Bear with us: We’re about to get all philosophical on you for a moment. In the Western perspective of the universe (yeah, we’re going there), there are four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. But in the culinary world, there are four other elements essential to taste: salt, fat, acid, and heat, says Samin Nosrat, author of the book entitled just that: “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.” Conquer these elements, and you can cook anything. You won’t even need a recipe to do it. For realz.
“My dream is you’ll read the book, and cook with it, and then no longer need it,” Nosrat says. Already, people are connecting with Nosrat’s simple cooking language. Earlier in April, Nosrat met with producers and directors for her own docu-series based on her cookbook. She’s not at liberty to say yet which network or channel made the deal with her.
“It’s bananas, right? Bananas!” Nosrat says, laughing.
Once you learn these principles, you can use recipes loosely with confidence. You can look at what you have in your fridge and pantry, and create something out of nothing with no guidelines besides these:
- Salt: Enhances the flavor inherent in the food. It makes your arugula taste more like arugula and your potatoes more potato. When done right, you don’t taste the salt; you taste the flavor of the main ingredient more.
- Fat: Delivers flavor and generates texture. Enriches everything it touches and is the major player in helping you feel satiated.
- Acid: Balances flavors. For example, when you have a bunch of rich, fatty umami going on, it helps to contrast that with a tangy, acidic element, such as lemon juice or vinegar.
- Heat: Ultimately determines the texture of food. You can have all the other elements right, but if you burn, undercook, or forget to sear your steak for that perfect crust after you cook it through with sous vide perfection.
“Recipes are like training wheels,” Nosrat says. “Cooking is all about using your senses to guide you, but mostly it’s common sense.”
Like the minute you sense something turning out differently than the recipe says, that’s when you trust your own judgement. The chef or recipe developer’s oven could be different or the tomatoes an alternative variety. “Don’t not resolve it because the recipe didn’t say so. Use it as a guide. Taste and adjust. There’s no way I can know how acidic your lemon is, if your oven is calibrated right,” Nosrat says.
The San Diego-born Iranian-American is not only a chef and cookbook author, she’s a teacher. Her warmth and passion transmit through the screen in an episode of the Netflix documentary series Cooked, when Nosrat teaches Michael Pollan, celebrated author, journalist, activist, and journalism professor, how to braise pork with chiles.
Nosrat met Pollan after she wrote him a letter begging him to let her survey his class at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Pollan has changed the way Americans eat and think about food since his 2006 breakthrough “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and his 2008 “In Defense of Food” books.
If you’ve ever heard the health axiom to eat mostly the food around the supermarket’s perimeter, that’s Pollan. How about the advice to eat only food your great-grandmother would recognize? Pollan. He’s the one who first said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
That’s how Nosrat pursues her passions: She finds someone inspiring and sticks close to them to learn all she can. She did it when she had a life-changing meal at Chez Panisse while studying English in college. The experience opened her eyes to the food world. Then next day, she landed a bussing job there and later convinced famed Chef Alice Waters to let her work and train in the kitchen.
“The first time I came in, they made me feel like the lackey to the unpaid interns, literally the lowest, peeling unions,” Nosrat says. “I realized soon that the intern came in three days earlier and knew nothing a few days earlier. That’s the thing in restaurants: There’s always someone new. The way restaurants work, you’re always explaining things to new people.”
Plus, Chez Panisse is a teaching kitchen. That instructing ethic was instilled early in Nosrat.
After years of restaurant tutelage in the U.S. and Italy, as well as cooking-school training, Nosrat started teaching her own cooking classes at 18 Reasons, a cooking school and community center in San Francisco. That’s where her teaching style using the four elements first took shape. These days, Nosrat lives in Berkeley and has an office in Oakland.
Nosrat spent four years in her fleece slippers agonizing over this book. “I’ve had so many amazing mentors; I’ve had a lot of emotional crises about this book; I feel like these people said all there is to say about our way of cooking. What more could I say?” she says.
In that time, Nosrat figured out what she has to offer the world. “Maybe others are more the chef. My skill and talent is being able to relate to the student, to the reader, because it really wasn’t that long ago that I knew nothing.”
The book lacks pretension and an off-putting highbrow affect. After all, it doesn’t even have photographs. You’ll find bright, casual drawings and pictograms of instruction presented in a friendly, colorful, accessible way, drawn by Wendy MacNaughton. Pollan wrote her book’s foreword.
Nosrat best explains her four elements by using a salad as her example. Salt is often in the cheese, olives, or capers. “I think of cheese as the holy trinity of salt-fat-acid,” she says. Acid also can be in the tomatoes, lemon, vinaigrette, or creamy (also a fat) salad dressing. Avocado can be fat. There’s no heat in this one unless you combine that salad with a warm soup.
“We all know what a delicious salad tastes like. You know what happens when you’re eating that. Your mouth is popping with joy. A really great balance makes you feel a zing!” Nosrat says. “Once you know that’s the thing you’re looking for in your cooking, you can tweak those elements to get that.”
Contrasting textures and flavors make us all swoon. Some of us feel like we’ve reached nirvana when we savor that ethereal bite.
“Salt, fat, heat, and acid can sound like clinical terms, but it’s language for something we’re all already attuned to,” she says. “The human palate has developed to seek out contrasts. For our body, that’s a source of pleasure.”
An other-worldly experience, you could say. (We say.)
— Head Photo: Ozy.