Samin Nosrat has taught professional chefs, home cooks, and the writer Michael Pollan, how to cook. Her classes fill within minutes of being posted, and now she's written a cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, that takes her teaching method and distills it into book form.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a cookbook unlike any I've seen before. Nosrat gives cooks the information they need to understand how different elements go together--not just why you need salt or acid, for example, but when in the cooking process these things will be most effective to add, based on the ingredients and the dish. It can be a little daunting at first, being so used to cookbooks that are page after page of recipes, to read through each section in the first half of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat with patience, but Nosrat infuses her personality into the pages alongside delightful illustrations, making the read fun and totally accessible. And I've gotta say, kind of exciting. I'm a lot more confident in the kitchen as a result of reading this book.
We picked Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat as our top pick for the Best Cookbooks of 2017 so far and it's a cookbook I would recommend as a staple on any cook's shelf. Nosrat was in Seattle recently and we met at local restaurant Ba Bar to talk about the book and food. She has an exuberance that is infectious and I imagine this is part of what makes a seat in her class so sought after. One of the topics that came up was Ellenos, a local Greek yogurt that many of us are obsessed with and which, after our conversation, Nosrat was eager to try. Luckily we have a weirdly foodie-friendly selection of goods at the drugstore down the street and after we left Ba Bar, Nosrat picked up a container of lemon curd Ellenos to give it a try. You can see what she thought of it in the Q&A below.
Seira Wilson: What was the hardest part about putting the cookbook together?
Samin Nosrat: Finding the right structure for Part One of the book--my basic theory of good cooking using Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat--is what nearly pushed me over the edge. I had to rewrite the entire book three times before I got it right. There were a lot of tears, cups of tea, therapy sessions, and very late nights at the office. On the one hand, I knew the book would look different and be structured differently than any other cookbook I'd ever seen, and I was really proud of and excited about that. On the other hand, not having any models to look to for inspiration was really challenging. I had to dig really deep at times to find the motivation to keep rewriting. But a dear writer friend shared this Flaubert quote with me very early on: "Prose is like hair; it shines with combing." I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my computer and looked at it every day. And you know what, when I finally did land on the right structure, I felt like I had struck gold. It was amazing, and I knew I was onto something special. The best part is that really seems to be working for readers! I can't tell you how gratifying that is.
Seira: Why illustrations versus photography?
Samin: I’ve always loved beautiful food photography, but from the first moment I knew that this book wouldn’t have photos. The entire message of the book is to inspire and empower the reader to cook intuitively, with whatever ingredients she has on hand. I felt that illustrating that with beautiful, perfectly styled food photos would be disingenuous. Use spinach if you don’t have chard! Use pork if you don’t have chicken! It’s ok...there’s no visual ideal I want you to aim for. In fact, I want to free you from that! Illustrations allow for that freedom, and in Wendy MacNaughton I found a co-storyteller, rather than just an illustrator.
Working with Wendy was an absolute dream. While our senses of humor are complementary, we also have vastly different backgrounds and strengths. For example, she was never much of a cook before we met, and we quickly realized that that was a gift to the project, a sort of built in test--if an instruction wasn’t clear enough for Wendy, who was standing in the same room as me, then it certainly wouldn’t be clear enough for a reader.
Besides her artistic training, Wendy has backgrounds in social work and design that deeply inform her work and her ability to convey information visually. So I’d sit there and ramble on about, say, the importance of using a cooking fat that’s traditional to the cuisine from which the dish you are cooking originates, and she would take notes. Together, we’d create a hierarchy of information, and then she’d take that and figure out how to represent it visually. It was amazing. She helped me take all of my complicated ideas about the systems that underlie culinary thinking and turn them into fun, whimsical illustrations.
Seira: What are the top 3 tips every cook should know to do?
1) Learn how to taste for salt and acid. If you can balance these two elements, you can make anything taste amazing. The best way to train your palate is to start tasting thoughtfully every time you cook and eat. Taste all throughout the process, over and over, and think about what the dish needs to become balanced. But you don't need to be the one cooking to taste carefully--even when you eat out, or when someone else cooks, use the opportunity to taste carefully. When something tastes wonderful, think about what makes it taste good (hint: it's probably properly salted and has enough acid). Then, try to replicate that the next time you're in the kitchen.
2) Learn how to hold a knife. It'll make everything easier. Hold a knife by pinching the blade between your thumb and forefinger, and lightly gripping the handle with your other three fingers. It will feel weird at first, but after a couple of weeks it'll be second nature. When you hold a knife like this, you have a lot more control over the blade, and you need to use a lot less effort to slice and dice, which will save your back and your wrist. Cooking is a lot easier when you do it ergonomically!
3) Have fun in the kitchen! Remember, cooking isn't brain surgery. It's just dinner! If you mess up, you can always order a pizza and try again tomorrow. So relax, don't stress about mistakes--they're just learning opportunities, and have fun!
Seira: I heard you might be doing a TV show...??
Samin: YES! I can hardly believe it, but Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is being turned into a docu-series by Jigsaw Productions. We're about to start pre-production, and are putting together a team of badass creatives (mostly women!!!) to make the show inspiring, fun, informative, and just really, really beautiful. I get to travel all over the world to show how Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat really are the universal elements of good cooking, and I am SO EXCITED! I think the series will be out sometime next year!
Seira: What's your go-to meal when you need something fast with ingredients on hand?
Samin: When I come home and am totally exhausted (which is, face it, most nights), I start a pot of jasmine rice on the stove. One part rice to one-and-a-half-parts water, and a generous pinch of salt. Cover, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender. It takes about 20 minutes. In the meantime, I brown an onion and then add whatever greens I have on hand--usually kale or broccoli--and long-cook over gentle heat. I love spicy food, and I always have Calabrian chile paste on hand, so I add a generous spoonful of that. And then, I fry an egg, or, if I am feeling really fancy, I slice and marinate tofu with soy sauce or Bragg's liquid aminos and fry it in coconut oil. It's become my go-to-comfort meal, and it's totally delicious.
Seira: How did you like your first taste of our local favorite, Ellenos yogurt?
Samin: I loved it! It's the creamiest, richest yogurt I have ever tasted! I'm sorta glad I don't live in Seattle, because I could see myself going bankrupt because of Ellenos.
Seira: What do you enjoy most about teaching people to cook?
The most satisfying thing as a teacher is empowering my students to care for themselves and their loved ones. There is nothing like it!