In This Cookbook, You Might Find Peace
This article was originally published on March 8, 2020 in the middle of New Zealand’s first lockdown.
I suspect there are a lot of cookbooks that live on coffee tables or above kitchen cupboards and remain untouched.
Purchased with all the best culinary intentions; to not just flick through the pages, pausing on pictures of silky chocolate sauces and golden potatoes, but to actually sit down and read them, cover to cover. To unpack all the delicious recipes and recreate them using your own spice drawer and cast iron skillet.
But then life happens. And before you know it, it’s 6:47pm on a Wednesday and you’re defrosting mince for your 600th spaghetti bolognese that you could probably make with your eyes closed – and which you probably will because good God you’re tired. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat has been sitting in my beach house for at least a couple of years. And given our current situation (being confined to our homes for the next four weeks, awaiting our fate), it seemed like as good a time as any to learn the fundamentals of cooking. To unpack the four basic factors that Nosrat says will determine how good your food tastes:
Salt, which enhances flavour. Fat, which amplifies it. Acid, which brightens and balances. And heat, which ultimately determines the texture of your food.
Except this isn’t really a cookbook (the recipes only occupy the last handful of pages), but rather a meditation on the way cooking should feel. It’s about the tasting, smelling and listening part. It’s about the science that determines the success or failure of our favourite dish. And beyond the science of my beloved Christmas pavlova, I wanted to feel something other than panic. Something other than the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in. I wanted to read something that required enough parts of my brain that all the noise and chaos of a global pandemic would fall away for a few minutes.
In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat I learnt that you can heat your pasta bowl by using it as a lid for the pot. And that your pasta water should be “as salty as the summer sea”. I learnt that you can repair a broken mayonnaise by adding a few drops of water and “whisking with the urgency of a swimmer escaping a shark.” And that colour has nothing to do with the quality of olive oil (if it smells like “a box of crayons, candle wax, or the oil floating on the top of an old jar of peanut butter”, it’s gone rancid. Throw. It. Out). I learnt that all good dessert chefs are trying to achieve a balance between sweet and sour. Think chocolate and coffee. Caramel and sea salt. Think tart nectarines with sweet pastry. Look at desserts through this lens and you’ll soon come up with your own combinations.
I learn that almost everything cooked in liquid – braises, paella, chicken vindaloo, risotto, stews, tomato sauce, oatmeal – should be simmered, not boiled. And that all meats – except the thinnest cuts – need to come to room temperature before you cook them (this is why the skin on your roast chicken always rips). I learnt that adding oil to a cold pan leads to degradation and that the fastest way to achieve creamy scrambled eggs isn’t actually cream, but lemon juice. I learnt that fat traps air when it’s whipped, which is why a cake made with butter yields lightness. And that if a recipe doesn’t call for baking soda then it will require you to do a lot more whipping to act as a raising agent (no less than 4 to 7 minutes). But you must add air slowly: If you think you can crank up the speed on your electric beater to save yourself time, you are wrong. It will not work. Be patient.
Recipes tell us what to do, but they rarely tell us why to do it. And it’s that “why” that Nosrat believes separates us from reaching our cooking potential. If you can connect with the “why” of salt, fat, acid and heat, you can stop looking at recipes as a definitive road map and instead as a source of inspiration. Or, in my case, as a source of comfort when it’s all feeling a bit too much.