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Most cookbooks or books about cooking, are recipe books. One recipe after the other. There might be some personal story from the author intertwined throughout, or a few tips and tricks on how to make it work well. Most books focus on teaching you to cook/bake by following a recipe.
That’s not the case for salt fat acid heat (affiliate link) by Samin Nosrat. She doesn’t start with recipes, she starts with explaining cooking. How you can lift up flavour (using salt), how to tweak textures (using fat), how to balance dishes (using acid) and how to use heat to transform your food. No matter which cuisine you cook, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, American you can apply these basic lessons in your cooking.
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The author: Samin Nosrat
Samin grew up in California, her parents had fled Iran just before she was born. She grew up surrounded by Persian food (which you’ll see back in the collection of recipes at the end of the book) and started studying English in college. Only by chance, after saving up money to have a meal at Chez Panisse, did she even consider a career in food.
She started out as a busser at Chez Panisse, managed to get into the kitchen and continued cooking non-stop from there. Italy was her next stop for a lesson in cooking and food and later she traveled all around the world to make & taste different foods.
All the time she was learning and refining her system of ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’ and by the time she came back in California she started teaching it to others. First to her young cooks, later at classes all over the place. Eventually, she made it into a book.
Her experience in teaching the concept, well before she wrote it down in a book shines through clearly. She’s good at explaining concepts in a concise and easy to understand way. Her experience with cooking shines through just as much. There as so many real life examples that she brings up that illustrate just how well she knows what’s she’s talking about. That roast chicken recipe is clearly something she’s made hundreds of times before, and not a recipe that was just developed for this book.
Two sections: background + recipes
The book starts with the teaching section. In four chapters she discusses the role and importance of salt, fat, acid and heat. Within each of those chapters she starts with the basics (what is salt?) and builds on more layers of information. Which type of salt should you use, how should you take into account the shapes and sizes of your particular salt and how do you correct if you’ve used salt incorrectly? She does this is a very clear and concise way.
The second half of the book are recipes, but not just your regular recipes. The sections on recipes are intertwined with graphs and tables and further explanations. Before diving into recipes using onions, she explains the different ways to cook onions (blond vs brown vs caramelized). The section with vegetable recipes shows a chart of how to best prepare a range of vegetables (roast boats, but don’t roast artichokes, saute them instead).
All throughout the book she is clearly teaching you how to cook, not how to follow a recipe. She mentions this throughout as well and keeps on mentioning the need to taste and adjust based on your ingredients and tools.
Cooking the book
Roast chicken had been on our ‘to cook’ list for a long time. Inspired by Masterchef Australia (our favorite cooking show) we had wanted to make it for a long time. Roast chicken just never was a part of our repertoire. Salt fat acid heat contains a recipe for roast chicken though, so this was our sign to go ahead and make it, finally.
So, the chicken bathed in a mixture of yogurt & milk for a whole day before we put it into the oven, closely following Samin’s instructions on rotating the pan. As she reminded us to do, we followed our own intuition as well, by using a thermometer to check the internal temperature (which was a good thing to do, our chicken need an extra 20 minutes in the oven, which might well be because of our oven being slightly different than hers).
The resulting chicken was great, just like the other recipes we made, a salsa verde to go with our veggies and the mayonnaise we made a day earlier to eat with some potatoes.
You shouldn’t buy the book for the recipes though. The recipes are just one part of the book and of the cooking process. The recipes are clearly meant to be used as a starting point to apply all your lessons learned and to learn further from there.
Design: the drawings
The book has a good amount of white space, making it easy to read and clear chapters and paragraph indicators. But what makes the book stand out from a design perspective are the great drawings from Wendy MacNaughton. Whether it’s a simple drawing of a set of pots or a leaf of parsley, or a diagram explaining ‘the Pasta Nostra’ or the types of acids used in different cuisines, they really liven up the book.
The drawings are both illustrative and very functional and truly help you understand the concepts Samin explains. They are especially great to go back to later to look something up quickly without having to read the whole chapter again.
There’s more to salt fat acid heat than just the book. They also made a tv series to accompany the book (airing on Netflix). In each of the four separate episodes they explore one of the 4 topics. She explores fat in Italy, salt in Japan, acid in Mexico and heat back in California. You can watch the series without the book and read the book without the series. Whereas they build on the same theory, they are individual stories.
The tv-series goes more in-depth to a few specific examples than the book goes and is in general just a wonderful show on food. It is really nice to watch the traditional way soy sauce is made and to see regular people make their food.
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If you want to improve your cooking and get better tasting food without highly advanced tips and tricks, Salt Fat Acid Heat (affiliate link) is for you. It’s a guide to better cooking and creating a cooking intuition. It’s definitely changed the way I think about cooking and baking and helps me think about the food I make in a more balanced manner. It can be as simple as remembering to add some acid to a pasta dish to freshen it up or to use fat as a carrier for flavour.
Samin knows what she’s talking about, so much is clear when reading the book. She also has a good way, using illustrations of explaining her concepts in a way that is well accessible. It’s better to read a book like this from a good educator (who’s definitely a good cook as well) than from the best chef in the world who hasn’t got those teaching skills.
That said, if you’re looking for extensive, detailed, specific recipes, this is probably not the book for you.
Salt, fat, acid, heat book’s website, link
Samin Nosrat’s, personal website, ciaosamin.com