain, vegetable scraps, and whatever they scrounged out of the forest. We spent time with them and gave them names. The pork was amazing. Well-marbled, deep red, flavorful and moist. Nothing like the “other white meat”. We currently have 17 Heritage breed hogs and plan on taking 6 Red Wattle/Tamworth crosses to market next month and we’ll sell the meat at our local Farmers Markets. Or trade. We recently roasted one, “Nads” (180 lb. hanging weight) for a barbecue we held for friends and fellow farmers. There wasn’t a whole lot left over.

  • Roy

    My first ever Aha! moment came at a young age when I first tasted my grandmother’s tamales. From that moment on, food became very important to me. As a child I would taste things and think, “Nope, not as good as the tamales.” It was sort of a barometer of how everything should measure up. I would eat the school cafeteria food or the food over at a friend’s house, and nothing would compare to the food my grandmother or my father made. It made me become a food snob, but it also made me want to taste new things. I was never picky, and I wanted to eat everything. This one taste shaped the way I thought about food forever, and I am grateful.

  • Terry

    My Aha was for my first locally farm raised, pastured turkey. I had never known in 45 years how incredible a good bird could be, and how incredibly blah those turkeys I had eaten all my life were.

  • Josh

    Being a male in the kitchen, I’ve had countless ah-ha moments. I’d have to say the biggest moment however was cooking with my mom. We use to make a family breakfast every Sunday morning and it wasn’t until she passed that I realized just how important family meals are. I now carry on the tradition with my family every Sunday morning in memory of her and hope to pass it along to my family as well.

  • Cale

    Now I know I posted this Monday, but I’ll say it again.

    I’m an avid homebrewer. I’ve been brewing beer for about six years on a 6 gallon system. My hot water tank is a stainless steel 7 gallon pot that I’ve outfitted with a small stailess ball valve on the bottom.

    Last year I had saved up about 5 chicken carcasses and HAD to make stock. The 7 gallon pot was all I had to fit this many chickens in. After the stock had finished I let it sit a bit to allow the fat to rise to the top, then openned the valve to let the stock drain from the bottom, through a cheese cloth and into another large pot on the floor. Just before the top, or fat, reaches the valve, I shut it off. “AH-ha!” I said. NO SKIMMING! or at least very very little.

    All stock pots should have a small valve in the bottom!

  • Kevin

    I used to think I didn’t like a lot of different foods, but as it turns out I don’t like some of THE WAYS foods are prepared. AH-HA!

    Since that realization I am always on a search for the correct preparation FOR ME to enjoy certain foods.

  • Adam

    I think #21 has to be TASTE. TASTE, TASTE, TASTE. Everything. Often.
    My AHA moment came at a local cooking school demonstration. The chef made tuna salad, but allowed us to taste it as each component was added. Tuna, mayo, celery, lemon juice, bitters, salt. Simple, but really an eye opening experience to understand how the balance of sweet, salt, bitter, and sour affect the final outcome of a dish. And, it was probably the best tuna salad I’ve ever had. Who knew???

  • Kyle

    My AH-HA was when I realized that caramelization adds depth and flavor to just about everything. When I stopped worrying about burning everything, and started using high heat, I realized I would never cook the same way again.

  • Billie

    My aha moment was that both my pantry and freezer are my best friends economically and creatively.

  • Grady Griffin

    deglazing with water for a quick pan sauce; I never believed you, thinking it could never reach a depth of flavor, but indeed it does. And the missing element: bravery. Act on your instinct, it’ll probably work out just fine. Just try.

  • M.C Hunt

    My ah-ha moment came while watching “Joyce Chen Cooks” on PBS in the 60′s. I made my mother drive me to the only Asian market in Orange County, CA to buy a tiny tin of hoisin sauce and then to our local store for a chicken and some scallions. I came home and set to work boning the chicken and combining it with the precious hoisin to recreate the succulent paper-wrapped chicken that Joyce had prepared. This was the very first thing I had ever cooked and the first inkling that chicken could be more than fried. I haven’t stopped cooking since to my great pleasure and satisfaction. My latest obsessions are curry, and pozole, and roasted tri-tip, and pho, and Asian salads and …

  • Laura Salmon

    A pinch of salt in all sweets really makes a difference in the final product.

  • Gaëlle

    My ha-ah moment was when I cracked the secret ingredients of my dad’s garlic butter for snails. Butter, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper are the obvious ingredients. But ground hazelnut plus a little bit of dry white wine will get the final result from a predictable good to a flavorful great. Poaching the snails out of the can in a court-bouillon with an onion, white wine and a bouquet garni is also a must.

  • Kim

    My aha moment was when I I followed Thomas Keller’s method for preparing green beans that you shared in your book–lots of boiling water, lots of salt, a few green beans, cook until done (not al dente) and an ice bath. The first taste was magnificent and a revelation.

  • MessyONE

    I started doing a lot of cooking when I was about nine years old. Mom had started back to work and she would get everything ready to go on the stove and leave me a note about what to do with each bowl and pot, down to what shelf of the fridge each element was and when to put everything on so it would be ready on time.

    Being a contrary kid, I decided that since everyone seemed to salt their food at the table, I should add it while I was cooking instead. I told no one this, since that was back in the “salt is poison” days. Everyone loved it, thankfully.

    A couple of years ago when I was making ginger/molasses cookies for my husband, I came across a recipe that called for all of the usual spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg) PLUS a quarter teaspoon of finely ground black pepper.

    It was a revelation. You can’t taste pepper at all, it just seems to make the intensify the flavor of the other spices and make them leap out to stand on their own. Ever since then, I’ve added a bit of pepper to any recipe that calls for those spices and it is always an improvement.

  • Ben

    My a’ha moment was the first meal my roommate made for me after college – chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. Never knew I liked artichokes so much. An enlightening meal. A couple good ingredients are all you need for a memorable meal!

  • Chris Hines

    My aha moment was when I finally tried to cook Steak au poivre (essentially something other than box maccaronni and cheese or toast) and had it turn out fabulous and introduced me to actual depth of flavor. I was hooked on cooking and now, over a decade later, my family knows and appreciate home cooked meals and I only wish I had discovered it sooner.

  • devlyn

    My a-hah was making bacon… I had made things from scratch before, but never any charcuterie. I searched and searched for your own Charcuterie book, finally finding it at Powell’s Technical (rather than the main store, where it was supposedly in stock, but not where it was supposed to be). 7 days later, I had the best bacon I had ever tasted. I sliced small slivers of it and ate it cold, relishing in the nuanced flavors I had hand-picked. I’ve never gone back.

  • Jaime

    Two and a half years ago, I couldn’t cook anything more complicated than peanut butter and jelly. Ambitious cooking for me was chicken parmesan, i.e. chicken breasts coated in Progresso seasoned bread crumbs and Kraft parmesan cheese atop a bed of boxed pasta smothered in Prego. I would actually serve this to guests. I recycled the same seven recipes each week, sometimes varying the day on which they were consumed, you know, for variety. I wouldn’t eat this, and I certainly wasn’t going to eat that. God forbid a person even try to put a vegetable in the near vicinity of my plate. Tears. Fisticuffs. I was an abyssmal dinner date and an even worse houseguest.

    Then, I finally decided there had to be more things that I would eat. So I looked up a recipe on a website, gauging its relative inoffensiveness by the ingredient list. It did, however, contain *gasp* vegetables. It was delicious. Turns out I wasn’t that picky, I had just been eating bad food. Aha! I fell so in love with food and cooking, I chucked my cushy overpaid job, went to culinary school, and now work at a recreational cooking school encouraging other people to embrace their passions for food.

  • Diane Sigman

    I was twenty-six years old and had just moved in with my very skinny (ninety pound) boyfriend. I’d been told his emaciation was due to a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. I began cooking him simple meals, all I knew how to prepare at the time. Well, the boy was starving, and ate heartily. I was stunned to realize that I was a good cook, but even better, had an eager, appreciative audience. Sixty much-needed pounds and eighteen years later, we are still together. My aha moment: realizing cooking is an act of love with endless benefits.

  • Matty D

    Actually, my “aha” moment just happened. It was when I realized that Ruhlman is way more crafty as a book salesman than I gave him credit for previously. I mean, giving away a book (the fifth signed copy) via a contest that requires you to buy the book first? Brilliant!!!

  • Liz H.

    Mine came young, I was lucky to have a mother who cooked a variety of dishes to give us a worldly eating education without leaving Northern California. Watching the effect a few strands of saffron have to the color a paella. It remained by birthday request for years.

  • Roya

    Salt, and using it to enhance the flavor of food. My mother always under seasoned her food, and we would have to add salt to make it taste like anything at all. Once I realized that I could and should season my food so that it needs no additional seasoning at the table did things REALLY start “cooking” in my house!

  • Wilma de Soto

    Dipping my first crispy pork Vietnamese Spring roll in fish sauce (nuuc cham dipping sauce.) Life was never the same after that.

  • g_nine

    my aha moment was the first time i tried to cook for like my grandma. i was amazed at the sheer amount of time she spent in the kitchen and the dedication it takes to make everything from scratch. she used to make chicken paprikash and the only part i liked was the dumplings. she would use 12-13 eggs making dumplings just to ensure i had enough plain noodles to have left overs.

  • John K.

    Making my first batch of turkey stock, in my oven, after reading your post on that technique. I’d never made stock before. It was good, so pure, and oh so easy. I never looked back. Now I have turkey, beef, chicken stock canned in my pantry. And chicken carcasses occupy my freezer. I realized how something so simple could be so good, and also so rewarding. It launched me into making many more homemade foods….and basically eliminating all processed foods from our home.

  • Grace N.

    I’m an American who just spent almost 8 years living in China and enjoying the amazing food. While there, I went from being someone who did not tolerate eating any spicy food to someone whose favorite Chinese food is the Sichuan variety (amazingly flavorful and hot). I moved back to get married this year and thought I’d kissed those flavors goodbye until I came across an authentic Sichuan cookbook in English here and had the chutzpah to try making certain recipes again and again and again until I got them right. My a-ha moment was discovering that I could transport myself literally to another place (a special place) with a lot of care and practice. Since then, all of my cooking has been different, infused with a sense of adventure and confidence, with less fear of failure.

  • Aaron

    My Ah ha moment came while reading ratio when I realized how easy bread is.

  • Lei

    I bake whole wheat sourdough bread every week and have done for years. I used to pay a hefty amount for artisan bread at a local bakery until they changed their recipe, making the texture more like every other commercial bread out there. (They have since gone out of business.) That’s when I started experimenting and baking bread regularly for myself and loved ones. Early in our friendship, I occasionally gave loaves to the man whom I eventually married. He later told me, “Touching the bread is like touching you in a way.” Sharing the food we make is communion like no other.

  • Jessica

    My aha moment was when I ate a chocolate dessert with coffee in it. I never realized how much coffee (which I didn’t drink back then) could enhance the flavor of chocolate. Now, I add brewed coffee or espresso powder to most chocolate desserts.

  • Rishi

    Is the 21st technique the use of spice – chillies in particular? That’s so basic to such a variety of cuisines.

  • Lisa

    I’m a novice baker, and I’d always had poor luck with yeast doughs: they never rose properly, even when I waited 2x-3x as long as the recipe told me to. My aha moment came this summer, when despite the heat, I decided to make homemade pizza. My poorly climate-controlled apartment was about 82 degrees, and the dough rose beautifully, right on schedule! It never occurred to me that the reason my doughs weren’t rising in December was that room temp was 55 degrees! I’ve been baking up a storm ever since!

  • Chef John

    My ‘aha’ moment was the first time I made Clam Chowder at my first job. I spent twenty minutes trying to convince a waitress who hated clams to try it, and then spent the rest of the night trying to get her to stop eating all of it. Really opened my eyes to how preconceived notions of taste can be changed if you take a chance at something new. That and the joy of cooking for other people, which has gotten me to the point where I’m now in the pre-planning stages of opening my own place so I can do it on a full-time basis.

  • Andy

    Well, I think our boy Adam may have it as the 21st technique being Taste, Taste, Taste; it’s my first call as well.

    Yet, since this is already on the table, I’ll hazard another guess.

    I’ll propose “Combine” as the 21st technique. Many recipes and ingredients require combination of sorts; kneading, emulsifying, sifting, blending, folding, all requiring special attention to come together.

    Let’s face it, knowing how to combine your ingredients is an indispensable technique.

  • Dawn

    I recently learned how to properly fine chop an onion and OMG how my recipes have improved now that I actually include this key ingredient!

  • Maurita

    My Aha moment? The taste of a REAL chicken, raised in ‘old fashioned’ methods: room to roam, access to fresh air and daylight, no crowding, fed with locally raised grains. Good ingredients produce great results.

  • John Pula

    Asian Food! I grew up eating poorly seasoned meat-and-potatoes or hot-dishes in Northern Minnesota. After college I got interested in food, and started reading your blog. One day, you posted a recipe from Robert Danhi’s Southeast Asian Flavors. I didn’t make that particular recipe, but I checked out his website, curious about a guy that successfully self-published a cookbook.

    On his website, I found a recipe for a curry. On a lark, I gave it a shot, even making my own curry paste (I never half-ass things). It was awesome. I immediately bought the book, and now make curries and spring rolls regularly, and pad thai probably every other week. I also discovered the local asian market, which is phenomenal in every aspect.

    I’ve broadened my horizons, and now try making any dish that intrigues me, regardless of origin or ingredients.

  • John C.

    My aha was realizing that frugal IS gourmet. My mother grew up poor in the former Yugoslavia, and her cooking always reflected their need to use everything to feed the family. My sister and I always made fun of some of her leftover dishes given they were definitely non-American (a gelled soup of pigs knuckles and meat called Sulze (sp?) was her favorite, but not mine!).

    Fast forward to adulthood, and as I started really getting into cooking a number of years ago, I one day realized the elegance of being able to use the entire animal…nothing to waste. Now my wife and i can’t have a roast chicken without also making a quart or two of stock and having some meat for tacos (I even pull the meat off the neck (if there is one), which my Mom used to do, which I thought was crazy!). Late season vegetables from the garden are invariably dried (hot chills!) or made into a sauce of some kind (last year’s mole was incredible). Scraps of vegetables are frozen to add to stocks or soups. Each of these is not only economical, but delicious!

  • megan

    Growing up, we always had a large spice cabinet..full of powdered this, powdered that, generic “seasoned salt” “italian seasoning”…and they were all ANCIENT! Who knew that spices go dull within a year? We never had fresh herbs, and what on earth were you supposed to do with cumin seed?? My a ha! moment was when I started using fresh herbs and whole spices- the flavors are so much more pronounced- the oregano tastes like oregano! The cumin tastes like cumin! The schnozberries taste like schnozberries!

  • Walt

    My “aha” moment came the first time I tasted soup made with homemade stock. (thanks Michael!) I haven’t purchased stock since.

  • Chris Herrmann

    My ‘ah-ha’ moment was when I realized how easy it is to make your own mustard. Dijon and darker mustards in my opinion are THE condiment and when I saw how much money you can save by making it yourself (I already had a jar of neglected mustard seeds in my spice rack) it was a win win.

  • matt c

    Probably the biggest a-ha moment for me was years ago when I used to throw Thanksgiving parties for large groups of people at my house. I was in my 20′s, lived with a bunch of guys and we saw it as a way to celebrate the holiday with our friends.
    The first year it was a small gathering of maybe 15 people, but by the 4th year, we had over 125 people crammed into our house. Every year, my cooking responsibilities got larger. 4 turkeys roasted, deep fried or smoked. Gallons of gravy. Dozens of loaves of bread. Countless boxes of butter melted and transformed.
    However, every year it actually got easier to do and looking back, I had a subtle ah-ha moment that I really didn’t realize until now:

    I allowed myself the time to cook. I was patient and didn’t rush things.

    I prioritized my cooking. It wasn’t an ordeal to make crust for ten pies, because I did it on Thursday. Froze them, and they were ready on Sunday to bake. I spent all evening Friday making my brines while chopping yams and ripping loaves of bread. I wasn’t in a hurry, I wasn’t stressed. I was spending time doing what would become a great meal.

    Since then, I have become a much better cook. I attribute that to the priority and time I give to cooking, which has been especially important now that I have a family, career and am also in charge of all the cooking and shopping. On a Sunday, I set aside time to go to the Farmer’s market and grocery store with my daughter. Plan meals. Make baby food for the week and prepare a roast or soup while my daughter naps.

    However, I have to make time for this. When people ask me how I have time to cook so much, can my own pickles and preserves and spend so much time in the garden, I always answer “I don’t watch TV. This is how I spend my time.”

    We all have time to cook. Everyone just has to find it and hold on to it.

  • Rafal

    My moment was definitely making a soup that had very little browning going on. Since then I make sure to brown as much as I possibly can to create rich and deep flavors.

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