How to cook without recipes: Master these four elements and never look back – National Post

Salt, Fat, Acid, HeatBy Samin NosratSimon & Schuster480 pp; $47.00

Use your fingers to season food; say goodbye to the salt shaker. Use fat to create crisp, creamy, tender, and light textures. Use acid salts alter ego to balance flavour. Use your senses instead of timers when applying heat.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Simon & Schuster, 2017) represents 17 years of culinary experience. Chef and writer Samin Nosrat arrived at her theory of the four elements of good cooking through practice, using it as a mnemonic device to guide her.

The Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat theory slipped in alongside these philosophies that were handed down to me about cooking, which is the idea of practice makes perfect You have to travel and taste and learn every day, Nosrat says in an interview.

It was very much drilled into me that, You dont know anything until its reached a point where you dont have to think about it anymore. Where its just in your body; your mouth knows what to taste for and your hands know how to cut something.

Nosrat had only been cooking professionally for a year, at the esteemed Berkeley, Calif. restaurant Chez Panisse, when she first mentioned her four-element theory to a more experienced colleague, chef Christopher Lee.

It was just one of those moments where I really felt like Id stumbled onto something and I brought it to him and he just laughed, she says.

He was like, Oh, you think youve figured something out? We already all know that. But for me, what was so shocking in that moment was that I felt like I had come to this great realization. It wasnt a great realization because they already knew it, but nobody had ever told me.

When Nosrat started at Chez Panisse, she dove into the restaurants list of seminal cookbooks. What surprised her, she says, is that these guiding principles werent articulated in any of them. She knew then that she would eventually write a book on the subject. The only problem was, as a baby chef, she needed the expertise to back it up.

I got out a notepad, I started writing and I didnt have much to say, she says with a laugh. So, it stuck with me and it became the system that I was filing everything I learned into. Whether or not I was actively paying attention to it, everything seemed to naturally fall into these four elements, more or less.

Today, Nosrat is an accomplished instructor and has taught her theory to the likes of professional chefs, junior high school students and influential food writer Michael Pollan. (She appeared in his book, Cooked, and the Netflix docu-series of the same name.)

Whereas cookbooks squarely centre on recipes, Nosrat designed Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to give people independence highlighting the science and techniques that underscore good cooking. This is a book that can help you decide what to cook, how to cook it and why.

Part One of the book is devoted to mastery of the four elements, Part Two includes 100 of Nosrats most essential and versatile recipes: e.g. a panzanella for every season, sweet corn soup, kuku sabzi (Persian herb and greens frittata), chicken confit, and all-butter pie dough.

My job in these recipes is to give you some room but also, very counter-intuitively to be as precise as possible and clear and thorough as possible so that you can get to the end and be successful, she says.

Whether using a recipe or improvising, Nosrat says the goal is cooking thoughtfully, with your senses. Considering salt, fat, acid and heat every time you cook; both before setting out and throughout the process.

She quotes the late chef Judy Rodgers of San Franciscos Zuni Caf, who once said, Recipes do not make food taste good; people do. Rather than abandoning critical thinking in favour of following a recipe, Nosrat writes, Be present. Stir, taste, adjust.

Graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton collaborated with Nosrat on art for the book. 150 infographics and illustrations are peppered throughout: knife cuts are hand-drawn to scale and basic skills such as how to dice an onion are beautifully presented; charts and diagrams depict lessons such as when to salt your food.

Nosrat explains that her mission is to empower people to cook intuitively; to view recipes as inspiration rather than instructions. In this spirit, instead of showcasing immaculately-presented finished dishes in the book, she emphasizes concepts.

There is this disingenuousness built into the world were living in where people are being pelted with these ideas of what dinner should look like without the backstory. And thats a great disservice, Nosrat says.

What I was taught (as a cook) and certainly as a child even before I was a cook, was the importance of practice; the importance of messing up and trying again. That doesnt seem to come across in the extremely styled, glossy pictures of food and messages that were constantly getting about what our food should look like.

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How to cook without recipes: Master these four elements and never look back - National Post

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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
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