My introduction to the now celebrity chef Samin Nosrat was through Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. Soon after she started making appearances in several of the podcasts I listen to. She talked about her culinary story, which led to the book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering The Elements Of Good Cooking and the Netflix show of the same name.
Samin Nosrat is a writer, teacher and chef, born to Iranian parents who migrated to the US. Samin started her professional cooking career in the prestigious Californian restaurant Chez Panise without having done any formal culinary education. For more details on this story, listen to any of her interviews or read her book.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
The front of the book contains praise from food personalities such as Alice Waters, Yotam Ottolenghi and Heidi Swanson (one of the first food bloggers and writers I followed). The foreword was written by Michael Pollan, Samin’s writing teacher and cooking student.
This is one of the few books I own in audio and written (Kindle) version. I like the audiobook because it’s narrated by Samin and I really enjoy her way of telling stories. However, the written book contains a ton of illustrations, only some of which come in the audiobook’s complementary PDF. The artwork was created by Wendy MacNaughton and is both useful and beautiful.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is divided in two parts, the first of which deals with the four elements. The second section, abridged in the audio version for obvious reasons, contains recipes and recommendations.
Part one: The Four Elements of Good Cooking
Every one of the four chapters starts with a story of how that element became relevant in the author’s mind.
For each element you can expect a description of what the element is, what types you can find, how it works (chemically, physically), how it affects different foods, how you can layer the element (e.g. use more than one kind to affect flavour or texture), and how to balance it.
There is a section on improvising with the elements, which builds on the previous elements. In other words, you will learn how to improvise with salt, salt + fat, salt + fat + acid, and salt + fat + acid + heat.
As mentioned before, there are illustrations that explain key concepts, such as:
- A salting calendar that indicates when to salt different foods
- Basic salting guidelines (per weight and approximate volume)
- How to salt (e.g. how to apply “a pinch” of salt)
- How to make Caesar salad as an example of layering salt
- Fats and acids of the world
- How to make and fix mayonnaise
- How to make a braise
- What to cook, depending on which of the 4 elements you want to experiment with
This section ends with the concept of anchoring when deciding on a menu, which is pretty much how I plan all my menus. Anchoring means choosing a single element (an ingredient, a cooking technique, a cuisine, time/resource limit, etc.) and building the rest of the menu around that element.
Finally, Samin gives advice on using recipes. Some of my favourite quotes come from this section (see below).
Part Two: Recipes and Recommendations
This part contains recommendations on kitchen basics: choosing tools (knives, spatulas, pans, etc.) and ingredients.
There are also useful illustrations on:
- How to prepare and chop onions, do different types of vegetable cuts, etc.
- The ideal salad, the avocado salad matrix
- How to work with avocados, beetroot, citrus
- The salad matrix: from creamy to light (Y-axis), from tender to crunchy (X-axis)
- How to get to the heart of an artichoke
- How to cook and when (season) for vegetables and fruits
- The perfect grain-to-water ratios
- How a boiled egg looks at different stages of cooking
- How to break down a whole chicken
- Everything about braising: best cuts, classic braises and stews from around the world, basic braising times, how many people will 450g of each protein will feed, aromatic flavour bases of the world
And finally, there are recipes. Samin has said many times that her intention was to write a book without recipes since the premise is that by knowing how to play with the elements (salt, fat, acid, heat), you can cook pretty much anything. However, people wanted recipes, and she delivered.
And just in case you want more, the author ends with further reading suggestions.
My favourite quotes
Below are some of the quotes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that stuck with me the most:
- “Salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient.”
- “Make salt the first thing you notice as you taste and the last thing you adjust before serving a dish.”
- “Since fat is the foundation of so many dishes, choose culturally appropriate fats to flavour food from within. Use the wrong fat, and food will never taste right, no matter how carefully you use other seasonings.”
- “As with wine, taste, not price is the best guide to choosing an olive oil.”
- “Acid grants the palate relief, and makes food more appealing by offering contrast.”
- “…acid is salt’s alter ego. While salt enhances flavours, acid balances them.”
- “Heat is the element of transformation.”
- “Baking, the most precise endeavour in the kitchen, is powered by its most imprecise source of heat: the oven.”
- “…touch, sight, and common sense can be just as important as taste”
- “Adopt the mantra Stir, taste, adjust“
- “…while a great chef can make improvisation look easy, the ability to do so depends on a strong foundation the basics”
- “The goal of all cooking is to achieve your desired result in the outside and inside of an ingredient at the same time.”
On using recipes
- “When you read recipes, think of temperatures and cooking times as strong suggestions, rather than fixed rules.”
- “Taste food as it cooks. Touch it. Smell it. Listen to it.”
- “most savoury recipes are little more than guides, and some guides are better than others”
You can also learn more about Wendy MacNaughton’s work on her website.