Every once in a while I read a nonfiction book that is just fantastic (like the book I read about color last year). Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat actually reminded me a lot of Living With Color, despite the fact that they really weren’t anything alike. Both books took a topic that I live with every day and really delved into it in a way that clarified things I had already felt instinctively, and helped me to see concepts and connections of which I had been vaguely aware but hadn’t really understood.
In her book, Nosrat talks about how she sort of fell into cooking when she was actually planning to be a writer. And so when she apprenticed herself to a very fancy restaurant, she found herself looking at things somewhat differently than her fellow workers who had grown up with and/or studied this passion for several years. They seemed to be able to cook on instinct, without recipes, tossing together seemingly dissimilar foods and coming up with something not just delicious but mind-blowingly so. One day she realized that this ability actually seemed to stand on four basic building blocks – salt, fat, acid, and heat – all working together in harmony. When she mentioned it to one of the other cooks, she was met with basically amounted to “well duh” …except it wasn’t a “well duh” for someone just learning to cook. Throughout the years of learning more and more about cooking, Nosrat continued to file her lessons into these four categories, thinking to herself that someday she would write a book… and then she did!
If, like me, you find cooking to be a tedious chore and the results to be incredibly mundane, you may enjoy this one. While Nosrat does include some honestly ridiculous recipes, and also seems to think that everyone lives around the corner from a delightful farmers’ market where one can purchase fresh, in-season veggies and meat that was on the hoof yesterday, most of her book is still somehow applicable to my life (and I haven’t been to a farmers’ market in years!). For me, it was the concepts more than the specific recipes, many of which are incredibly simple – I especially was fascinated by the chapter on salt, and how salting things can completely change the flavor. I’ve been salting meat a few hours before cooking it, and it genuinely has made a huge difference in the way it tastes! Ditto with salting pasta water. Both of those things fall under that category of “things people tell you to do but don’t really explain why” – which means I’ve been doing it wrong. I usually do salt meat… right before I cook it, which almost (but not quite) defeats the purpose. I also would put a dash of salt in the pasta water, for unknown reasons (someone may have told me to do this once??) – which isn’t enough to do anything to the actual pasta.
Throughout, the book is charmingly illustrated and also includes various charts and graphs – I loved the one that looked at seasonings from around the world, for instance. There were also smaller ones, like one that showed different ratios of water-to-rice, depending on what kind of rice you’re planning to cook.
This was one of those engaging nonfiction titles that is both intriguing to read straight through, and also excellent for reference when you need it. While I’m still not an amazing cook, I do find myself thinking more about the balance of my meals, sometimes in small ways. For instance, a few months ago I was making something (honestly can’t remember what) that called for buttermilk, and I just put in milk – well, part of the reason that that doesn’t work is that buttermilk is acidic, so now my recipe was missing not the dairy aspect, but the acidic aspect, causing the recipe to be off-balance.
I’m never going to be a skilled chef, but thanks to Nosrat I do feel like I’ve added a few more concepts to my bag of possibilities. While the recipes in this book aren’t terribly practical, the ideas behind them explain why some recipes work and others don’t, and why my meals frequently come across as bland – something that I can now work on fixing.
PS – Apparently Nosrat also has a cooking show of some kind. I’ve heard it’s amazing, but haven’t watched it myself!