Maybe you’re trying not to eat out much, but you also have no practice cooking, and don’t want to take any risks. And anyway, who’s got time to follow complicated recipes, or money for a pantry full of exotic ingredients? So you’re like most new cooks, and you do your best to recreate your mom’s cooking with the good old stand-bys: things like chicken breasts, pasta and canned beans, ground beef, frozen vegetables. Sound familiar?
It’s better than breaking your budget, but it’s boring. I hear you. You can change all that, though, if you learn just a little bit about the language of good food and the four elements of what makes it amazing.
A word-class chef named Samin Nostrat wrote a revolutionary book called “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” which became an immediate sensation (and Netflix series). The more comfortable you become working with these four elements, she claims, the more confident you’ll be going off-recipe and applying the basic principles to everything you make.
Read the book or see the series, for sure. For starters, though, here are some basic tips that don’t take much extra time or energy, but will totally change your approach to the kitchen.
Salt: You are probably undersalting some key foods. Whether you’re boiling pasta, rice, or vegetables, the water should taste as salty as the ocean. It’s not overkill, I promise. It’ll flavor your pasta and rice from the inside out, and it’ll actually lock in the nutrients and flavor of the vegetables, too, so none of the good stuff goes down the drain with the cooking water.
Meat is another big one. As early as 24 hours ahead of time, give a generous sprinkling of salt to any raw cut of meat. The salt needs time to work its way deep into the meat, but it’ll also lock in moisture and flavor — basically, you’ll never eat another boring, dry, chicken breast again. If you wait till the food gets to the table to remember the salt, all you’re doing is flavoring the outside — not the whole dish.
Fat: Olive oil, butter, bacon — everything you like has fat in it. That’s fine! Fat is good for you, in moderation. It’s something your body needs, and there’s a reason you crave it. You just need to make it count.
“Fat carries flavor,” Nostrat says, which means that it heightens the experience of everything you eat. Think about how the fat from butter makes all the difference between a piece of dry toast and a light, comforting breakfast. It doesn’t take much — a little butter on your vegetables, a drizzle of cream or olive oil in the tomato soup, mayo on a sandwich. Processed food always has more than enough fat, but home cooks sometimes overlook it.
Acid: Acid is why every kid likes ketchup. It’s why so many college students like hot sauce on everything. Acid, literally, is what makes our mouths water. Where fat carries flavor, acid brightens flavors. It’s not just tomatoes and lemons and vinegar — you’ll also find acid in sharp cheeses like Parmesan, or in yogurt, sour cream, wine, mustard, soy sauce, and anything pickled — the list goes on. Every culture has a few key sources of acid that it keeps coming back to. What makes your mouth water? Everything you cook will benefit from having some source of acid.
Mild food (like salad) needs to have an acid to brighten it up. That’s why olive oil and vinegar is the most basic dressing there is. Earthy food, too, needs acid to really shine. There’s a reason why bright fresh salsas totally transform the experience of eating a plate of beans.
Heat: How you heat food changes the molecules of what you’re cooking. You don’t have to take chemistry to get the hang of this, though. Basically, it’s all in the protein strands. When you heat them, they tense up first, but then they uncurl and relax.
So if you want your protein to be tender (like scrambled eggs or stew meat), cook low and long, rather than hot and fast — it gives the strands time to unwind, and the process traps moisture. Frying or broiling are processes to cook hot and fast, by contrast. If that’s your method, aim for that delicious browning, a phenomenon called the so-called Maillard reaction. That browning actually indicates that the enzymes in the food have joined and become more complex, unlocking new levels of flavor. Whatever you fry, make sure you start with oil that’s nice and hot, and you’ll get something brown and crispy, instead of soggy and dull.
I used to feel like it was picky, or spoiled, to care about the quality of my food, but I am learning that eating is about so much more than delivering nutrients to our bodies. The food we think about and spend time preparing and share together says a lot about who we are and where we came from. Cooking is a way to participate in an economic system that shapes the world, and it’s a way to grow in communion with other people. Doesn’t a good meal with friends nourish the spirit just as much as the body? Don’t we need to feed both to live well?
It doesn’t matter what you’re making in the kitchen — if you attend to these four elements, your cooking will improve. And good food is a delightful way to increase your quality of living, whether you’re cooking for one or gathering others around your table.