4 mini cooking lessons inspired by Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat.
We've partnered with Netflix to celebrate Salt Fat Acid Heat, a new series that brings Samin Nosrat's best-selling cookbook to life. But we're doing more than just binge-watching the show...we're getting our hands dirty in the kitchen, too.
"The secret to good cooking is hiding in plain sight," says Samin Nosrat, the James Beard Award-winning food writer behind one of the most useful (and entertaining!) cookbooks on my bookshelf: Salt Fat Acid Heat. The four basic elements that make up the book's title can make or break any dish, and you'd probably be surprised at the complexities of how they operate. But now, instead of just reading Salt Fat Acid Heat, you can watch Samin's infectious energy and extensive knowledge in action thanks to a new Netflix series of the same name.
In it, Samin stars as the ultimate teacher and travel guide, taking us around the globe—first to Japan, then Italy, Mexico, and California—to look at each element through the lens of delicious local recipes and everyday kitchen essentials (after watching, you won't look at olive oil or soy sauce the same way again). The series also gives a bunch of fresh real-life examples you can apply to your own cooking, plus no-fail recipes you won't find in the book (take notes; you'll want to make these at home). So whether you're already a fan or have never heard of Samin before, you can expect to both learn a lot and find yourself very, very hungry while watching.
After finishing the entire series in just one sitting, I couldn't wait to get in the kitchen and start playing around with salt, fat, acid, and heat myself. Should you feel the same way after your own Netflix binge (you can get started on that here!), work your way through the mini cooking lessons below. Each one is inspired the show, and will teach you how each element can uniquely affect the taste, texture, and overall flavor of your cooking.
You probably already know this from experience, but salt is the key to amplifying and deepening flavor. That's why Samin kicks off the series with a trip to Japan, where salt is used in many different aspects of cooking. "This makes sense," she explains, "because Japan is an island nation, and all salt comes from the sea."
During the episode, we follow Samin as she learns about the many different sources of salt in Japanese cuisine. We take a tour of a factory where a special type of salt is made using dried seaweed harvested straight from ocean; learn how to make miso from scratch with a "miso master"; and get a fascinating first-hand look at how soy sauce is traditionally made. Each source—briny, dried seaweed (or nori); earthy, fermented miso; and the sweet twang of soy sauce—brings something unique to the table when Samin puts them to use in recipes like crispy rice, soy sauce-glazed chicken, and miso-wrapped eggs (which you're about to make!).
You can experience the distinct, uniquely salty characteristics of these three ingredients at home, using eggs as your vessel. Here's what you'll need:
In a small bowl, submerge the first soft-boiled egg in a mixture of soy sauce, warm water, sugar, and sherry vinegar. Store it in the fridge to soak for a few hours. (This recipe from Momofuku is a great guide for exact measurements.)
Next, wrap the second soft-boiled egg in miso paste so that the egg is completely covered in a "miso comforter," per Samin's instructions in the episode. Store this also in the fridge next to your soy sauce egg for four hours.
Leave the third boiled egg as is for now, but crush the roasted seaweed by hand to form smaller, salt-like flecks.
After a few hours have passed, remove the first two eggs from their soy sauce and miso marinades. Cut all three eggs in half, and sprinkle the crushed nori over the third, untouched egg, as you would salt. Now, take a bite of each! Notice how the textures and flavors of the marinated soy sauce, miso-wrapped, and nori-covered eggs differ.
Can you pick up on the sweet, tangy, umami-filled brightness from the soy sauce that permeates the egg? What about the savory saltiness and funk of the miso? (In the show, Samin describes the miso eggs as "perfectly salted" and having a "very deep flavor.") Does the egg taste eggier when you get a bite with a big sprinkle of nori, versus a bite without? Each source of salt brings different tasting notes and textures to the egg. Because salt draws out moisture, the longer you leave the egg in soy sauce or miso, the more firm the texture will become, and the flavors increasingly concentrated.
Fat comes in a variety of forms, from a number of different sources, and can be used many different ways: as a main ingredient (hello, pork belly!); a cooking medium (mmm, fried chicken); and a seasoning (where would toasted bread be without its buttery spread?!). Samin's next stop in the series is Italy, where she studied for two years as a young chef.
For Samin, the fat that defines the flavor of Italian food is likely sitting in your pantry: olive oil. In the episode, she makes homemade pesto with a real Italian nonna in Liguria, a region in northern Italy. There's no food processor here, folks—this pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, using only the freshest, highest quality olive oil (produced locally, of course). The richness of the olive oil rounds out the bite of the garlic, while its floral aromas complement the basil and buttery pine nuts.
Samin makes it clear that fat affects flavor, but it can also affect texture, too. Our next lesson will demonstrate the different ways fat affects texture using pastry dough, which is something you may or may not have worked with before. (This is an especially interesting one to try if you're a new baker.)
Here, we're going to show how four different types of fat—butter, oil, shortening, and lard—can change the texture of pie crust. A basic pie dough typically consists of just four ingredients:
Before you pick the type of fat you want to work with in your dough—this will mostly depend on whether you're looking for a crust that's light and flaky or crumbly and firm—there's one crucial tip to bear in mind: Keep solid fats chilled when using them for pie dough. When solid fats start to melt or soften, they combine more easily with the gluten in the flour; when that happens, dough becomes more tender and less flaky. (Different fats also impart different flavors, and so this is something to consider when choosing what fat to work with, but we'll explain this in a second.)
For this lesson, you're going to make a dough with each of the different fats using the recipes below (note that the fourth uses both butter and shortening, for flavor and flakiness). Then, you'll cut four small rounds of each type of dough and bake them in the oven at 425°F for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Make sure to note which crust is which on the parchment paper so that you can compare notes after baking.
Once the doughs are baked through, what do you notice? Here are a few things you may be able to pick up on (you can also use this handy guide as your cheat sheet): the all-butter dough should be the most flavorful of the dough circles, with a flaky, brown crust; the olive oil-dough should give off a somewhat savory flavor and have a fairly dense texture, making it perfect for savory pies or tarts; lard chills well so its dough should also be flaky, but without as much flavor as the all-butter dough; and the shortening-butter combo should be pretty flavorful and reliably flaky, since shortening is more stable at higher temperatures and doesn't melt as easily as butter (meaning it's more forgiving to work with and lends itself well to creating a flaky crust).
Now that you know how different types of fat affect each dough, you'll always know which pie crust recipe is right for the dish you're making.
Acid is everywhere in your kitchen—from the vinegar and lemons you use in salad dressing to the red wine you may have served with dinner last night—and it plays a big role in cooking. "Acid brightens food and creates contrast," says Samin at the beginning of the episode dedicated to the element. "Most importantly, acid does the absolutely necessary job of balancing flavors."
To get a better sense of how this works, she travels to the Yucatán in Mexico. Like the Iranian food of Samin's childhood, acid is used often in the Yucatán to flavor and brighten foods, from the ever-present escabeche (a dish she makes in the episode that's pickled using acid) made with sour orange juice, to the extra-spicy salsas drizzled over tacos, which are often prepared with punchy acids like tomato, tomatillos, vinegar, or lime.
You're probably most familiar with using acid as a garnish to make flavors really sing, like adding a squeeze of lime to fresh guacamole or a dollop of sour yogurt over lamb kebabs. But acid does more than just heighten and balance flavors (even though it's really, really good at that)—it can also trigger chemical reactions that transform the color and texture of food.
In this lesson, we're going to focus on how acid changes texture over time by practicing with ceviche, a marinated seafood dish popular in Latin American cuisine that's "cooked" with acid. Never made ceviche at home before? Now's your chance! Before you get started, keep one thing in mind: Always use the freshest, highest quality fish you can find. You don't want to buy fish that looks mushy and dull, or smells fishy. Here's what you'll need to make the most basic ceviche:
Fill the dish with the lime juice and place the six chunks of fish in the dish, making sure the lime juice completely covers the fish.
Start a timer. After one minute, remove one piece of fish and set it on a plate; repeat this at the five-minute mark, 10-minute mark, 15-minute mark, after 30 minutes, and finally, when one hour has passed. Notice how the one-minute and five-minute pieces of fish are still mostly raw, whereas after 10 and 15 minutes they start to firm up and become less translucent. (Depending on your taste, this is close to the sweet spot). At 30 minutes the fish should be extremely firm, and at one hour it will be "overcooked" and beginning to fall apart.
So what happened? Well, denaturation happened, and it's all because of the acid—in this case, lime juice. When acid is applied to meat and fish it will tenderize the proteins. In the beginning stages, denaturation unfolds and unwinds bundles of protein strands. As those denatured proteins start to bump back into each other, they coagulate and form new bonds. This same process happens when proteins are heated, which is why it seems like the acid has "cooked" the fish. Let it coagulate for too long, though, and those protein bonds will continue to tighten and squeeze, leading to tough, "overcooked" fish.
Aside from making a killer ceviche, you can apply this knowledge to working with acid in all types of fish and meat dishes—understanding just how long to marinate fish in acid (do you want to cook it, or not?) to adding wine to braises and stews for juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat.
In what was my favorite episode, Samin finishes off the Netflix series in the place where her journey in cooking first began: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. It was at the iconic Bay Area restaurant where she really understood how to work with heat, or, as she puts it "the element of transformation."
At the beginning of the episode, Samin prepares a steak over an open fire with Chez Panisse's co-chef, Amy Dencler. There were a few surprising nuggets of wisdom from the lesson: You never want to cook food directly over the flames, in favor of cooking "zones" near the fire; and grill marks aren't necessarily an indication of a well-grilled meal because you're missing out on overall browning of the meat.
The real magic of heat is in this browning, also known as the Maillard reaction. Never heard of it? Neither had I before Salt Fat Acid Heat. It's a chemical reaction between amino acids and carbohydrates that happens when food is heated. This contributes to the overall browning of food, and explains why searing a steak (instead of getting those perfect grill marks, which is a waste of a steak, according to Samin) results in more even cooking and a richer flavor.
So we know the Maillard reaction is essential to browning, which imparts deep, savory aromas and flavors, but in this lesson we're going to dig a bit deeper into how it works. Here's what you'll need:
The day before you try out this lesson, chop up half of the vegetables into thick chunks, leaving the other half uncut. Lay out the cut vegetables on one of the sheet pans and refrigerate them overnight, uncovered, so that they dry out.
The next day, chop up the other half of the vegetables. Toss each set of vegetables in the same amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper, before placing them on separate sheet pans. Roast them at 425°F for 30 to 40 minutes or until tender.
What differences are there between the refrigerated veggies and the ones that you chopped day-of? The vegetables left to dry should be noticeably more browned than those that weren't, like the in the photo above. Why does this happen? The Maillard reaction happens more quickly at higher temperatures (think 350°F and higher) and with dryer foods, because there is less water to evaporate. That's why the dried vegetables brown nicely, and have deeper and more complex flavors, than those that still retained all of their water.
This also explains why conventional wisdom says to rest a whole chicken uncovered in the refrigerator overnight before roasting; if you don't, the skin won't brown and crisp up quite as beautifully. The same thing goes for steak. Not only do you want to let it come to room temperature and pat it dry before adding to the pan, you also want to make sure that pan is screaming hot to kick the Maillard reaction into high gear.
Now that you've completed each of these lessons, you should have a better understanding of how salt, fat, acid, and heat work. Take these lessons, apply them to your cooking, and as Samin reminds us throughout the series, never stop practicing in the kitchen! The more you do, the easier and more enjoyable it'll be for you to whip together a delicious meal. And as a bonus, you won't have to keep glancing back at a cookbook or recipe every five seconds—it will just be instinct.
In partnership with Netflix, we're excited to celebrate the premiere of Salt Fat Acid Heat, a new series (streaming now!) starring Samin Nosrat that explores the four basic elements of wonderful cooking. Learn how to use them in your kitchen, and you'll never cook the same way again.