Cookbook author Samin Nosrat taught cooking for years. In fact, Michael Pollan credits her for teaching him how to cook. Her teaching revolves around a ridiculously simple idea, that to be a great cook, all you need to know is how to control four things: salt, fat, acid, and heat. Understand those and you will always be able to make delicious food, no recipes required. She carried that idea into her new cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which she told host Francis Lam was published almost reluctantly with recipes. Listen to our bonus segment featuring more from our interview with Samin Nosrat, specifically her process for making Pasta alle Vongole, a lovely dish made of linguine and calms layered with wine and lemon. [Ed. Note: Samin Nosrat won a 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award in the General category for Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.]
Francis Lam: Why did you want to write Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat this way?
Samin Nosrat: To be honest, I only included recipes at first because I knew there was no way a publisher would publish the book without them. But I did have a philosophical feeling like a hypocrite throughout the making of the book, like I'm writing a whole book teaching you how to cook without recipes only to be followed by the equivalent of a second book of recipes. The whole idea behind Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is that if you can learn how to use these four elements – which play a role in everything that we cook – you can learn how, why, and when to use them, and make anything taste good with or without a recipe.
As I would teach classes to people, they would end up spending over the course of our curriculum 20 to 30 hours with me, four or five hours per element: salt, fat, acid and heat. We did a lot of interactive cooking, tasting and adjusting. I would do everything I could to walk people through the philosophy of how to use the four elements. We wouldn't have recipes in the classes. Then at the end of the fourth class – every single time – people would come up to me and say, "Could you send me the recipe packet please?" And I was like, "You guys, come on, I just taught you how to cook without them." I came to realize that I couldn't just throw people to the wolves. As much as I am trying to instill in you this philosophy of instinctual cooking, you also need training wheels; a good recipe can be training wheels as long as you also aren't going to abandon your own common sense and your own sense of agency.
(Photo: Grant Delin)
FL: It's something beyond the idea that it's a training wheel; it’s the coin of the realm. It’s how we communicate cooking. The language we use is the recipe even if your whole point in your teaching is saying, “You don't need a recipe.” Why do you think people have that mind set?
SN: I think even once you do internalize salt, fat, acid, heat – and I certainly have – I still find myself looking to recipes as for inspiration, particularly when I'm going into a new cuisine or cooking something from a place that I've never cooked from before. Say, the specific spice combinations and amounts of things in an Indonesian curry: I do need to refer to a recipe for that. For me, while it might be an exotic thing that I need to look at for a basic guide or ratios, I understand that this has been my career for 17 years, so I've memorized a lot. I've created mnemonics for myself to understand the basics about the foods of a lot of different cultures. People cooking at home every day probably don't have that huge internal database. For them, I think that recipe is that security blanket or training wheel.
FL: I edited a cookbook a couple of years ago with Tyler Kord. He's a great cook, an awesome, lovely person, and one of the funniest human beings alive. We were talking about his writing recipes, and he said, "It feels weird to write recipes because I usually don't cook out of recipes. But I've started to really love it." I asked him why and he said, "What I realize is, when I start cooking like I cook my food – and I cook my style – my dishes will smell a certain way. I know how they're supposed to smell because I know my cooking so well. When I follow someone else's recipe it's amazing because my house starts to smell like someone else's cooking.” When he starts following recipes he loves to follow them to the letter and not improvise, because if he improvises he goes right back into his style and his habits. He loves cooking someone else's recipe because he can actually taste someone else's food. I thought that was a lovely and generous way to look at it.
SN: It’s beautiful, insightful and trusting. I love that way of looking at it. Maybe it's going to make me want to do that a little bit.
FL: Let's go to your food. Salt, fat, acid, heat, right? As you said in the book, these are the four things you need to master to be a good cook. After decades of hearing phrases like “pork fat rules” and “fat is flavor,” I think fat is obvious; we know we like fat. Salt is a thing that every chef talks about. Every chef always says, "The difference between my food and your food at home is I use more salt than you do. Try using more salt and keep tasting as you salt things along the way." Heat is clear because heat is what cooks food. Of the four, acid is the one the average home cook might not be thinking about. I feel like acid is still a pro cook’s term. In “regular people” language, we just say that acidic things are sour things. Why is this one of four key elements?
SN: I started realizing that “acid” sounds clinical. But it is to me – and to my palate – very important. Part of it is because my family is from Iran. Iranian food and palates are skewed toward sour things and acidic things in ways that other palates are often skewed towards sweet things. I grew up eating a lot of tangy things; I miss that acidity when it’s not there. On the most basic level, acidity helps to balance our food and create contrasts.
I did a lot of science homework – I’m not a scientist, but I did do a lot of homework – and found a lot of cool tidbits. Two of the most interesting things I found out are about acid. One is about cooking in general, which is as humans we have developed an instinct that draws us toward contrasts. In our food, we want contrasts in flavor, texture, temperature, and in color. What acidity offers is a second taste to bounce that first thing off of. Whether it's salty and sour, or sweet and sour, or even rich and sour – like fatty and sour. If something is balanced properly then all of the sudden all of these other parts of flavor become available to us. Rather than falling flat, we can start tasting these different aspects.
Samin Nosrat presents recipes in the more traditional ingredients/directions format in Salt, Acid, Fat, Heat, but also offers easy-to-follow illustrations for more visual learners. (Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton)
I was making Caesar salad the other day. There's different forms of acid that I like to work into a Caesar salad, which is already very rich with kind of a mayonnaise-y base and multiple forms of salty and umami-rich ingredients like anchovies, Parmesan cheese, and Worcestershire sauce. There's already a lot going on. But if you eat it and it's not properly balanced, it will just taste rich, creamy, and salty and there's nothing else. I find that that happens a lot at Thanksgiving, too, where there are so many rich, bland, and salty foods on the table and not a lot to contrast with. So, in that Caesar I am always working in lemon juice and vinegar until I get the balance right and the thing pops in my mouth. This is where the second interesting tidbit science thing that I found out comes in. We use the word “mouthwatering.” When you think of something as mouthwatering, it's like your mouth is so excited to eat it, it makes your mouth water, you want more of it.
FL: It's the cliché of deliciousness.
SN: Actually, our human bodies are programmed to create saliva whenever we eat something acidic because acidic things will corrode our teeth. Our bodies produce saliva to protect our teeth.
SN: When you eat something that's properly acidic, it will make your mouth smack with deliciousness. If you're eating that Caesar salad dressing, and it's not acidic enough, it's going to feel cloying and rich in your mouth. When you're eating your plate of Thanksgiving food and it's brown things, creamy things, roasted things, and maybe things that maybe aren't balanced properly with acid, then it's not going to make your mouth feel full and delicious. My theory about Thanksgiving is that everyone's obsessed with the cranberry sauce because on most tables it’s the most acidic thing. You want to make sure that every plate and every meal is balanced with acid so that you get that mouthwatering smack.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
by Samin Nosrat
FL: It's funny because I have always loved mayonnaise. Even before I knew the word for mayonnaise, I remember loving it. It wasn't until a few years ago, I looked and said, "Wait. The main flavor in mayonnaise is lemon."
FL: It never occurred to me. I loved it because it was rich and luscious. It made every ham sandwich freaking delicious. I finally realized it tastes like lemon; it's not just fat. You're totally right, a good mayonnaise is perfectly balanced so that you can’t say, "Is that a sour thing or is that a rich thing?" It's just delicious.
SN: That’s what I find true about why as humans we are drawn to all the condiments. If you don't get your food right in the first place you can use the condiments to get you there. The wonderful thing about salt, fat and acid is that we already know what something that is balanced with these things tastes like. Those are the things we prefer. When you're at the salad bar or the taco place and you’re putting sour cream, salsa, and guacamole – which is made with lime – on your burrito, it's not because you're a condiment fiend. It’s because those things take a pile of beans, cheese, and meat and make them pop.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.