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Jun 12 2017

Is it done yet? Now? How about now?

by Dea Anne M

salt1I had a friend in college who insisted on McDonald’s if we were stopping for fast food – which happened about as often as you might expect for two college students who were too “poor” to buy food to cook for ourselves and yet managed to regularly unearth enough “sofa money” (i.e. coins and cash found under and between furniture cushions, in the pockets of clothes heaped up on the floor, inside that semester’s textbooks and sometimes even in wallets) to take ourselves out to eat. One thing my friend always ordered were fries – large fries – and he always sprinkled them liberally with salt.

“What are you doing?” I would ask.

“What? I’m adding salt!”

“But they’re already salted.”

“Haven’t you ever heard that salt brings out the flavors in food?”

“Yeah, but…uh, so what?”

“Well, duh, McDonald’s fries are the best so adding more salt makes them taste even more like the best!”

He had me there. Thankfully, we both learned to take better care of ourselves shortly thereafter. He got a job as a server at a local restaurant that fed him before his shifts and sometimes allowed staff to take home leftovers. As for me,  I finally just learned to cook. I don’t know if he still salts fast food fries since we lost touch with each other through the years, but I have, I think, become a much better cook and one thing that I know for sure is that salt truly does enhance the flavors of food. Of course, many people are advised to limit salt for reasons of health, and I think that’s probably good for all of us, particularly in regard to processed food.

For home cooking though the right amount of salt can work wonders. I still think that my college friend’s taste was a little extreme…I really don’t think that McDonald’s fries require additional salt. On the other side of the question, I would never think to impose on my dinner guests the sort of strictures that diners at a few top-flight restaurants have been subject to. At these sorts of places, not only is there no salt provided at the table – any customer unwitting and naive enough to dare ask for any risks coming face to face with a furious chef. Still, I hope that I’m able to cook food that’s well seasoned and tasty enough to need no doctoring at the table at least some of the time.

What pops into your head when you think of these things: salt, fat, acid and heat? I imagine the reaction of many will be:

Salt (bad!)

Fat (really bad!)

Acid (huh…what?)

Heat (well, sure, we’re cooking aren’t we?)

Anyway, this somewhat rambling discourse is all by way of letting all of you know about a great new book that I’ve discovered in my ongoing quest to become a competent improvisational cook. I’m probably going to come across as a true believer here but I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat: mastering the elements of good cooking by Samin Nosrat. Be warned, this is really more of an instructive guide to cooking than an actual recipe book. There are recipes, true, butnosrat they function more as practical illustrations of Nosrat’s principles and are, as a whole, quite simple to understand and execute. The real meat of the book (so to speak) is the extensive chapters that examine in great depth each of the four “elements” that Nosrat considers essential. Some of this is bound to be controversial. Salt, as mentioned above, is something that many people must avoid for reasons of health. Some of us approach fat with the same wariness that a kitten might an elephant. As far as acid goes, it isn’t always clear what acid actually is in cooking. Let’s follow Nosrat’s lead and look at the elements one by one.

Salt – Enhances the inherent flavors of food. This is its purpose. Potatoes taste more like potatoes – steak more like steak. Used judiciously, salt makes your food taste taste wonderfully like itself. Too much just makes food taste salty which is definitely not what you want.

Fat – Helps flavors permeate throughout your food.

Acid – Balances flavors. Salt and oil on lettuce makes for a pretty ho-hum salad but a little vinegar or lemon juice make the whole assembly sing. And acid isn’t provided only by the obvious suspects. Cheese, for example, delivers salt, fat and acid together. Ketchup, mustard and yogurt all carry the “pop” you get from acid.

Heat – Determines texture as well as certain flavors. Boiling green beans might work perfectly but you don’t necessarily want to do the same thing with pork chops.

The real point of Nosrat’s writing and teaching is to show cooks how to trust their own senses and palates. She encourages you to taste food while you’re cooking it then taste again and again and again until it is exactly how you want. “You” is the operative word here. “Salt to taste” means exactly that. You are adding enough salt or fat or acid or heat until what you’re cooking tastes perfect to you and not necessarily what someone else thinks that you should prefer. And lest you fear that this approach renders Nosrat’s writing pedantic and dull be assured that nothing could be further from the truth. She is, first of all, an excellent writer both engaging and precise. She also seems to possess an enormous sense of fun and a lack of pretension that caused me to think all the time that I was reading that she would be a great person to be friends with. In any case, she is quite a wonderful teacher and I daresay that my own cooking has been transformed for the better due to her lessons.

I must also mention that instead of  the glossy and perfectly staged photographs that are usual in cookbooks these days, you have here Wendy McNaughton’s charming illustrations. I particularly love the “Spices of the World” wheel and the similar wheel for “The World of Acid.” Both provide a surprisingly handy reference when you might be improvising in the kitchen and want to create a dish that tastes French (wine, dijon mustard, tarragon) or reminds you of that week you spent in Mexico (oregano, chili, lime juice).

Whether you’re an experienced cook or an absolute beginner you can’t go wrong with this book. It will instill confidence in your own skills and in your own taste. That confidence is the most valuable tool that a cook can possess in my opinion. Also, I guarantee that following Nosrat’s lesson will not leave you with food that’s too salty, or a fat bomb, or turns your mouth inside out from sourness. Instead your food will just taste good and what isn’t to like about that?

 

 

 

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