Season and taste – Two humble words found in every recipe and cookbook. Do we attach enough importance to these aspects of cooking? I didn’t. Till I read the book, ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ by Samin Nosrat. An English major from San Diego, California, Samin had grown up eating mainly Iranian cuisine. In fact, she didn’t start cooking until she was an adult. Her romance with food began in 2000 when she ate at ‘Chez Panisse’ which had been awarded the Best Restaurant in America. Bowled over by the food, she showed up the next day asking for a job cleaning tables. She eventually made her way up to the kitchen and soon learned that the simple formula that defined great cooking consistently was to pay attention to the four basic elements – season the food with the right amount of Salt at the right time, cook it with the ideal Fat to get the texture you desire, balance and amplify the ingredients with Acid and use the appropriate amount of Heat for the correct amount of time to get the preferred results. While most chefs knew about this, no one had attempted to document it. That’s when Samin decided to write a book on the elemental pillars of good cooking.
She later traveled the world working and learning more about different cuisines, interning with established chefs and discussing cooking methods and traditions with grandmas across the globe to further cement her knowledge on the subject. Even when language seemed like a barrier, her understanding of the science behind cooking acted like a compass and held her in good stead. Hence, 17 years after she decided on writing about it, she released her book to rave reviews and multiple accolades, and rightly so.
‘Namak swad anusar’ or salt to taste was all we thought we should know about salting a dish. Well, there’s more to it than we realise. It is simple body chemistry. An essential mineral, salt is Sodium Chloride. It is one of the dozen essential nutrients our body needs to function normally. Since we cannot produce this on our own, we need to consume it on a regular basis. Imagine eating pani puri that doesn’t have enough salt. Or a spicy chicken curry? Even the rice that accompanies the curry must have its salt. Else it will tip the balance of the curry by trying to compensate for the lack of salt. Of course this doesn’t mean we use more salt. The trick is to use it better. Understand what it does to different foods and help amplify the flavor.
In her book, Samin breaks down salt, telling us where it comes from, what it does to different foods and how we can get the most of it by using it in various ways. Reading words like osmosis, diffusion, water molecules had only belonged in school or so one thought. But the way Samin breaks this down, simply explaining how marinating a particular cut of meat in advance breaks down the protein strands into a gel, allowing it to retain moisture better as it cooks, thereby making the meat tender and juicy is chemistry at its finest.
Samin explains the role of fat in cooking in very methodical and simple terms. She lays it out in three aspects – main ingredient, cooking medium and seasoning. Ask yourself the role this will play in your dish, she advises.
Will it bind various ingredients together? Then it’s a main ingredient. For example- Is this the malai to your kofta?
Will it be heated to cook your food in? Then it’s a cooking medium. For example – Is this the desi ghee to your sarson da saag?
Will it be used as a flavor enhancer towards the end of the dish or before serving? Then it’s a seasoning. For example – Is this the makhan on your paratha?
Just as essential as salt is, so is fat for our bodies. It serves as a backup energy source and helps in nutrient absorption and assists brain growth. And like salt, it is not about adding too much. The trick is to use it better. Fat carries flavor. It enhances flavor. It blends. And it creates texture. Think crunchy chips, crusty cutlets, caramelized onions or crispy vadas. With an easy reference chart for different varieties of fats and the cuisines they can be used for, Samin also explains the difference between the various categories and how they can be used to get optimal results. From the kind of olive oil one must use to tips on how to render fat to get the perfect Sunday roast, she covers it all and more.
Pani Puri. Bhel Puri. Achaar. Gola. Lemon Tart. Reading the names of these dishes alone is enough to have our mouths watering with anticipation. Of the five basic tastes, acid makes our mouths water the most. It is nothing but the production of saliva to offset the pucker in the acid which is otherwise harmful for our teeth. The more acidic the food, higher is the quantity of the saliva produced and that in turn makes for a more pleasurable eating experience.
The flavor is sour, unless balanced by an underlying profile of salty, sweet, bitter or spicy. The sugar in the lemonade is what makes it refreshing and delicious. The slight funkiness in cheese is what makes it distinctive. The subtle tang in black coffee helps offset the bitterness, making it appealing to the palate. And the refreshing pucker makes a spicy tikka all the more enjoyable.
Samin’s Wheel of Acid is a handy guide of the different acids one can use for different cuisines along with the ones to cook with and the ones to garnish with, which she appropriately refers to as inner circle and outer circle of acids. From listing down the aggregate PH value of items, to explaining how acid reacts with different foods, this section is a comprehensive dive into one of the lesser known pillars of cooking. She even goes on to define how protein behaves under the influence of acid, breaking down the effect on texture, balance and the final outcome of the dish.
Finally, the magical element that brings all this together – Heat, the conductor of the orchestra of flavors and textures. Once again, she asks you to imagine the end result and work backwards from there. How do you want your food to be cooked? What texture are you looking for?
Citing a golden brown toasty grilled cheese sandwich as an example, she demonstrates the ways of applying the heat at the right level and at the right rate so that food is cooked well on the surface and its interior is evenly cooked too. In typical Nosrat style, she goes further, breaking down how heat works in very simple and uncomplicated terms and the chemical reaction which helps the transformation of raw uncooked food to the forms and textures we love. And it doesn’t end there. Connection of water to heat, the role of steam, the reaction of carbohydrates and protein to heat, the response of fat to heat right up to the distinctive flavor of smoking an ingredient to the mechanics of heat in the oven – it’s all here right in these pages.
If all this information wasn’t enough to have you lusting after this book, this was only one part of the book. In the second half, Samin takes you through menu planning based on what you have available in your pantry, guiding you on the tools to use along with a host of special recipes. I could go on and on about the virtues of this book but that would make for very lengthy reading. Suffice to say, if there is one book that will hold your hand through the of foundation of great cooking, this is it. And for those of us who would rather watch a show rather than read a book, fret not. The book has also been converted into a show on Netflix titled, ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’.
Images has taken from Google