I don’t often say this about a book any more (because I’m trying to pare down and do most of my reading from the library…), but: I think I am going to have to buy Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Much more than your typical cookbook, this is really a cooking class in a book — taught with patience, humor, and clarity by a chef who clearly knows her stuff, loves her food, and has the patience to delve into the whys and hows behind the elements of good cooking. My library copy is due back tomorrow (noooo!), but still sports a cluster of bookmarks where I want to go back and re-read a section or try a technique later.
Who taught Michael Pollan how to cook? She did!
The author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat, is a chef, writer, and teacher who counts Michael Pollan among her students. He actually provides the foreword here, starting out with:
As I write these words, this book hasn’t even been published yet, but already it feels indispensable.
That must sound over-the-top, I know, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a book on cooking that was this useful or unusual. I suspect that’s because reading Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat feels less like being in the pages of a cookbook than at a really good cooking school…
So if you don’t take my word for it, take his. 😉 This book will help you be a better cook, no matter your current level of comfort and confidence in the kitchen.
Let’s look inside
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is divided into five main sections — one for each of these four elements of cooking, and one for recommendations and recipes. Nosrat, however, is quick to point out that recipes should never be set in stone (and many of those she includes here are less traditional recipes than an exposition on how best to make a given dish, with variations). So, a little on each section.
The book starts out with salt, outlining everything from the different types of salt (and when to use each), to what exactly salt adds to food, and how it affects and amplifies other flavors in a dish. Handy infographics outline when to salt your food and basic guidelines on how much salt to use for different types of foods.
One thing I learned here is that I’ve been apparently under-salting water for boiling veggies and pasta. Nosrat suggests salting the water until it tastes like the sea, so that what you cook in it absorbs enough salt from within that you actually end up having to salt it less from without.
When students balk at the palmfuls of salt I add to pots of water for boiling vegetables, I gently point out that most of the salt will end up going down the drain with the cooking water. In almost every case, anything you cook for yourself at home is more nutritious, and lower in sodium, than processed, prepared, or restaurant food.
I’ll give it a try next time!
Then we move on to the section on fat, which starts out with a story of a long-ago cooking contest at Chez Panisse and the importance of good olive oil. (I’ve been buying tins of Zoe extra virgin olive oil on Amazon, which has good reviews, but she mentions the difficulty in finding an affordable everyday olive oil in grocery stores and also recommends extra virgin oils from California Olive Ranch or the Kirkland Signature Organic at Costco.)
Beyond olive oil, though, she talks about the different kids of fat and their flavors — plus “culturally appropriate” fats (complete with cool infographic) to flavor foods from different parts of the world. Learn how fat works, how to heat oil properly, how to achieve crispness, how to use emulsions, how to use fat for balance, and much more.
Next up: Acid. Here Nosrat explains how to move beyond simply thinking “sour,” to thinking about balance, and how acid balances out and provides contrast to salt, fat, sugar, and starch. As a rule of thumb, anything that tastes sour, from vinegar to lemons to hot sauce to sour cream to wine to cheese, will add a tang to food and can be considered a source of acid. Here you’ll also find a similar cool infographic to that in the fats chapter, this one showing the “world of acid” and outlining which cooking and garnishing acids to use when cooking food from different parts of the world.
Learn how acid works to change the color and texture of food and how to use it, like salt, to season food from within — as well as to garnish it from without. If you think about it, many condiments are acidic and really serve to perk up the flavors of your food, whether you’re talking about sour cream and salsa or about mustard and relish.
Last in our four elements of cooking, let’s turn up the heat: The “element of transformation:”
Just as I learned from watching cooks all around the world, no matter what you’re cooking, or what heat source you’re using, the aim is always the same: apply heat at the right level, and at the right rate, so that the surface of a food and its interior are done cooking at the same time.
She gives the example of a grilled cheese sandwich, where you’ll burn the outside if you heat it too quickly, or dry the whole thing out before it browns if you heat it too slowly. As with the other sections, you’ll learn about the science of heat, gentle vs. intense heat, and how different ingredients respond to different kinds of heat, from braising or stewing, to browning, to poaching, steaming, and more.
After talking a little bit about choosing what to cook and how to balance these four elements, the book moves on to…
While additional recipes are sprinkled throughout Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, you’ll find most of these in the recipes and recommendations section at the end. I most love Nosrat’s introduction to this section, which reads in part:
Simply put, no recipe is infallible. You are the one cooking, you are the one who is present, you are the one who must use all your senses — most of all, common sense — to guide you to the result you hope for. Over the years I’ve constantly been amazed by the way good cooks give up thinking critically and independently when they begin following recipes.
Instead, once you’ve chosen a recipe, don’t let your own intimate knowledge of your own ingredients and kitchen and, most important, your own taste be overridden by what you’re reading. Be present. Stir, taste, adjust.
Amen! I’m in no way a chef, but I’m a decent home cook. However, I used to be a terrible cook — partially because I never learned how, and partially because I was too afraid to experiment. So I’d try to follow recipes to a tee, might not like them or think they were overly interesting, but not know what was missing, what went wrong, what I didn’t like, or what to do to fix it. I had to give myself permission to play around and to look at recipes for inspiration rather than prescription. This over time has let me learn my own tastes as well as what different elements bring to different foods. I’m still learning (it’s a lifelong process), but that shift has made all the difference.
Anyway, back to her recipes! What am I going to try first? I’m currently admiring the “avocado salad matrix,” complete with a handy chart showing how to build your own ideal salad with multiple variations on its various elements: Avocado (of course) plus salt, fat, acid, crunch, and umami. But it’s really a toss-up between that and the scrumptious sounding “conveyor belt chicken,” which outlines a technique for cooking deboned chicken thighs in a cast iron skillet, weighted down with a second pan or other weight.
Anyone can cook anything
Or so states the introduction to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and the rest of the book is really the master class that teaches you how to be a cook and find the right balance, rather than just following recipes. Part cookbook, part science book, part memoir, and part how-to, complete with liberal illustrations and infographics that help bring the text to life, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is highly recommended.
- Hear an NPR interview with the author here, and you can also read an edited version of that interview here plus see some of the cool illustrations and infographics from the book.
What are you reading this week?
What have you been reading lately? Tell us about it! ? And, you can browse all the What’s Rachel Reading? book reviews here.