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Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: what I learned at a cooking class with Samin Nosrat

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Jenny Tregoning
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Chef Samin Nosrat

The chef and author behind Netflix show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat shares the cooking tips that will take your food to the next level      

Nigella Lawson called her debut cookbook “essential”, Yotam Ottolenghi deemed it “revolutionary in its simplicity”, while Ruby Tandoh learned more “in 15 minutes than from a lifetime of trial and error”.

It’s fair to say that Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat – the debut cookbook from California-based chef and writer Samin Nosrat – broke new ground when it hit shelves in 2017. The book was a labour of love (“It took me almost three years to write the first four chapters,” says Samin) and sets out her philosophy: that anyone can cook well if they learn to balance the four essential elements of the title. It’s about trusting your senses and instincts rather than sticking rigidly to a recipe, so you can become that infuriating person who looks at a half-empty fridge and can magic up a delicious dinner out of seemingly nothing.

Since then, it’s been made into a hit four-part Netflix series and won numerous awards. So when Leiths School of Food and Wine announced that Samin would be teaching a cooking class in London, Stylist was first in line for what turned out to be a riotous evening of hilarious anecdotes, cooking advice, restaurant recommendations (her all-time favourite is London’s Rochelle Canteen) and the best green beans we’ve ever tasted (the secret? Slow-cook them in garlic for two hours). Here are the tips we’ll be implementing at home immediately.

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The mandoline is your secret weapon (but with great power comes great responsibility)

While your Spiralizer may be languishing in a drawer and that avocado masher which seemed like such a great idea at the time was inevitably usurped by a fork, the mandoline is one tool worth investing in. It can shave fennel, julienne carrots and prep your veg in double quick time, but it can also slice your finger open if you’re not careful. “The Japanese mandoline is a really wonderful, inexpensive tool for shaving things,” says Samin. The key is to create a flat edge to work with, which often means cutting your vegetable in half. “I didn’t do that with a butternut squash once and had to go the emergency room and get 26 stitches.” Consider us warned. Use the finger guard and take it slowly if you’d rather be eating potato dauphinoise than spending the evening in A&E.

Not all salts are created equal

Salt is salt, right? So when a recipe insists on flaky sea salt but all we have to hand is Saxa, we can just substitute one for the other, can’t we? Wrong. Regular table salt can taste two to three times as salty as the flaked variety, so when a recipe asks for 1 teaspoon of salt, “it’s meaningless,” says Samin. Taste your salts and get to know how salty they are and adjust while you cook to achieve the perfect level of saltiness. “Apart from the crazy handful of salt I put in pasta water, my advice is not to use more salt, it’s to use salt better and to know when you’re adding it and in what form.” Salt your food nice and early and you’ll end up adding less at the table.

Where there’s salt, there shouldn’t automatically be pepper

While you’ll be hard-pushed to find a dining table in Britain that doesn’t have a trusty salt and pepper shaker to hand, the two shouldn’t automatically go together. It’s a particular bugbear of Samin’s. “I don’t hate pepper, I love pepper, I am just very particular about where pepper should be,” she says. “To me, pepper is a spice and I’m really careful about which spices and herbs I’m using based on which country and which cuisine’s food I’m cooking.” In Mexico, it’s common to provide salt and chilli flakes on the table, for example, while Morocco favours salt and cumin. Salt will always be key for bringing out flavour but adapt other seasonings to the food you’re preparing.

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Choose your salt, fat and acid based on the cuisine you’re cooking

If you’ve not already seen the beautifully illustrated flavour wheels in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that show which flavours work well for different cuisines across the globe, follow Samin’s simple rule: “Choose the right salt, choose the right acid, choose the right fat for the country or the cuisine whose food you’re cooking.” Samin prepared an Italian-style fennel and radish salad with a lemon vinaigrette, but if you prefer Vietnamese flavours, for example, you could swap the fennel for cucumber, lemon for lime, olive oil for a neutral tasting oil, and white wine vinegar for rice wine vinegar. “I’m still using all of the same elements – a salt, a fat, an acid – but I’m shifting to the cuisine that makes sense.” 

Shaved fennel and radish salad
Samin Nosrat’s shaved fennel and radish salad

Cut your vegetables on an angle to make them look cheffy

Forget a microherb garnish or elegant smear of sauce – the speediest way to make your food look professional is to cut your vegetables on an angle. “Things look so much fancier when you cut them on an angle,” says Samin. The principle behind it is that there are very few straight edges in nature, so if you mimic the shape of the vegetables you’re cooking with, it’ll look more natural. For runner beans, that means chopping them on a diagonal rather than straight across, and for carrots you can try the roll cut or ‘oblique’ technique, where you cut it into roughly equal conical chunks at a 45-degree angle. 

Chef and author Samin Nosrat
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat at Leiths School of Food and Wine

Work flavour into your fat

“Fat is an incredible carrier of flavour,” says Samin. Picture this: if you were to take two pans, one with water, one with oil, slice two cloves of garlic and place one in each pan, then heat them for a little while, when you remove the garlic, the water would taste pretty much like water, whereas the oil would have taken on an intense garlic flavour. “That’s because all of those flavour molecules get absorbed into the oil in a way that they never get absorbed into water,” says Samin. “You always want to work spices or aromatics into whatever fat you’re using and that way it’s built into the entire foundation of the dish.” So if you’re making a citrus-flavoured cake, work lemon zest into the butter before creaming it with the sugar, or steep garlic in olive oil to make sure the flavour carries all the way through.

Don’t get mad, get even

“Pound the chicken breast, people!” was Samin’s cry as she hammered chicken breasts ahead of breading and frying. When cooking meat that is uneven in thickness, such as chicken breast, you need to pound it so that it all cooks at the same rate. And no one wants to be served up half-raw chicken. Simply season, oil and cover with plastic before going at it with a mallet. Similarly, no heat source is ever completely even – be it a gas ring or an oven. Check what you’re cooking and move things around – either the pan itself, or the food within it, to make sure it cooks evenly all over. 

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Frying things in clarified butter makes them taste amazing

Long before ghee was adopted by the wellness crowd as the latest ‘superfood’, it was used in Indian cooking for thousands of years. It’s the reason a lot of Indian food tastes so good. Ghee is a type of clarified butter that adds a delicious rich, buttery flavour to whatever you’re cooking in it. “You can’t fry in straight butter, you have to clarify it to get rid of the milk solids [which burn at low temperatures],” says Samin. Clarified butter is made by melting the butter slowly until the water evaporates, then skimming off the milk proteins. But enough of the science. Food fried in clarified butter tastes amazing. Like, I’m-never-deep-frying-anything-in-oil-again amazing. If you can’t be faffed with making your own, do yourself a favour and grab a jar of ghee next time you go shopping. Your fried chicken will thank you.

Leiths School of Food and Wine host regular masterclasses at their kitchen at 16-20 Wendell Road, London, W12; for more information, visit leiths.com

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat (£30, Canongate Books) is out now

Photography: Charlie McKay for Leiths School of Food and Wine

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Jenny Tregoning

Jenny Tregoning is deputy production editor and food editor at Stylist, where she combines her love of grammar with lusting over images of food

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