A few months ago I came upon a radio interview with Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. I was 100% captivated, as she summed up in 4 short words—salt, fat, acid, and heat—the elements for creating mouth-watering dishes in an uncomplicated and intuitive way. In her book and Netflix 4-part series (aptly titled Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat), she unpacks the basics for making delectable cuisine, in a way that even the most inexperienced home cook can relate to.
According to Samin, if you understand these 4 elements—salt, fat, acid, and heat—you can master the kitchen, and your cooking will be delicious. Think about it. Take the element of salt, for example. Have you ever over-salted, or under-salted a stew, soup, or any favorite dish? It changes everything. A few years ago, we were visiting some friends in the mountains of New Hampshire. We enjoyed a luscious dinner after a full day of swimming in the nearby lake and hiking in the woods. After our meal, out came a strawberry-rhubarb pie we had been eagerly salivating over all afternoon, as it baked and filled the cabin with the luscious smells of butter, homemade pastry, and sweet fruit. The pie was stunning, with its red juices oozing scrumptiously from a flaky, golden brown crust, and a bowl of whipped cream displayed nearby to add the perfect dollop of creaminess atop each piece. We enthusiastically dug in. And then we all froze, trepidatiously looking up at each other, mouths open, taste buds stunned. You see, our host and dear friend had inadvertently grabbed the salt canister, rather than the sugar canister, when creating the pie. After a few moments of sleuth work and the realization of the salt-sugar canister snafu, we all had a good laugh, and did what any dessert-craving mortals would do, we picked apart the pie, salvaging the flaky crust and making a mash-up of leftover berries, whipped cream, and pastry. It was really quite fun, and brought out the kid in all of us. This, of course, is an extreme case of where messing up one of the “salt, fat, acid, heat” elements can go awry. But you get the idea.
So let’s explore the elements of salt, fat, acid, and heat in cuisine creation. As Samin Nosrat says, “Be thoughtful. Be curious. Good cooking is in reach for everyone.” And it is. Embracing the simplicity of these 4 elements gives a foundational guide for each of us to create the dishes we love, with skill and ease.
Salt. Oh how we love our salt. I’m obsessed with Himalayan pink salt, Celtic sea salt, Maldon sea salt flakes, good Kosher salt, Fleur de sel, flavored salts, you name it. Barring a medical condition that may limit one’s salt intake, a pinch here and a shake there, translates into big dividends for one’s cooking.
Salt enhances flavor. In fact, it has the greatest impact on the flavor of a dish than any other ingredient. Salt makes food taste more like itself. If salt could talk, it would be telling the food: “Just be yourself! You are free to be YOU! I’m just here in the background to bring out the best in you.” Have you ever noticed how the best chocolate cakes or brownie recipes include a pinch of salt? It’s because the salt enhances the depth of the chocolate flavor.
Another example is fresh tomato. A plain tomato, simply sliced with nothing added, tastes bland and devoid of flavor. But sprinkle a little salt over the tomato slices, and voilà, this succulent fruit wakes up and bursts with flavor. Salt initiates the osmotic action promoting the release of the tomato’s juices. You go from a dry, lifeless tomato to a luscious, mouth-watering tomato. The intoxicating smells and flavors of many fruits and vegetables are held in their juices. And salt is a conduit of coaxing out the precious nectar.
These are just a few examples of the transformative power of flavor-enhancing salt. Don’t be afraid of salt. Experiment. Taste as you go. Your palate is your best guide, and your meals will come alive. You will experience that satisfying zing with each bite. Always look for good quality salts, as referenced above.
Fat is a transporter of flavor, a flavor carrier.
Imagine this. You have 2 cloves of garlic, skin off. Place one clove in a pan of simmering water. One clove in a pan of sizzling oil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove the cloves. Once cooled, taste the “garlic water” versus the “garlic oil.” The garlic water is devoid of the pungent, sharp flavor we look for from garlic. The garlic oil, however, has come alive with the sharp and spicy flavors we love so much from this distinctive aromatic. The essence of the garlic has been extracted.
The oil—a fat—has acted as a carrier and distributor of flavor. This is what fat does for our cooking, it distributes flavor beautifully throughout a dish. This is why so many of our recipes start with the sautéing of aromatics such as onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, and celery with a fat source (olive oil, butter, ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc) as a first step. This is done at the beginning of a recipe to set up the dish with a solid foundation of savory flavors which penetrate the oil and facilitate a delectable outcome. Also, your kitchen will be filled with seductive smells, warming up the palates of those nearby for diving into the forthcoming meal.
Fat also provides flavor, in its own right. We’ve come to demonize fat as the enemy. And certainly, a diet filled with unhealthy fats can be detrimental and disease-inducing. Yet, a diet with no fat at all often falls flat and is flavorless, leaving you hungry and wanting more, sometimes leading to cravings later on, often for health-depleting foods. Fat helps us to feel full. It slows the absorption of food, so we have more of a “slow burn” of calories, staving off blood sugar dives later on. Many of our nutrients and some vitamins can only be absorbed into the body with a fat source. So don’t be afraid of fat. Be wise with fat. Stay away from the inflammatory and cheap vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, canola, and safflower oils. Avoid all trans fats. Choose butter (yes, butter), olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, coconut oils for cooking. Be aware that some oils oxidize and become rancid when exposed to high heat. All oils have “smoke points,” and when heated past their particular smoke point, the oil will start to break down and release inflammatory-inducing free radicals which wreak havoc in the body. Avocado oil, coconut oil, and butter are better choices for high heat sautéing and roasting. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is better for drizzling over food or for lower heat sautéing. It’s important to source your olive oil from the freshest, most reputable places. Taste it! Just like you would a fine wine, pour a little in a glass, swirl it around, take a small sip, and swallow. Is there a spiciness at the back of your throat? This is good! This spiciness tells you that the oil is still alive, and has the compounds in it (polyphenols, particularly oleocanthal) that promote enormous health benefits, and are hugely anti-inflammatory. Drizzle EVOO onto your dish, as a last step, to impart incredible flavor, as well as to do your body good. Or simply add a handful of nuts or seeds, or a diced avocado—all great sources of healthy fats—to any dish or salad for a taste of satisfying magic.
Every culture has its choice of preferred fats. The olive oils of Italy, butter from France and Ireland, ghee from India, toasted sesame oil from Asian cuisine and the traditional lard from Southern cooking in the United States, the distinct flavor of each of these fats permeates the food and gives it its uniqueness and palatability.
Experiment. Choose the correct fats for your cooking, and for non-cooked recipes. Ditch the store bought, sugar-laden unhealthy salad dressings for a fresh vinaigrette of EVOO, lemon, salt/pepper (maybe a dash of Dijon) for a much better version. Keep it simple. Make small changes. Your cooking will be elevated to a whole new level.
Acid balances flavor, giving a dish contrast and depth. Think condiments. Have you ever noticed how a squeeze of lemon or lime, a splash of vinegar, a dash of salsa, or a dollop of yogurt elevates a meal and makes it pop? These are acids. Anything with a tart edge adds this element to a meal: goat and feta cheeses, Mexican cremas, fermented foods such as kimchee and sauerkraut, pickles, capers, mustards, ketchup, and soy sauces.
The acid in a meal—whether used during the cooking process or as a condiment with the meal—lifts the flavor of a dish. The acid sets off chemical reactions that can change the color and the texture of a food, in a very palatable way. I recommend investing in a Lazy Susan circular turntable to place in your dining space. They are inexpensive, and are a reminder to add this last finishing “acid” touch to your meal. Position your refrigerated condiments—mustards, ketchups, cremas, yogurts, soy sauces, salsas, krauts, kimchee, capers and pickles—in one part of your refrigerator so you can easily gather the desired ones for the table at mealtime. I keep wedges of cut lemons in my refrigerator, so I can easily pull them out for meals. The easier it is to “grab and go” (to the table or for a prepared meal to go), the more likely you will incorporate this satisfying element into your cuisine. Acid just might be the missing component for your fully satiated palate. I love the transmuting quality of this element! Try it.
Heat is the element of transformation. As Samin says on page 134 of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, “Heat takes the food from raw to cooked, runny to set, flabby to firm, flat to risen, pale to golden brown.” Heat determines texture. The sizzling, steaming, browning, simmering, poaching, baking, sizzling, roasting, grilling, smoking, and even a “bain-marie” are all examples how heat is applied in the cooking process. It takes experience to gauge how much heat and what type of heat to use for a desired dish. But a good, basic recipe and a little experience will take you far.
It’s important to get to know your own oven, as some are hotter than others, even when set at the same temperature. Ovens often have hot spots, with the back of the oven concentrating more heat. Weather (humidity in particular) and altitude affect baked recipes. Additionally, investing in proper cookware and tools is powerfully important. Le Creuset and All-Clad are my favorite brands for cookware, but other, less expensive brands are available.
Samin Nosrat’s book begins with a quote from Jane Grigson:
Anyone who likes to eat, can soon learn to cook well.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. The kitchen can be overwhelming for some, and others simply hate the process involved in creating meals. But I assure you, once you get a few techniques and recipes under your belt, you’ll quickly gain confidence and invaluable skills, and be on your way. Plus, your body will thank you with all the fresh, healthy food. Just start. Experiment. There are no true mistakes, just learning. Grab a cookbook, download a few recipes that look doable and scrumptious for you, and begin. You may wish to play the “SFAH game.” Can you identify the salt, fat, acid, and heat elements in each dish? Like everything in life, it’s all about the balance. Remember, the best dishes are actually the ones that are the least complicated.
For more information, please check out Samin’s book:
Or view the trailer of her Netflix series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
With lots of love and best wishes for your kitchen creations!