A kitchen quadrivium

This book made a big noise on release, and Spouse bought me a copy for Christmas shortly thereafter, which I promptly forgot about. Last year I made a decision to start working my way through all the unread food books I’d been receiving for Christmas and birthday gifts, and since then every other non-fiction book I’ve read has been one of them. I’ve learned a lot from doing so, and it is undeniably weird that someone as obsessed with both food and books as I am should have let them pile up for so long. While other books in that stack have helped me to become a better and more interesting cook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is in a class of its own.

I had barely started reading it when it began to transform the way I cook. I didn’t need to finish it, to digest and reflect, to consider how its insights apply to my own time in the kitchen. It’s right there from the beginning, in knowledge, in technique and in science. A few pages into the discussion of salt and I exclaimed ‘oh fuck! I’m doing it wrong!’, a refrain which I repeated throughout its first four chapters, in which Samin Nosrat examines the four eponymous facets of cooking.

This core analysis, in which the alchemical transformations worked on ingredients are broken down into the application of one of these principles, makes sense of the process of cooking in a way that no piecemeal accumulation of techniques or traditions every could. Emulsification, browning, proper seasoning, getting eggs to do what you want them to… none of these things is fundamental. They are all applications. As she describes it (the book is part memoir), Nosrat’s own realisation of these radical principles was a moment of transformative illumination—although her more experienced fellow chefs seem to have greeted it with a ‘huh, everyone knows that’.

But this is the point. Everyone doesn’t know this. Professional chefs may come to understand it, but this quadrivium is not an organising principle in culinary training, and domestic chefs don’t know it at all. They know that oily foods are improved by a splash of acid, or that pasta water needs to be very generously salted, or that intense heat is needed to seal a piece of meat for roasting, and in terms of the science, they may know the why and the how belonging to each of these nuggets of gastronomic truth. But they do not know, in the way that I as a musician understand the manner in which chords are derived from scales and scales from keys, how each piece of wisdom relates to all the others.

Well, here it is. Nosrat has let the cat out of the bag. These are the four things you need to understand. I have always been an improvisational cook: there’s nothing I like more than a pile of ingredients and the total absence of any plan. If I know how things taste, and how their textures are affected by cooking, then I’m confident I can get something tasty onto the family’s plates in an hour or so. But the knowledge that enables me to do this has always been piecemeal, specific to certain ingredients and certain processes. The consequence of that eclectic understanding is that errors are always a possibility. Nosrat is big on improvisation: her goal is that those she teaches to cook should be set free from the tyranny of the written recipe, and that they should understand the fundamentals of food alchemy well enough to avoid the kind of errors that can render a meal inedible or unpleasant.

The first part of the book is devoted to a discussion of each pillar of Nosrat’s quadrivium, and the second contains recipes. These recipes are presented as a basic technique, followed by a whole raft of possible variations. This is my kind of cooking. I’ve always been drawn to meals that can be varied infinitely: pizza, omelette, pasta, risotto, salad—all things in which a basic scaffold can be enlivened with whatever I happen to have in the cupboard or the fridge. While the recipes in this book will certainly extend my repertoire, they seem secondary, not just in terms of my interest in them, but in terms of their importance to Nosrat’s project. Their point is that they provide opportunities to apply the lessons found in the first part of the book, knowledge that will enable you to deepen and intensify the flavour of ingredients to a previously unattainable degree, and to bring them to the table with a perfect texture.

Nosrat’s analysis of food and cooking is so striking that it’s easy to ignore her book’s virtues as a book. But her engaging and informal prose plays an important part in making these fundamental elements of food seem accessible to the domestic cook, and especially her constant looking back at her own learning, her own time as an enthusiastic foodie without the knowledge to cook as she wished. The book is illustrated beautifully by Wendy MacNaughton, whose easygoing but accurate drawings provide a far better guide to the text than photos would—in just the same way that wildlife identification guides are hampered by the specificity of photography.

I know how to cook. Many people I know, know how to cook. Domestic cooks all over the world know how to cook. Those lucky enough to be raised in a live culinary tradition, as I was not, understand how to prepare a whole repertoire of dishes to perfection. But pretty much none of them would find their understanding of food was not developed or transformed by reading this book—or their ability to step outside their inherited traditions and invent amazing meals on the fly. The book is punctuated with diagrams that will help the reader to assemble flavours and techniques in a culturally consistent way, but an understanding of the underlying four elements will also enable them to break these rules with impunity.

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