SFAH: One Home Cook’s Transformative Journey, Pt. 2A

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

I’m finally back with another segment of my series on Samin Nosrat’s book, Salt Fat Acid Heat. I’m doing two posts on each of the four chapters: the first, a reflection on what I’ve learned in the chapter, and the second, my experiments with Samin’s recipes and techniques in regard to that chapter. This time around, we’re on the fat chapter, and I’m no less blown away than I was by the one on salt.

As with the salt, I’d never really thought about the variety of culinary fats as different vehicles for flavors as well as for textures. This chapter really drove home the many options we have in cooking with fat, as well as their cultural specificity, exemplified in the book’s colorful diagram of the many flavors of fat around the world.

One of several colorful images in the book that nicely illustrates the flavors particular to cuisines around the world.

But what was particularly instructive for me about this chapter was Samin’s discussion of how fat makes different textures possible. Sure, I realize that you need oil to make onion rings or beer-battered fish. I know that the flakiness of a pie crust is also about fat. And I understand that the divine creaminess of gelato comes from the heaping shitloads of fat in it. But I hadn’t really considered how fats are almost solely responsible for creating a food’s texture. This chapter identifies four main textures–light, creamy, tender and flaky–and explains how to achieve them. Samin’s words were enlightening on a number of different fat-related topics.

First, I now understand smoke points much more coherently. Previously I’d understood that different oils began to smoke at different temperatures, but I somehow didn’t get that smoke meant that the oil was burning and thus going to flavor your dish in a nasty way. I’m slow that way, I guess.

The fat chapter also reiterated what I’d started thinking about in the salt chapter in terms of how emulsions work. One of the salting experiments Samin recommended was to make a Caesar salad dressing (pp. 48-50), and although I did not make it, it made me realize that treating the fat properly so that it would emulsify was critical to a successful dressing. Whisking, rather than shaking, as I often do when making a vinaigrette, is necessary to get two the “hostile parties”–fat and water–to fully emulsify. Shaking a vinaigrette, Samin says, ensures that any emulsion that emerges will be temporary. In addition, the fat must initially be added very slowly–a drop at a time–or it will break.

I made my very first mayonnaise after reading this chapter, and following Samin’s advice to add the oil very slowly, the emulsion did not break. It tasted good, though I think that it might be advisable to do half olive oil and half canola or grapeseed oil, or some proportion of olive to a neutral oil, rather than one hundred percent olive oil, as it was kind of overwhelming in its olive-y-ness, and it was also alarmingly green-yellow! I’ll try it again with another oil or combination of oils.

Step 1: a whisked yolk with a tiny bit of olive oil added.
Step two: a little more oil starts to alter the color from egg yolk yellow to olive oil green.
Step 3: probably half the oil is in now, so the remaining oil can be added more quickly.
Step 4: all the oil is in–now it’s time to add the lemon juice and salt.
I then used my olive oil-y mayo to a chicken salad, made with the Buttermilk-Marinated Roasted Chicken and my preserved lemons. There should be a law that all chicken salads should have preserved lemons!! Delicious!

From this chapter, I also learned how the temperature of the fat is critical to the ultimate texture you’re seeking in your dish. If you want a flaky pie crust, then, you have to keep your butter cold in order to prevent the gluten from developing, which when developed lend a chewy rather than flaky texture. Similarly, I learned that when my mom taught me to chill the mixing bowl and beaters when whipping cream, this was because their cold temperature would facilitate the aeration of the cream and thus its lightness. But if you’re making an oil-water emulsion, your ingredients should be neither too hot nor too cold.

I’m a big fan of cake, and I learned that Samin likes the way that an oil makes a cake moist, while butter imparts a delicious flavor but drier texture. Each kind of cake has its place, and I will certainly find room for either one!!

And as with salts, Samin recommends layering fats in order to add complexity of flavors to a dish, so long, of course, as they complement rather than detract from the dish.

All this said, I am still afraid to deep fry, and this remains one technique that I do not intend to master. The fear of burning myself is so significant that not even the deliciousness of French fries or doughnuts makes me willing to try it (though I am getting curious about air fryers). Also, I can’t stand how deep fried flavors linger in the home. Yuck!

By the end of SFAH‘s section on fat, I am again reminded of how very well trained my mom was as a cook, and of how lucky I was to receive her instruction. So much of what I know about cooking and baking are because she had mastered all of these techniques. Thanks, mom!