Chef Samin Nosrat Shares The Power Of 'Salt Fat Acid Heat' On Netflix

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This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, Samin Nosrat, says there are four elements of good cooking. And if you understand how they work, you can make delicious food. The four elements are salt, fat, acid, heat. That's also the title of Nosrat's cookbook, which won a James Beard Award last year. And it's the name of her four-part Netflix series in which she travels to different countries to learn more about those elements. For fat, she goes to Italy, for salt, Japan. For acid, she's in Mexico. And for heat, she returns to Berkeley, Calif., where she lives and where she learned to cook at Alice Waters' famous farm-to-table restaurant, Chez Panisse.

Samin Nosrat grew up in San Diego, where her parents immigrated from Iran in the 1970s. Her mother actually appears on the Netflix show and teaches her how to make tadig, the famous Iranian rice dish with a crunchy crust. Nosrat also writes a cooking column for The New York Times Magazine. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Samin, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the basic premise for the show and for the book is that there are these four elements of cooking. And I'll say them again - salt, fat, acid and heat. And if you can understand those, you can really become a great cook. So how did you come up with this idea?

SAMIN NOSRAT: I ended up sort of - through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up as an apprentice in the kitchen at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. And I didn't know anything about cooking. I was 19 years old when I started working there. And, you know, I didn't even know the difference between cilantro and parsley. And at the time, the restaurant - it was around the year 2000. And the restaurant was consistently winning best-in-the-country awards. And the cooks are really world-class there. And for me, I just looked up to them so much.

And they knew how to make everything. And they never looked at recipes. They never looked at cookbooks. They never really even used timers. And it didn't reflect at all anything about cooking that I had understood as a person who read cookbooks at home and practiced at home with really precise measurements. And so the gap of knowledge between where I was and where they were seemed, you know, uncrossable.

And I just sort of noticed that every day, you know, when we sat down to taste and adjust each dish, we always talked about a few things. We always talked about how we had to adjust the salt or that something need a little squeeze of lime, a little bit of acid. And, you know, choosing which fat to cook things in made a big difference. And for me, heat - you know, the actual, you know, method of cooking was in some ways the biggest light bulb.

BRIGER: All right, so let's talk about these four elements a little bit. Let's start with salt. You say that salt has the greatest impact on flavor than any other ingredient. And you say that salt makes food taste more like itself.

NOSRAT: Yeah. I mean, I think the simplest way that probably most of us can picture or think of is the example of a tomato. And so if you eat a tomato that you haven't sprinkled salt on, it might taste a little bit bland or just a little bit watery. And once you sprinkle a few crystals of salt on a slice of tomato, some of the juices start to come out, you know? Osmosis starts.

And a lot of the flavor, aromatic compounds in vegetables are inside those watery cells. And so they come to the top. They're more available for you to breathe in. You take a bite. It's juicier. And so you have this taste experience that you wouldn't - you couldn't have had without that salt. And the salt really balances the acid in the tomato and the sweetness in the tomato and just makes it more tomato-y (ph).

And that's really true for, you know, certainly every vegetable and I believe for meat, too. But to me, my mouth now at this point - salt is the first thing I sort of just instinctively taste for. And I can always tell if something needs a little bit more.

BRIGER: One of the biggest takeaways I got from your show and from the book is that unless you have dietary restrictions, you say not to be shy, to use salt. And I - one of the other...

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

BRIGER: ...Shocking things of the show is that you use a lot of salt. Like, I...

NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter).

BRIGER: You were putting salt into a pot of water, and you put so much salt in that it made you wince.

NOSRAT: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So talk about that. Like, I mean...

NOSRAT: Well, I...

BRIGER: ...I guess that's not for everything you cook. But for some things, you're making the water taste like - or trying to taste like salt water.

NOSRAT: Yeah. So, I mean, also - I mean, I'm a little bit of a ham. I'm doing it a little bit performatively (ph) for sure.

BRIGER: Yeah.

NOSRAT: But I also - none of those things that I cooked on camera or, you know, that I cook in my classes where I do the same stunt are by any means inedible. In fact, they're often delicious. They're really quite perfect. And even the naysayers and the doubters usually in my classes will come up and be like, wow, I really thought that was going to be impossible to eat, but it's actually so good. And so one of the reasons is that I usually use a kosher salt called Diamond Crystal that's really the least salty of all the salts. So you have to use...

BRIGER: Yeah. That was something interesting. Sorry. But, yeah, you said some salts are saltier than other salts.

NOSRAT: Yeah. And I think that was for me, as a person who writes recipes, something really frustrating to try to figure out how to convey to people because salt - just saying a teaspoon of salt in a recipe - you know, all salts are not created equal. So if I am using Diamond Crystal at home and I say one teaspoon but you have, you know, just a box of iodized table salt, what you use will almost be equivalent to twice as much. And so for some recipes, it's not such a big deal, you know, because maybe you're just putting the salt in a pot of water, and it will spread out over a large amount of food or a volume of liquid or something. But, you know, if you're making chocolate chip cookies and you use twice as much salt, it could be bad news.

BRIGER: Yeah.

NOSRAT: So I think it's really important more than anything to be familiar with your own salt and to really taste as you go so you start to learn what one pinch or one spoonful will do to a pot of food.

BRIGER: You also don't recommend using iodized salt.

NOSRAT: Yeah. I've gotten some - like, I got a pretty angry email about that recently (laughter).

BRIGER: Oh, did you? Yeah (laughter).

NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter). And so, you know...

BRIGER: From a salt (laughter) company or from a customer?

NOSRAT: (Laughter) From an - from a - from an iodine champion.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: (Laughter) And so it was - I think - about 100 years ago when Morton started adding iodine to salt because in this country, people suffered from a lot of iodine-related deficiency disorders. And so it was sort of a simple way to make sure that everyone got enough iodine for thyroid processes and other processes in the body.

And - but these days, we eat such a diverse - a much more diverse diet because of, you know, like, modern transportation ships, produce around the country. And dairy is a really good source of iodine. And seafood is a great source of iodine. So most people, if they eat varied enough diets, can get plenty of iodine through their diet. So you can actually taste the iodine, both in the salt and in any pot of water that you season with that salt...

BRIGER: Got it.

NOSRAT: ...And in any food. So to me, when I'm adding salt to food, I want it to taste clean. I want it to taste - you know, maybe a little bit, like, minerally like the ocean, but I don't want it to taste super metallic. And so that's the main reason why I stay away from iodized salt.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Samin Nosrat, author of the cookbook "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is also the title of her four-part Netflix series. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Samin Nosrat, author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is also the title of her new Netflix food series. The titles are named after what she describes as the four basic elements of cooking.

BRIGER: OK, let's talk about fat. What does fat do? What do we need to know?

NOSRAT: OK. So while salt is all about enhancing flavor, fat is mostly about texture. But it's also this amazing sort of transporter of flavor. It's a carrier. And so a great way to sort of imagine that is if you think of a garlic clove, and you have two - if you set up two pans next to each other, and you put water in one and olive oil in another one, and you just simmered one garlic clove in some water, and you sizzled a garlic clove in a little bit of olive oil, if you remove the cloves and throw them away, and then you dip your finger in the water and taste it, it'll probably taste pretty much just like water.

But if you taste the oil, it'll taste like this amazing perfume. An aroma of garlic will have fully penetrated and distributed itself around throughout the oil. And so now you have garlic oil. And if you think about that, that's what fat does for so many of the aromatic compounds and flavors in our cooking, is it distributes flavor.

So that's why we start - you know, in a soup or stew, you put oil in the pan. And you put your onions in there. And if you're going to add a bay leaf or some coriander seed or whatever, you throw that in at the beginning so it can sort of work its way into that oil and then penetrate your dish fully. So that's one way that fat impacts flavor.

It also - you know, most fats have their own flavor. And each culture and cuisine has sort of its go-to fats, and often those fats will determine the taste of the food. So when we think of France, we think of butter. When we think of Italy or Spain, we think of olive oil. When we think of India, we think of ghee.

And, you know, if I was trying to make something that tasted Japanese at home, I wouldn't use olive oil because if I start with olive oil, that will permeate the whole dish, and it will never taste properly Japanese. So to make the thing taste of the place, start with the fat of the place.

BRIGER: I was really surprised to learn that olive oil has an expiration date, and it doesn't last very long.

NOSRAT: Oh, I'm so happy we're talking about this (laughter).

BRIGER: (Laughter) So you know, what's the - how long can you have olive oil around for?

NOSRAT: I mean, it depends how you store it and how it was produced and whether or not it's extra virgin. But in general, it's about a 12- to 14-month life...

BRIGER: So pretty short.

NOSRAT: ...Shelf life. Yeah, it's pretty short, so it's nice to try to become familiar enough with your olive oil that you understand - you can, like, look at the label, find out the production year. And usually either the production year or an expiration date will be on there.

And it's important to heed that because I think because in America olive oil hasn't historically been our main cooking fat, most of us haven't grown up familiar enough with the taste of rancid olive oil to be able to identify it. And it doesn't taste good. And it's not really that good for you. And it really - just like if you make a pot of caramelized onions with butter, it'll taste different than if you make it with olive oil. If you make it with rancid olive oil, it'll also affect the whole pot and taste different.

So it's a nice, like, byproduct of my message I think for me to be able to educate Americans about that because I do think we're kind of getting the short end of the stick in a way. Like, a lot of the Europeans grow up with the taste of good olive oil. And so they wouldn't accept rancid olive oil from their purveyors, whereas Americans are maybe not as familiar. And so a lot of the oil on shelves in American grocery stores is if not rancid, then on its way to being off.

BRIGER: Yeah. So how can we tell if our olive oil is rancid?

NOSRAT: Well, basically tasting and smelling it are the two ways. Often, if it's really rancid, you can tell by smelling. And sometimes what I think of is - you know when you open, like, old-timey peanut butter and it has oil on the top and that you have to stir in? So that's just the oil usually from the peanuts that's come out. And it's fine for peanut butter. But a lot of the time, even on olive oil - on a rancid bottle of olive oil, it will have a quality not so dissimilar from that smell of, like, the way that that oil is kind of, like, nutty. Another way that I like to think of it is, it smells kind of like crayons.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

NOSRAT: So it just doesn't smell like delicious, fruity olive oil.

BRIGER: Got it.

NOSRAT: And when we were in Italy making the show, the producer that we were with - he also pointed out that olive oil should be a little bit spicy going down your throat. Even if it's a nice mild one, there should be a little bit of spice 'cause that's a sign that the oil is still alive.

BRIGER: OK. On to acid. You say acid balances flavors. How does it do that?

NOSRAT: So if you think of lemonade - you know, it's just made of sugar, water and lemons. So if you were to drink something that was too sugary, it would just sort of not be that exciting to drink. It might be kind of cloying in your throat. So you need to increase that acid to create that tart contrast. So that balance - that contrast is what acid offers us.

And I think for most home cooks and certainly most people who I have taught, it seems to be the one that's kind of the biggest surprise 'cause even the word acid seems so clinical, you know, and scientific. And I remember even as a young cook, like, people would use that word in the kitchen. And I - at first, I didn't know what they were talking about. And then over time, I realized, oh, it's just lemon, lime, a little vinegar, maybe a splash of wine or even a little goat cheese or feta cheese.

Anything tart is acid, but acid is a thing, I think, a lot of Americans - we haven't necessarily created a language for it or a palate for it. A lot of other cultures really heavily believe in it, you know. And often, it comes through on the table in condiment form (laughter). So in Mexico, like, all of those salsas and cremas and cheeses and guacamole, all those things - or even just, like, a wedge of lime that comes with your fish taco. That's acid. And my family's from Iran, so we have a very acidic palate. We squeeze a sour orange over almost everything or lime. There's yogurt that we put on - you know, every meal has yogurt. I grew up...

BRIGER: Yeah. You said on spaghetti and pizza, too.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: ...Putting yogurt - yeah, yeah, totally - on everything much to the horror of many people I met later on in my life.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSRAT: And - or, like, pomegranate. You know, and now pomegranate molasses is a really kind of popular one. Balsamic vinegar, pickles and mustard and ketchup, which is why it's kind of this, like, delight for me to make a really simple meal - you know, just, like, a bowl of rice and vegetables and a fried egg, and then be like, OK, what am I going to put on it today? Is it going to be kimchi? Is it going to be, you know, like, nine kinds of hot sauce? Is it going to be all these - you know, am I going to grate some cheese and put a dollop of sour cream? 'Cause in a lot of ways, even the most simple foods can just be elevated with, like, a couple condiments.

GROSS: Samin Nosrat hosts the four-part Netflix series "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is also the title of her bestselling cookbook. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. There's a part two of that interview which we'll hear another day in which they'll talk about the element they didn't get to today, heat. And they'll talk about her life and how she learned to cook.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the British newspaper The Guardian partnered with Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks to publish classified documents. Our guests will be The Guardian's former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. His new book "Breaking The News" tells those stories and others and looks at the challenges newspapers face in the digital age. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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