Samin Nosrat asks us to read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2017) in a certain way.
“I recommend that you start by reading it through from beginning to end.” Who does that with a cookbook? Most of the time I scan them, looking for subjects, ingredients and recipes I’m interested in, before stopping to read carefully.
She has a good reason, though – while it is a cookbook (the recipes take up about half the volume), it’s equally focused on giving the reader the building blocks of knowledge and technique, so he or she can adapt the recipes.
The American chef writes: “Whether you’ve never picked up a knife or you’re an accomplished chef, there are only four basic factors that determine how good your food will taste: salt, which enhances flavour; fat, which amplifies flavour and makes appealing textures possible; acid, which brightens and balances; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food. Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat are the four cardinal directions of cooking, and this book shows how to use them to find your way in any kitchen [...]”
She continue, “As you discover the secrets of Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat, you’ll find yourself improvising more and more in the kitchen. Liberated from recipes and precise shopping lists, you’ll feel comfortable buying what looks best at the farmer’s market or butcher’s counter, confident in your ability to transform it into a basic meal. You’ll be better equipped to trust your own palate, to make substitutions in recipes, and cook with what’s on hand [...] You’ll start using recipes, including the ones in this book, like professional cooks do – for the inspiration, context and general guidance they offer, rather than by following them to the letter.”
In a later chapter, she writes, “The other night, as I was watching The Sound of Music for the umpteenth time, unabashedly singing along, I heard a line from ‘Do-Re-Mi’ in a whole new way. It goes: ‘Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything’ [...] Once you know the basics of Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat, you can cook most anything, and do it well.” I’ll agree that those four building blocks are essential to good cooking, although I’m surprised she didn’t add “sweet” as a fifth, because a little sugar (or other sweetener) in savoury cooking also helps to balance flavours.
Nosrat starts her teachings with a treatise on the most universal and important of seasonings: salt. She stresses that we don’t necessarily need to add more salt to our food, but we need to learn to use it correctly: salt as you cook, don’t just add it at the end. She tells us about the types of salt (table salt – bad; sea salt/kosher salt – good); how salt affects the other basic “tastes”, and how it should be used with various ingredients.
In the chapter on fat we learn about the types (oils, butter and rendered animal fats) and how they should be used in cooking, while with acid, Nosrat covers not only the obvious forms (vinegars, lemon juice) but also points out that certain ingredients – such as hot sauce, tomatoes and cultured dairy products – also add acidity to food. In the chapter on heat, she writes about gentle cooking methods (steaming, braising, dehydrating) and intense cooking methods (grilling, roasting, frying) and types of oven.
The recipes (feel free to improvise!) include summer tomato and herb salad; Roman egg drop soup; spicy fried chicken; kufte kebabs; Indian coconut-coriander chutney; light and flaky buttermilk biscuits; fresh ginger and molasses cake; bittersweet chocolate pudding; and classic apple pie.