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Chef Calls 'Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat' The 4 Elements Of Good Cooking


Samin Nosrat grew up understanding how good food is all about balance, and that's the gist of her new cookbook. It's titled "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering The Elements Of Good Cooking." Nosrat's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, and she grew up in San Diego near the beach.

SAMIN NOSRAT: Somehow my mom always knew exactly what would taste best when we emerged. Persian cucumbers topped with sheep's milk feta cheese rolled together in lavash bread. We chased the sandwiches with handfuls of ice cold grapes or wedges of watermelon to quench our thirst.

That snack, eaten while my curls dripped with seawater and salt crust formed on my skin, always tasted so good. Without a doubt, the pleasures of the beach added to the magic of the experience.

MARTIN: But it wasn't until she was living in Berkeley, Calif., that she understood why those bites from her childhood had been so perfect. She was dating a guy who was really into food. They started saving their money so they could have one meal at the famed culinary institution founded by Alice Waters - Chez Panisse.

NOSRAT: So we saved our money for seven months. We had a little shoebox. And eventually we saved $220, which felt like this very extravagant amount of money to spend on a meal.

MARTIN: It was Nosrat's first fine dining experience, and it changed her life. She was wowed by the servers who seemed to anticipate their needs. She marveled at how they got the butter smoothed perfectly into those handmade ramekins. She says the souffle she had for dessert tasted like a chocolate cloud.

NOSRAT: Kind of the funniest and best moment was during the dessert. And, you know, I was 19 years old. I was wearing a denim skirt. And I said, you know, I think this would be really good with a glass of cold milk because...


MARTIN: Because of course it would be better.

NOSRAT: Yeah. Now I understand that in fine dining it's considered, you know, like uncouth to ask for milk if you're not a baby.


NOSRAT: And so she sort of chuckled, and she went, and she brought us milk. And she brought us also a little taste of dessert wine to teach us the refined accompaniment. It was just a very sweet sort of entry into the beginning of my culinary education.

MARTIN: The following day, Nosrat wrote a letter to Chez Panisse about the dreamy dinner, and she asked for a job. And they gave her one. She gradually worked her way up. And it was while cooking at Chez Panisse that Nosrat had the revelation that eventually led to this cookbook, that salt, fat, acid and heat are the fundamental elements to good food.

NOSRAT: The elements and the sort of tenants of professional cooking don't always get translated to the home cook. Recipes don't encourage you to use your own senses and use your own judgment. And salt, fat, acid and heat can be your compass when you don't have other maybe tools (laughter).

MARTIN: Nosrat frees her readers to use their own senses instead of measuring cups. She says we should salt things until they taste like the sea, which is a beautiful thing, but it also sounds like just a lot of salt.

NOSRAT: Just use more than you're comfortable with, I think, is a good rule for most people. Especially when you're boiling things in salted water, most foods don't spend that much time in that water.

So the idea is to make the environment salty enough so that the food can absorb enough salt and become seasoned from within. A lot of times, you end up using less salt total if you get the salt right from within because then the thing isn't over-seasoned on the outside and bland in the center.

MARTIN: So let's get to fat, which is the next central element to cooking. This is something a lot of people are afraid of, even though to a certain degree we understand the difference between good and bad fats. It still gets a bad rap, fat in cooking.

NOSRAT: Yeah. And it's to me a tragedy because I think fat has this remarkable capability to offer us all these different and very interesting and delicious and sort of mouthwatering textures in our food. And it's just about learning how to get those textures out of the fat that you're already using.

MARTIN: You write in the book that Americans have - apparently we've gotten numb to bad olive oil?

NOSRAT: Yes. It's really crazy. It's because I think over the years we've developed almost this nostalgia for the rancid taste, and a lot of people don't realize that it's rancid. And so while the olive oil producing countries like Italy and Spain are more discerning in their tastes, they understand that Americans aren't, so they're like, well, we'll just send any old thing over there.

Especially a lot of the fancier, more expensive olive oil, sometimes they sit on the grocery store shelves for, you know, more than a year or two years. And by that time, they're already rancid before you bought it, and you just paid 35 bucks.

MARTIN: All right, acid. When we talk about acid in our food, what do you mean?

NOSRAT: For me, it's all about getting that nice tangy balance in a meal or in a bite or in a dish. And you can get that through a lot of things, citrus and vinegar and wine which are maybe the three most obvious and sort of well-known sources of acid, but then there's acid in so many other things.

Almost every condiment we add to our food is acidic, which is why when you get - I don't know - a bean and cheese burrito, you're always like hungry for salsa and sour cream and guacamole to put on there because those things will just perk it up, you know, and add flavor.

MARTIN: The last element we're going to talk about is heat. And you say a grilled cheese sandwich can actually be a great guide on heat. What do you mean by that?

NOSRAT: Yeah. I was trying to think of something that everyone has made, you know? (Laughter) And so the thing about heat I realized, it sort of boils down to when you're cooking a food, your goal - no matter what the food is - is to get your desired result on the outside and on the inside. And so your dream is to get that perfect grilled cheese, where the outside is crisp and brown and buttery and delicious, and the inside is melty and perfect.

MARTIN: I flipped through this book. There are some fantastic illustrations in here, but there are not the big kind of traditional glossy photos of these foods.

NOSRAT: This book and this message is about teaching you to be loose in the kitchen. And I didn't want you to feel bound to sort of my one image of a perfect dish in a perfect moment and feel like that was what you had to make. And so I didn't want you to feel like you had to live up to my version of perfection.

MARTIN: Lastly, I want to ask you about the dedication in the book. It says Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, she gave you the kitchen and that your mom gave you the world. What does your mom make of your career now?

NOSRAT: It's been a interesting experience being the child of immigrants and trying to explain this non-conventional path. But I think once she could sort of go to the store and buy a magazine that I had written for or now this book, you know, I think she gets that I've figured something out.

MARTIN: Do you cook for her?

NOSRAT: She doesn't like my kind of cooking.


MARTIN: So when Sunday night dinner comes around, she does the cooking?



NOSRAT: She's - like I said, she's a good cook (laughter).

MARTIN: The book is called "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering The Elements Of Good Cooking." It's written by Samin Nosrat. We spoke with her from member station KQED in San Francisco. Samin, that was so fun. Thanks so much.

NOSRAT: Thank you so much, Rachel.


GEOWULF: (Singing) Saltwater in the afternoon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.