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Davis, California

Friday, May 24, 2024

What I Learned From “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”

Nosrat teaches four basic elements of cooking

The Netflix original series “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” starring Samin Nosrat, is an artful culinary journey through the the four basic elements and flavors of cooking. As she travels the world, Nosrat explores the countries she deems have mastered these elements that can make or break a dish — fat in Italy, salt in Japan, acid in Mexico and heat right here in Northern California. Adapted from the best selling cookbook of the same title, the goal is to encourage and inspire home cooks.

The now celebrity chef was one of the many great chefs to come out of Chez Panisse — the original farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. run by Alice Waters and Paul Aratow. Built on a strong French foundation, it was the first of its kind to source local, organic and sustainable ingredients that has morphed into what is now known as California cuisine. Despite this professional training, Nosrat’s style is far from snobbish. Good food shouldn’t be exclusive, good food shouldn’t be difficult to make, it is for everyone. The words “anyone can cook” from “Ratatouille” echo in my head.

The food is mouthwatering and the cinematography is awe inspiring, but it’s Nosrat’s passion and child-like giddy excitement for food that stands above all. Her raw love for food is expressed by her bug-eyed, eyebrow-raising amazement when she tastes food and her eagerness to learn from her interviewees: grandmothers, butchers, salt masters and beekeepers. You instantly fall in love with Nosrat when she dives into not two, not three, but five different gelatos in a row, expressing pure bewilderment of the flavors on her palate, truly embodying a kid in a candy store. To say she loves food would be a severe understatement, an unhealthy obsession rings closer to the truth.

What do olives, pigs and cheese all have in common? Fat. We begin in Italy.

A word often carrying a negative connotation, fat in this series is presented as the cornerstone of flavor, as “fat makes food delicious.” Traversing the hills of Liguria, Nosrat first explores the art of olive oil, butchers some hogs, then collapses in a parmesan cheesery. My three takeaways:

  • Olive oil is essentially a fresh pressed juice that has an expiration date. There is no heat or chemicals used in the process, just squeezing. This means that olive oil can go bad — keeping it too long causes it to go rancid.
  • The fat used sets a path for the dish by defining and shaping the essential flavors. The French use butter. Southern cooking relies heavily on bacon fat and lard, and for Italians it’s olive oil. Fat enhances flavor, so don’t be afraid of it.
  • When cooking, it’s imperative to heat the pan before you add the oil. There seems to be controversy about this one on the internet, but Nosrat says it with such gusto and veracity, that I’m going to side with her on this one.

Several times throughout the tetralogy, Nosrat alludes to the fact that Americans seem to be clueless in our knowledge of food and flavor. Initially, I was offended to be lumped in with an entire culture that is ignorant to crafting good tasting food, but as she proceeded to explain (for example, that olive oil goes bad or that not all salt is created equal) I was confounded. I consider myself an avid home chef, but was not taught by my parents. Cooking was a voyage I embarked on when I moved away for college. I’m self-taught from YouTube videos, cooking shows and recipe following — but not even Bobby Flay had taught me these basic concepts.

Next, Nosrat travels to Japan for salt. Japan produces over 4,000 different kinds of salt, each differing by location and production method. Though all salt comes from the sea, there are many different ways to add salt when cooking. Nosrat sets out to sea, boating to gather seaweed — one method of harvesting salt — and learns traditional methods of making soy sauce and miso paste. Salt enhances flavor, making it taste “more like itself.”

  • Not all salt is created equal. Size, source, flavor. Smaller crystals dissolve fast and give off a saltier taste, whereas larger flakes dissolve gradually, giving a more delicate taste.
  • When you salt matters — for example, salting meat in advance. Nosrat seasons meat on the bone as soon as she brings it home from the store to give it time to “do its magic”.
  • There are many sources of salt and there is an art to layering it. Olives, cheese, pickles, etc. are all sources of salt.

It seems very obvious to taste your food as you go and to check whether it needs adjustments. But attuning your tastebuds to know what adjustments need to be made takes skill, and taste is just one way to understand your food. Nosrat preaches the importance of using all five senses in order to cook a good meal. She calls this a sensory experience, one that she feverishly projects.

Citrus, salsa, chocolate and oddly enough honey, are all essential forms of acid in Mexico. Acid brightens and adds contrast to dishes, doing the “necessary job of balancing”. My personal favorite episode of the series begins in the Yucatán Peninsula at a citrus market where Nosrat walks around with “La Abuela” tasting sour oranges — her lips puckered and her face scrunched before bursting out in a joyous yet uncomfortable laugh.

  • Acidity cuts through other flavors — fatty, salty, starchy or sweet — but spice enhances it. For example, salsa.
  • Browning, or cooking, produces acidity. The process of cooking brings out flavors that didn’t exist before. Think roasting peppers. More on this for heat.
  • Marinating meat in acid and cooking meat in acid yield two different results. Marinating tenderizes the meat. Acid essentially begins the cooking process. Think ceviche, the acid essentially cooks the raw shrimp or other seafood used, but it’s important not to leave meats in the marinade too long before cooking, otherwise it will overcook and toughen.

Cooking is a balancing act between layering flavors to elevate each other and letting each element speak for themselves.

As a native of Northern California, Samin returns to her roots to embark on the last element: heat. Heat is described as the transformation phase, where flavors are changed, developed and created. Heat is a spectrum: intense heat browns and crisps while leaving a tender inside, whereas slow and gentle heat utilizes time and liquid makes foods tender and juicy.

  • Ovens aren’t as precise as we may think. Heat isn’t evenly distributed nor is it stable. Ovens work like a thermostat, fluctuating up and down to regulate the set dial temperature. There are also “zones” in the oven: the front is much cooler because of the door, and the center and rear are hotter than the sides. Because of this, you have to use your senses to gauge whether the food is cooking properly or evenly. Samin demonstrates this by roasting whole chickens, rotating them and flipping them to get an even color and doneness.
  • You don’t have to have expensive ingredients to make good food. Nosrat recommends always getting quality staples like fresh citrus, herbs — the biggest bang for your buck in terms of flavor — grabbing “everyday vegetables” — getting comfortable with year round veggies like spinach, broccoli and carrots, and learning how to make them taste good.
  • Cooking takes time and patience. With the roasted chickens, for example, let the refrigerated meat rest and rise to room temperature prior to cooking, and let the cooked chicken rest afterwards for the juices to redistribute and the flavor to settle.

Nosrat concludes the series with a paradoxical, yet heartfelt message: cooking is not about the food, it’s about what happens at the table. Good cooking is within reach for everyone.

I find irony in the recent increase in food related docu-series and cooking videos flooding social feeds — what I like to think of as the “wave of Chef’s Table”, or the “food porn” social media trend. We are watching and consuming more and more food related media, but we are cooking less and less. This paradox suggests that we are interested in good food, we want to be consuming good food, but we don’t take the extra step in the kitchen.

Is it laziness? Is our desire to cook satisfied by watching others? Do we not have the time? — I would argue the latter can not fully explain this because if we have the time to watch from the couch, we have the time to do in the kitchen. Nosrat achieved her goal by inspiring me, and probably others, to step into the kitchen and elevate home cooking through remembering salt, fat, acid and heat.

Written By: Grace Simmons — arts@theaggie.org


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