Salting isn’t something to do once and then check off your list.–Samin Nosrat
I recently watched Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and found her to be very personable and her excitement about teaching others how to build flavors to be contagious. If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend that you start watching ASAP! It’s fun and instructive, and it will make you hungry.
I then began reading her book Salt Fat Acid Heat, and discovered that, as with the book-version of most cinematic productions, the book is even better! From the first words of Michael Pollan’s foreword, I felt as if my entire culinary life were about to be beautifully transformed. As Pollan puts it, “reading Salt Fat Acid Heat feels less like being in the pages of a cookbook than at a really good cooking school” (1). Rather than a book of recipes that tell you what to do without explaining why, SFAH is a book about learning the principles of cooking, in addition to some basic science. And as I see it, understanding the underlying whys in one application translates into understanding them in multiple applications, thereby remarkably expanding the cook’s skills in relatively short order.
But there is much more. Understanding how salt, fat, acids, and heat function together means that the book simultaneously instructs the reader on culinary techniques, such as making a mayonnaise, properly poaching or frying an egg, or caramelizing onions. And most home cooks have little training in techniques—we usually just fly by the seats of our pants without really understand how to perform the techniques or why to do them a particular way. I sense that my cooking skills will reach a much higher level by the time I finish reading this book. It feels empowering. Transformative. Indispensable, as the foreword puts it. So…I’ve decided to write about the new culinary journeys that SFAH takes me on.
I began reading the first chapter on salt, already feeling pretty clued into the power of salt, thanks to my mom’s early lessons in cooking and baking (and to learning a lot about Locavore’s salts). Mom used to say that she could tell if a baker had not used salt in cookies or a cake. I remember being somewhat dubious about her claims, but I must say that in time, I too learned to discern some of the subtleties of seasoning with salt. I can also taste when a baker omits salt, and when a cook neglects to adequately season the pasta water. I’m forever encouraging Tahlia to put a pinch, just a pinch!!, in the breakfast oatmeal. And one time in high school, a friend made lasagna for the first time and asked my opinion, and my first comment was “there’s no salt in it!” Being tuned into salt this way, it even kind of drives me crazy that rice used in Asian cuisines isn’t seasoned, even while I understand that unsalted rice allows the more flavorful sauces to occupy center stage, while the rice serves more as the supporting cast.
At any rate, after having completed SFAH’s first section on salt, I do believe I have a pretty good grasp on the crucial need for proper seasoning of food. For years, I’ve used what probably appears to those less-versed in the ways of salting to be a ton in my pasta water. But Nosrat has enlightened me, just the same. Prior to reading it, I understood that proper amounts of salt are necessary. But after reading it I realized that I had given little thought to two other aspects that Nosrat emphasized: salt must also be used “at the right time, in the right form” (20). Not only does salt season different types of food at different rates of time, but it also comes in many forms beside the little crystals we measure into our cakes or shake onto our veggies.
A lightbulb went on in my brain when I realized that the timing of seasoning is important. Despite my attention to seasoning in the past, I’d never really pondered the idea that when you add salt affects the seasoning of food. But since salt diffuses slowly into denser objects, especially when they are cold, you need to salt some foods long in advance. Meats, for example, should be salted the day before you cook them, Nosrat says. Doing so insures that your chicken or steak turns out more flavorful and more tender. Other foods such as fish and seafood require far less advance salting—only 15 minutes or so. Most veggies should also be salted prior to cooking, with the exception of mushrooms, which shouldn’t be seasoned until they’ve begun to brown. In addition, how long food is to be cooked also affects the seasoning process: if you’re blanching vegetables—by definition a short cooking technique—then much more salt is needed in the cooking water because the cooking time is so short. Emphasizing that we should learn to “season from within,” Nosrat has taught me that I need to be much more mindful of the time it takes salt to distribute in different foods, of the temperature of the food when salting (salt distributes more quickly in warmer temperatures), and of the ways that the use of water might facilitate diffusion.
I’ve also realized that “salt” includes far more than just the box of Morton’s or Diamond Crystal we keep on our kitchen counters. Depending on what you’re cooking, it might come in the form of capers, bacon, parmesan, miso paste and soy, anchovies, sardines, Worcestershire sauce & other condiments, pickles, cured meats, seaweed, olives, or a hundred other things. Attention to all the forms of salt that go into a dish before cooking it is critical to getting the balance of salt right. And strategic use of multiple forms of salt is a process Nosrat calls “layering”: layering enhances flavor, but you have to pay attention to which form of salt is needed at any given moment in the cooking process. She emphasizes the need to “taste, taste, and then taste again,” at each stage—we should learn to taste “instinctively.” “Salting isn’t something to do once and then check off your list,” Nosrat reminds us. Getting the seasoning right means it has to be right “at every level—bite, component, dish, and meal” (27). Perfect salting happens through repeated tastings. And as Nosrat learned from one of her teachers, sometimes “just seven grains [of salt] can mean the difference between satisfactory and sublime.”
Seems like there are several critical take-aways here that I will forevermore consider. My seasoning approach will definitely be different and hopefully improved from here on out. And since my familiarity with fat, acid and heat is nowhere near what I knew about salt, I anticipate that more radical changes in my cooking will be forthcoming. My transformation has begun.