Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

salt-fat-acid-heat-hardback-cover-9781782112303.600x0Every now and again a book comes along to raise the bar. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is just such a one.

The Bon Appétit Foodcast is a favourite here at the Scullery and there’s a great interview with Samin Nosrat about Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat from a few weeks ago. The Foodcast is usually a super source of tips for great cookbooks – the interviews with writers fun and engaging – and this episode sold the book a hundred times for the Scullery.

On the show, Adam Rapoport humorously describes Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat as a ‘non-cookbook’ and to an extent this is true. It’s really a manifesto for good results – a detailed and inventive study of the four elements of cooking you need to get right. Enough salt, the right fat, the right amount of fat, a drop of the spiky stuff in the right place, the right heat. The right white light, white heat. That’s an over-simplification, but essentially that’s the book– a bold and ingenious almanac of these four features of cooking from an experienced and highly talented chef. Inside secrets, maybe, or sometimes just insight into the obvious-seeming but scary-when-you-try. Add more salt anyway.

There are also recipes, lots of them in the second part of the book. But truly, the book will have won you over long before you get to them. The first half is where the genius lies. While the friendly instructional info continues well into the recipe section (teaching the reader about pasta, or dough or yoghurt – don’t get me wrong, it’s all brilliant) the early sections on this book about the titular four elements is a flat-out masterclass. It’s not a MasterChef style tears and fears lesson from the furnace, or one of those enormous French Cuisine bibles – but a gentle help-out from a good friend who just popped by the very minute you screwed up an apple pie or got so stuck in a Salsa vinegar cycle it’s now a bucket of bitter indecision.

Flavour wheel

We really enjoyed Oliver Rowe’s soulful Food for All Seasons last year. If you were to take his book and an all-time favourite here – Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course – and mash up the best intentions of both then layer in a palmful of drawings from a brilliant artist you might, somehow, in our heads anyway, end up with something like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

There is something reminiscent of Rowe’s poetic philosophy of seasonality and of Allen’s generosity, and teaching. And the art by Wendy MacNaughton is brilliant – particularly the funky fold-outs like the flavour wheel, the fats of the world wheel. There’s something of the graphic quality of  David McKee’s drawings for Scullery legend Mr Benn about these ostensibly simple but highly accomplished drawings. There are no photographs – deliberately. “Let’s liberate you,” Nosrat says, “from feeling that there’s only version of every dish.”

Nosrat suggests the book be read from cover to cover, and we did exactly that. It’s a big book, so it took a few days. It’s now plastered in post-its and the notes pages at the back scribbly with actual notes. The amount of stuff you can pick up is quite incredible. Visitors to the Scullery still grow highly bored of any sentence that begins “Did you know …?” as a preface to some aspect of salt, some detail of vinegar. It’s that kind of book.

In some ways, these stories are part paean to perfection – there are accounts of Alice Waters that make her palate sound preternaturally intense – allied to a de-scarifying of failure. Nosrat shares her own kitchen mishaps and the book is about achieving the best taste through these four pillars of cooking, but being okay with yourself when it doesn’t work out. It is just cooking after all.  She reminds me of Nigella and her famous reaction to the fallen soufflé or Nigel Slater and his reassurance that we’re just making something to eat at the end of the day.

Having said that, you need to read about Nosrat as intern “lifting each of the twelve layers on each of the one hundred pieces of lasagne” to add extra salt. A cook at Chez Panisse had under seasoned and she was given the laborious task of fixing them grain by grain. Like many of these high-altitude kitchen stories, the tale is both reassuring, and mind-boggling. “I couldn’t eat there,” said a friend when I related this story. “Imagine some poor sod being made to do that!”

I know what she means, but I think Nosrat’s point in using the story is not to scare off those of us who are nine-tenths fish & chips and the remainder barely a dream of Chez Panisse. It’s to really underline the importance of salt to flavour. We don’t need to own a Ferrari to get the gist of streamlining.

There’s another story that has stayed with me. “The sad truth,” she says, “is that most Americans, accustomed to the taste of rancid olive oil, actually prefer it. And so, most of the huge olive oil producers are happy to sell us what most discerning buyers would reject.” This is both eye-popping and if I’m honest, slightly intimidating. Does the Scullery use fusty olive oil? Do people eat our food and think, if only they didn’t use such crappy old oil?

But there’s no point in getting a book like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat if you don’t want to learn. No point if you don’t want to shamefacedly test a few spoons of your olive oils just to practice checking. To start again to think about the absolute basics of getting something right, the craft of it.

“Cooking isn’t so different from Jazz,” she begins at one point before heading off on a great riff about cooking & Louis and Ella. “While a great chef can make improvisation look easy, the ability to do so depends on a strong foundation of the basics.” It’s that kind of book too. She talks about poetry and reveals that Scullery favourite Seamus Heaney is a much-loved poet. Somehow that completely fits. In his 1974 lecture ‘Feeling into Words’*, Heaney said:

“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them.”

Nosrat’s is the most original and infectious, encouraging and enabling new-to-us cookery voice we have read since our blog began. ‘Instant classic’ is over-used but in the case of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat the book will mostly likely be proved exactly that.

How do we find our voice, asks Heaney?

“In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear it in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, Ah, I wish had said that, in that particular way.’”

Or, this book is bloody brilliant. I wish I could cook like Samin Nosrat.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is published by Canongate, priced £28


* (1974) Seamus Heaney’s lecture given at the Royal Society of Literature, in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (London: Faber, 1980)

Many thanks to Adrian, at Canongate.