Is there anything more relaxing than peeling a bulb of garlic? Along with reading romance, listening to power ballads from the 1980’s, and shouting about the benefits of leading an introspective, feminist life, it’s my favorite thing to do. There’s something magnetic about coaxing the paper-thin skin away to unveil each magnificent, cream-white clove. The smell of garlic on my fingers hours later reminds of me of the hours I spent as a child helping my parents in the kitchen, as they prepared concoctions that my mother assures me will take at least a decade to master on my own. Peeling garlic gets to the core of me, to my love of good, unrushed food, of flavors that need to be coaxed out, and it’s a process I didn’t understand was missing from my life until recently. I didn’t know how much I would cherish the meditative peace that could only be found in the midst of the peeling. It’s an intimate experience for me.
What does this have to do with books, you ask? Well, everything. Reading is just as meditative and intimate as creating a good meal. Words provide deep mental and emotional sustenance, and food should have that same impact. In her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat takes readers and foodies alike on a uniquely powerful journey into the deeply personal act of cooking. You catch a glimpse of these principles in the Netflix show based on the book, but this volume is far and away so much more useful and compelling. Through her thorough and often hilarious look into the the nuanced worlds of salt, fat, acid, and heat, Nosrat proves that good food is not only possible every day, it’s possible every day for everyone.
Like a Great Teacher, Samin Nosrat Is There
Don’t let the movies fool you – teachers rarely stumble by accident onto the powerful lessons that change their students’ lives. Learning doesn’t happen on the genius whim of a teacher responding to an unforeseen question from an unlikely student. Good teachers are hard-working and put hours of thought and energy into crafting tightly paced, skill-based lessons. They plan backwards from where they want their students to end up to the very first part of the first skill that will lead them to understanding. They can anticipate students’ needs and misunderstandings before they ever present their lesson. Nosrat organizes her ideas in the same way in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The recipes that showcase the four elements are located at the back of the book, preceded by two hundred pages of scientific principles, diagrams, and real-life examples, all written in Nosrat’s warm, welcoming voice. Like any teacher who knows how to teach and engage her students, Nosrat knows that to truly understand how to use acid, fat, heat, and salt to elevate your cooking game, you first have to absorb and practice the skills behind each one.
Because I never like to be told what to do and because my brain literally stops whenever I hear the word “pasta,” I ignored Nosrat’s instruction to read from beginning to end and skipped ahead to the pasta al ragù that she prepares in the Netflix show’s episode on fat. I don’t regret it, because it was DELICIOUS. But now, having read the cookbook in its entirety, I appreciate why Nosrat sets up the book the way she does. Yes, she wants your food to taste good, but more importantly, she wants you to understand why your food tastes good, and how to ensure that everything you make tastes good. Her focus is not on the “what” of the elements, but on the “when,” “how,” and “why” behind each of them. Nosrat recognizes what her readers need: a practical, skills-based approach to cooking, with a touch of culinary magic thrown in to keep us on our toes.
In the season 3 premiere of Netflix’s Queer Eye, the Fab Five are working with Jody, who has embraced camo in every part of her life and wants to reclaim and redefine femininity on her own terms. The part that I recall now that resonates with the impact of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat comes from our favorite food and wine expert, and the man who shattered my heart with his use of eyeliner in season 2: Antoni Porowski. He takes Jody to a restaurant in Kansas City, and Jody is visibly uncomfortable. She doesn’t feel like she belongs in a fancy place like this, and Antoni tells her immediately to reframe her thinking. “The word ‘fancy’ makes it sound like it’s elitist or wrong. I want to change the word to ‘special.’” Even though he’s literally just replacing one word with another, Antoni opens Jody up to understanding that she belongs in any space that she wants to be in, regardless of how she dresses or lives her life. He helps her give herself access and opens up a world full of possibility.
Samin Nosrat accomplishes the same wondrous feat in her cookbook. It’s clear on every single page that Nosrat believes that good food isn’t a privilege for people with money or people who live in some upscale zip code. Good food is for everyone. And for me, the main way she tells her readers that good food is for them is through the very texture of the paper in the book. I own at least ten other cookbooks, and every single one of those volumes showcases the meals within on glossy, shiny paper that’s impossible to write on easily. Those books aren’t conducive to learning and experimentation and working your own quirks into the recipes. I literally have to find a permanent marker every time I want to add my own revisions. Though I’ve revisited these books dozens of times for favorite recipes, they weren’t created with my learning as a cook in mind. They were created to show off the ideal, perfectly crafted meal.
I know this might not sound like a big deal, but when I was teaching, I had to think about the resources my students did and didn’t have access to. I would never send them home with notes or learning materials they couldn’t easily write on with a readily available pencil or pen. I had to set them up for success in every possible way, which included considering if they had access to a printer or internet or permanent markers for a project. You can’t learn if you can’t scribble all over your work or make notations or doodle to stay focused. Samin Nosrat knows this, which is why the lessons and recipes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat are presented on paper that you can actually write on with a pen or pencil, and that you can highlight on! Nosrat prioritizes the experience of the reader with this gorgeous book, and that’s what really sets it apart from the other sleek yet inaccessible cookbooks vying for room in my kitchen.
As you can see, I was very hype about salt.
Good food is personal, and Samin Nosrat ensures that Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat offers everything that a cook might need to wrangle every meal into a scrumptious and scholastic experience. She says that these are the four dominant elements of good cooking, but I think her book makes a great case for a fifth: access.