One of the four sections of Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Cooked is dedicated to Pollan’s own home-cooking education under the careful tutelage of chef and teacher Samin Nosrat, an Iranian-American raised in California. Pollan’s profile of Samin emphasizes her down-to-earth love of cooking, her knowledge, her good humor, and her gifts as a teacher. When I heard news a few months ago of Samin’s upcoming first cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I was intrigued.
Immediately after the book’s publication in April, the press onslaught began.
The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Splendid Table, All Things Considered… all of a sudden Samin Nosrat was everywhere. In my 15 years of paying attention to cooking, I’ve never seen a book make such a sudden and profound impact. The first sentence of Michael Pollan’s preface pretty much sums it up:
As I write these words, this book hasn’t even been published yet, but already it feels indispensable.
Publishers thought so, too. There was an intense bidding auction for the book, and Samin was given a large enough advance to write full time. This is a dream come true for a first-time author; enough to give a new author a bit of vertigo, I should think.
But Samin delivered. Her book takes a bold thesis: the essential elements of good cooking are simple and easy to explain, and mastering them frees a cook from reliance on recipes.
Samin’s book fills a niche completely overlooked, not because the content is completely unique, but because it is assembled in a package which is both deep and accessible at the same time. Much of the science in the book is covered elsewhere, but in larger tomes daunting to novice cooks. Many of the recipes are covered elsewhere too, but seldom with Samin’s rare combination of complete confidence, good humor, and gentle encouragement. It’s the latter which I think really distinguishes the book and makes Samin’s approach so irresistible. Like any good teacher, she is passionate about her subject, full of desire to share her knowledge, but humble and sensitive enough to meet people where they are. One gets the sense that Samin really cares about other people and has the “hospitality gene,” as Vetri Ristorante’s Jeff Benjamin would say.
Many Americans, lacking a tradition of careful home cooking, find themselves adrift and without moorings, grasping here and there for recipes – not realizing that a recipe is no more able to produce delicious food than a musical score can produce beautiful music without an experienced and sensitive musician. As Samin quotes the late Judy Rodgers,
Recipes don’t make delicious food. People do.
Samin’s aim is to explain the grammar behind the language of cooking, emphasizing why certain practices and techniques work, so that we can be freed from simply playing notes and empowered to make music.
She argues that there are four aspects of elements of good cooking. Thus, the title of the book: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
I love the fact that salt is the first word of the book’s title because it is indeed the primary tool a cook has to develop flavor in food. As Marcella Hazan wrote in her last book Ingredienti:
Learning to salt correctly is the most important skill a cook can learn.
Indeed. Samin relates an experience she had early on, cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. She was preparing polenta and thought she had done a good job. She took it to her chef for tasting, and he promptly added three palmfuls of salt to the pot. Samin was sure he had ruined the dish. Instead, upon tasting, she realized that it had come alive, that its flavor had been allowed to blossom. Such is the critical role of salt in the kitchen. Samin has plenty of helpful advice about how salt works, what kind of salt to choose, when to salt, etc. But that anecdote about the polenta perhaps sums it up better than anything else can: salt is what allows food to bloom in flavor. The anecdote also shows why the typical cookbook advice “salt to taste” is woefully inadequate. It begs the question: how should it taste? The young Samin thought her first attempt at the polenta tasted great, but she didn’t know what “great” could really taste like until her chef showed her.
Just when I thought Samin was courageous enough to put salt in the title of her book, she follows it with fat – the other bogeyman of modern nutritional science. As with salt, Samin understands that the proper use of high quality fats is indispensable for good cooking. She tells another great anecdote about Chez Panisse, about how Alice Waters was judging some tomato sauces and could instantly tell which chefs had used old, rancid olive oil instead of the world-class oil they use at the restaurant. Too often we think of fat simply affecting texture (i.e. juiciness). But just as important is fat’s role in developing flavor. As Samin writes,
Italians’ remarkable relationship to fat is essential to why their food tastes so good.
This is true not only for olive oil, but for animal fats as well. It’s why a rich ribeye steak is more flavorful than a lean tenderloin fillet, or why whole milk is more flavorful than skim. Samin’s discussion of fat is wide ranging and includes a valuable discussion of the role of different fats in baking desserts and how emulsions such as mayonnaise and vinaigrettes work.
Perhaps the most surprising element, even for experienced cooks, is acid. Samin argues that acidic ingredients – whether citrus, wine, tomatoes, yogurt, etc. – provide balance to our food and that when our food lacks acidity it lacks a certain zest and liveliness. Having been raised with Iranian food, Samin tells the story of her first traditional Thanksgiving, finding the food bland and boring. Later, when she tried the same foods prepared with a little more acidity – sour cream in the mashed potatoes, white wine in the gravy, brussels sprouts tossed with sugar, vinegar, and hot pepper – many of the same dishes came alive. She learned that while salt enhances food, acidity balances it. This doesn’t mean that every dish needs an acidic component, but it does mean that in the course of a meal, acidity in the right place at the right time brings balance, elegance, and grace to our foods. It keeps our dishes interesting, and our mouths watering (literally).
Finally, Samin addresses heat and the way different forms of heat are used in different circumstances to produce the textural results we’re looking for, whether a crisp french fry or a meltingly soft short rib. She discusses smoking and slow-roasting to create tender meats, braising to break down the connective tissue that would otherwise be tough. She explains how to pan-sear so that the outside surface is browned just at the moment the interior is cooked through. She discusses how to handle the fact that even the best ovens have thermostats that are wildly erratic. She attempts to restore the unfairly maligned reputation of frying, and she eloquently discusses the power of plain old boiling.
The second half of the book includes recipes. Samin was at first reluctant to include these, wanting instead to emphasize how to cook without recipes. In the end, she realized that everyone needs starting points. Her recipes are interspersed with a continuation of the conversation about the elements of good cooking. In her recipes, she shows you how to apply the principles she has taught.
It’s hard for any book to live up to so much hype, of course, and no book is perfect. But Samin’s book is very, very good, and it is just what American cooks need right now. It saddens me, of course, that American cooking culture is so disconnected from the principles of good cooking that such simple insights (use salt!) seem so revolutionary. But, as Samin might say, we need to meet people where they are, and Samin has a gift for this. Right now, American cooks need a gentle but confident presentation of the elements of good cooking. They don’t need one more celebrity chef offering oversimplified recipes from their restaurants. They don’t need one more cooking fad. And they don’t need an encyclopedia of cooking. What they need is a patient but authoritative, funny but wise teacher, and that’s exactly what they’ll find in Samin Nosrat.