“Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.”
That’s what chef/teacher Samin Nosrat promises, right up front, page 5, in her stunning debut – Salt Fat Acid Heat.
Everybody loves an optimist. And I count Ms. Nosrat among that merry band of people, those who amble through the world with a smile on their faces, their thumbs up, their sleeves rolled to their elbows, ready to beat back the challenges of Life.
The challenge of condensing the art and mystery of cooking between the covers of a book requires the demeanor of an optimist and the soul of a mythical journeying Hero. Plus, a pinch of medieval alchemy, too.
Ms. Nosrat is not the first to undertake this quest. She follows a long and valiant queue of writers and scientists who’ve tried to codify the scientific laws of the kitchen into readable, useful handbooks. James Beard, Howard McGee, Shirley Corriher, Michael Ruhlman, all these luminaries, and others, wrestled the rules of nature and channeled those rules into erudite books. Food scientists and home economists tried as well, including my foods professor Dr. Jean Phillips. My dog-eared copies of her book and lab manual, Foods, stayed on my bookshelf long after I closed the door to the last class I took with her. Something magical, almost alchemical, happened in all my kitchens after I absorbed the information in Dr. Phillips’s book. Those lessons come back to me every time I cook green beans or make pie crust or brown mushrooms or fiddle with whatever ingredients I find at hand.
What’s different about Salt Fat Acid Heat? Why is it not like all the others? (This is not a brainteaser.)
First of all, it borrows a few leaves from the graphic novel genre, the comic book elevated to grand literature.
Aided by Wendy MacNaughton’s charming illustrations, Ms. Nosrat’s book dissects cooking, a far cry from most of the dull, dry food science textbooks I remember from other graduate school classes. (Not Dr. Phillips’s!) For example, the colorful drawings and charts – reminiscent of Lucky Peach, e.g., too busy in many cases, but not on every page – provide vivid summations for when to salt food for best flavor, what foods supply acid, how to make mayonnaise (and how to fix it if it breaks!), a detailed portrayal of the braising process, and on and on. I especially relish Ms. MacNaughton’s interpretation of terms for frying:
Before wielding your chef’s knife and turning on the stove, Ms. Nosrat recommends that you settle down in a comfortable spot and read the entire book from start to finish, to imprint the basic principles of cooking on your brain.
That’s not bad advice.
Something else that I discerned in Ms. Nosrat’s book is this: If you’re a health-conscious eater, you will love Ms. Nosrat’s book. Why? The chapter on salt serves as a case in point. She writes, “Properly seasoned cooking water encourages food to retain its nutrients.” Why would a green bean cooked in lightly salted water be less nutritious than one cooked in “properly seasoned cooking water?” Ms. Nosrat explains, in clear and concise language:
“If the water is unseasoned or only lightly seasoned, then its concentration of salt – a mineral – will be lower than the innate mineral concentration in the green beans. In an attempt to establish equilibrium between the internal environment of the green beans and the external environment of the cooking water, the beans will relinquish some of their minerals and natural sugars during the cooking process.” (p. 35)
The beans will absorb some of the salt, “seasoning themselves from the inside out.”
Adhering to a low-salt diet could thus cause you to under salt your green beans – and other vegetables – with a loss of the very thing motivating you to that diet in the first place: better nutrition.
Ms. MacNaughton dishes up several small drawings illustrating this principle and many others.
Science plays the leading role in this book, but the second act of the drama includes recipes, gleaned from the myriad kitchens of the world. Ms. Nosrat believes that all cuisines share the same basic building blocks – salt, heat, acid, fat. Her choice of recipes supports that belief. When I read her recipe for Spicy Fried Chicken, I didn’t need a tarot reader to predict my future! (Yes, it’s on my list of to-dos.) What’s more, she includes variations at the end of virtually every recipe.
I’m planning on cooking the Indian-Spiced Fried Chicken in a day or so. Check back here on “Gherkins & Tomatoes” for the results.
Salt Fat Acid Heat delivers the goods, how scientific knowledge lies behind all cooking, essentially one chemical reaction after another. Ms. Nosrat tells the tale well, backed up with strong creds – Chez Panisse, culinary tutelage under mentors such as Alice Water and Christopher Lee. She pays homage to the work of those souls who’ve gone before her on the quest.
Bottom line: Salt Fat Acid Heat is a fun, informative book packed with solid information that will bring out your inner alchemist.
It’d be nice to think that it accomplishes Ms. Nosrat’s goal: “Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious.”
But, if nothing else, Salt Fat Acid Heat will make just about anyone a better cook.
© 2018 C. Bertelsen