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There has been a lot of buzz over the cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. I had read all about it on various food blogs and websites before receiving it as a gift for Christmas. Cookbooks rank as my #2 favorite gift after chocolate so needless to say I was pretty excited about it.
The book is authored by Samin Nosrat, a self-described cook, writer, and teacher. While studying English at Berkeley, she got caught up in the world of cooking after being mesmerized by a meal at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' restaurant in San Francisco. She began by begging her way into an apprenticeship at Chez Panisse, first doing grunt work but eventually working her way up into cooking. The internship began her extreme focus on and impressive perseverance in learning the ways of good cooking, taking her to Italy and beyond in the quest for culinary wisdom. Along the way she developed a theory of culinary fundamentals - that good cooking essentially boils down to the correct understanding and application of four elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat. The book, then, is the product all her research, apprenticeship, interviews, and trial and error in the quest of honing her theory and her skills, which she delivers to the reader in a very clear and detailed format. As she says, "You can become not only a good cook, but a great one. I know, because it happened to me."
A while ago, I decided to try to wean myself off recipes in baby steps. First step: don't go tearing off to the store to get that one ingredient you don't have. Substitute! Adapt! (Soups are a really forgiving dish to experiment with, so I made a lot of those.) Next step: take a really basic dish - like roasted chicken, rice, and veggie - and just try to play around with the seasonings and flavors. I made a little progress, but even now, I still wouldn't consider myself "blank slate" creative - as in, I don't just write out my menu for the week from my own ideas stored up in my head. I usually look at recipes for inspiration and guidance and maybe a general idea of a shopping list, even if I don't open the recipe when I'm cooking. But I want to be that kind of cook. I want to cook my own ideas. I want to even come up with some awesome new recipes. That's my kitchen vision. But it makes me nervous! Does that even make sense? I like control, but I'm habtituated to controlling results by relying on recipes. I'm afraid to just let go and wing it.
Enter Salt Fat Acid Heat. Let go, but with control. Understand the fundamentals - and there are only four of them! - and have control over the entire process, start to finish.
The book reads really easily. I literally spent a couple evenings in a row sitting and reading it on the couch. She gives a thorough description of each element with quite a bit of science but a lot of anecdotes to make it digestible. She includes really useful diagrams and charts which can be used for reference when you're starting to put all the elements together. She even gives little practices which you can take to the kitchen for controlled experimentation. It's a fascinatingly simple and yet not overly-simplified book. And Nosrat is very encouraging and charmingly self-deprecating; she includes plenty of examples of her own kitchen gaffes but uses them to illustrate basic principles. There's no wonder she's made a career of teaching this material, with her thorough grasp of the concepts and ability to apply them well, yet remaining relatable and positive
The chart below is a great example of her liberating approach to cooking. It's a perfect balance of order, humor, structure, creativity, and guidance.
So if you're feeling the itch to dig a little deeper into your cooking basics, or expand your cooking creativity, I can't recommend this book enough. And don't worry: this isn't like being handed the primary colors with the promise of becoming Monet. I would be highly suspicious of and very overwhelmed by anything like that. All this promises is that quality cooking isn't an obscure, out of reach art. It's attainable in your kitchen. All you need is to trust your knowledge, your senses, and your instincts. If you're not ready for the total jump, at the very least it will improve your cooking all around. Sounds like a win-win to me!