If You Buy One Cookbook This Year, Let It Be ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ by Samin Nosrat

Cooking the Books: For the first installment of our new series, we tested out Nosrat’s recent, critically acclaimed cookbook, a trove of hard-won kitchen secrets from the California-based chef. Here’s what we loved — and really loved — about it.

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Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

The Book: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Measuring the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, $47.

The promise

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is less a collection of recipes than a spilling of kitchen secrets. It’s neatly packaged into the title’s four basic concepts by Samin Nosrat a writer, teacher and chef hailing from California. Nosrat’s approachable instruction (inspired by her time in the Chez Panisse kitchen) is designed to help you punch up the flavour of even basic dishes (salad!) and guide you towards trusting your gut instead of dutifully following directions — ultimately making your cooking more instinctive, flavourful and yes, fun.

Braising Instructions, Illustrated from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

First impression

Opening this book, you feel as though a friend has just passed you the best cheat-sheet ever. You might even pick it up just for the artful and oh-so-handy infographics, which burst off the page. Created by Wendy MacNaughton, an illustrator and graphic journalist based in San Francisco, the joyful watercolour artwork takes Nosrat’s culinary concepts to the next level — like a one-sheet on braising basics, a pull-out flow-chart called What Should I Cook, or a concise visual on how to make mayo.

Sources of Acid Illustrations from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

Sample recipes  

Nosrat takes us back to basics:

  • Roasted Potatoes pg 36-37
  • Buttermilk Marinated Roast Chicken pg. 340
  • Tomato: Pasta Alla Pomarola pg. 292

Sources of Fat Illustrations from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

But do the recipes actually work?

Keeping mind that this book is as much about technique as it is about sharing specific recipes, I approached testing it out both ways.

After reading the section on salt, I took Nosrat’s advice to boil my potatoes in salted water before roasting. Game changer! I will never again roast my potatoes without first taking them through this step. The potatoes were seasoned outside and in — guaranteed to make your meat-and-potato meals mysteriously more delicious than everyone else’s.

I also used Nosrat’s brining technique to roast chickens over a campfire at the cottage (she’d served them to legendary chef Jacques Pépin, and he said they were delicious, so I was in). I’d never roasted chicken on an open fire and was worried about drying out the meat. But as promised, the sugars in the buttermilk helped caramelize the chicken, and the results were moist and tender. (I tried one chicken without the brine— to compare— and the meat was not as succulent.)

Finally, I made Nosrat’s basic tomato sauce to see how her version of this simple staple would deliver. What is truly excellent about her instructions is that she guides you to understand the point at which a sauce tastes ready — that moment when the tomatoes go from tasting raw to cooked and become less farmers-market fresh and more bowl-of-pasta savoury. This is the kind of knowledge that builds your confidence and teaches you to trust your palate. I ended up with a flavourful base sauce, perfect for freezing.

Power of Pie Illustrations from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

The verdict

This book is deservedly being hailed as a new essential. More approachable than Mastering the Art of French Cooking (though Nosrat has been called the new Julia Child), and more playful than The Joy of Cooking.

You’ll learn that salting food (how much and when) can take a meal from OK to extraordinary; that fat affects texture (think of a crisp fried egg or a tender crust); that acid makes food mouth-watering (the squeeze of lemon used by chefs to finish a dish); and that heat-management can take a steak from ho-hum to heavenly.

Nostrat always provides a shoulder to lean on — adding guidance on menu-planning, pantry essentials and suggestions for how to apply the cooking lessons in the book.

If this book were only about learning the puzzle pieces of cooking, it would be indispensable. If you only read the chapter on “salt,” you’d up your kitchen game by 50 percent. But Nosrat also has an amazing gift for storytelling, and you’ll curl up with this book on the couch immersed in the narrative of how she fell in love with food and cooking.

Who to buy it for  

 Yourself (and don’t lend it out!). The college student in your life. Basically, anyone who loves to cook — whatever your skill level, there is something in here to learn.

Where to keep it

In the kitchen, within arm’s reach — for the rest of time.

 

Watch: How to Make Simple Homemade Mayo