Samin Nosrat was 19 and a cooking novice when she ended up as an apprentice in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' award-winning restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. There she watched the cooks whip up dishes without looking at cookbooks or relying on timers and she was struck by how little she understood about cooking.
"The gap of knowledge between where I was and where they were seemed uncrossable," Nosrat says. "I didn't even know the difference between cilantro and parsley."
But over time, Nosrat noticed that the daily conversations the cooks had about different dishes seemed to center on the same elements: salt, fat, acid and heat.
"We always talked about how we had to adjust the salt or that something [needed] a little squeeze of lime — a little bit of acid," she says. Other times, the cooks would adjust the fat in which something was cooked or the actual method of cooking.
Nosrat began experimenting on her own with these elements. She moved to Italy, then returned to Berkeley, where she was chef de cuisine at an Italian restaurant. Along the way, she met Michael Pollan and collaborated with him on his Netflix series Cooked.
Earlier this year, Nosrat won a James Beard award for Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a cookbook inspired in part by her early observations at Chez Panisse. Now she's diving deeper, with a four-part Netflix show, also called Salt Fat Acid Heat, in which she travels the world to learn more about each element.
Nosrat describes the show as a celebration of good food — and of the women who are often responsible for creating it. "This was an opportunity for me to elevate and honor home cooks, most of whom are women and have been women for the great part of human history," she says.
On how salt affects food
I think the simplest way that probably most of us can picture or think of is the example of a tomato. 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. 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. ...
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. The salt really balances the acid in the tomato and the sweetness in the tomato and just makes it more tomato-y.
And that's really true for 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.
On how some salts are saltier than others
All salts are not created equal. So if I am using Diamond Crystal at home and I say one teaspoon, but you have just a box of iodized table salt, what you use will almost be equivalent to twice as much. So for some recipes, it's not such a big deal, 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 if you're making chocolate-chip cookies and you use twice as much salt, it could be bad news. 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.
On how fat transports flavor
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. A great way to sort of imagine that is if you think of a garlic clove. 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 — it distributes flavor.
So that's why [when] we start 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.
On how each culture has its own fat
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.
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.
On the importance of acid
I think for most home cooks and certainly most people who I have taught, it seems to be the [element] that's kind of the biggest surprise, because even the word "acid" seems so clinical and scientific. I remember even as a young cook people would use that word in the kitchen. At first, I didn't know what they were talking about. 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, [many] Americans haven't necessarily created a language for it or a palate for it. A lot of other cultures really heavily believe in it. Often it comes through on the table in condiment form. So in Mexico [it's] all of those salsas and cremas and cheeses and guacamole, all those things — or even just a wedge of lime that comes with your fish taco. That's acid. My family is 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 every meal. ...
Balsamic vinegar, pickles and mustard and ketchup — which is why it's kind of this delight for me, to make a really simple meal, 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 nine kinds of hot sauce? Am I going to grate some cheese and put a dollop of sour cream?" Because in a lot of ways, even the most simple foods can just be elevated with a couple of condiments.
On how cooking in an oven requires vigilance
We associate [cooking in an oven] as this very straightforward and simple thing: You set the dial, you put something in there and then you come back 18 minutes later and it's done. But in my experience, no two ovens are the same. Even my oven, on different days, acts differently. Depending on what the weather is outside, what the weather is inside, if your thermostat is old or new, if it's accurate or not, how many times you've opened the oven door — a million different things will affect that temperature. Very rarely is that actual temperature in there the very specific thing to which you've set the dial. In fact, a lot of those thermostats have a plus or minus of up to 20 degrees. It's crazy! You might set it to 350, and it might be anywhere between 330 and 370.
So we have this false sense of precision when we cook in the oven, but it's actually in some ways the least precise form of cooking. So I think it gives you this false sense of, "I don't need to pay attention," so you turn down your senses and you're paying less attention, and that is often where things go wrong. I watch my oven things like a hawk. I do set timers but mostly to remind me to move things around, because the back will always will be hotter than the front, and in my oven the left side is hotter. ... So I rotate things, I move them up and down different racks. I'm always paying attention, so that I can know when the thing is done.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Maria Godoy adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to hear the second part of our interview with Samin Nosrat, whose cookbook "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" is the basis of her new Netflix series of the same name. That title refers to what she says are the four basic elements of cooking. Each episode of the show is dedicated to one of those elements. Nosrat learned how to cook at Alice Waters' famous farm-to-table restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., where Nosrat lives. She grew up in San Diego, where her parents emigrated from Iran in the 1970s. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. In part one of the interview, they discussed salt, fat and acid. In this part, they'll talk about the fourth element, heat, and Nosrat's life. They started with a clip from the episode about heat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SALT, FAT, ACID, HEAT")
SAMIN NOSRAT: Heat - it's the element of transformation. Heat takes food from raw to cooked, flabby to firm, pale to golden brown. Sizzles, splatters, crackles, steam and aromas are all the results of applying heat to food. And once you understand how heat works, you can be confident that whatever you cook will taste great.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that last sound is the sound of toast coming out of a toaster. That's from Episode 4 of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is the Netflix show by our guest, Samin Nosrat. OK, heat - heat, you say, determines texture. And you made a lightbulb go off in my head when you said something - maybe this is really simple - but that you want to heat something so the outside of the food is cooked or done at the same time as the inside of the food and that that's kind of complicated.
NOSRAT: Yeah. I mean, I think, for me, a big, big lightbulb was understanding that the source of heat is not what matters. You know, I learned - because I was learning to cook in a restaurant and I never really had a home cooking background, I learned to make braises and stews for 60 people or a hundred people at a time. And we always did that in the oven. And then one day, I went over to a friend's house, and she was making a stew on the stovetop. And I was like, wait a minute. You can do that on the stovetop.
NOSRAT: And she was like, I'm only making four chicken legs. And so I realized, oh. All it is is that she's doing the same thing. She's bringing it to a boil and turning it down to a simmer and cooking it until it's tender. And we just use the oven because we have to do so much more. So we're using the heat in the same way, and it doesn't matter so much what that source of heat is.
BRIGER: Along those lines, you say that cooking in the oven is, actually, kind of more complicated than we think it is.
NOSRAT: Yeah. I think we sort of associate it as this very straightforward and simple thing. Like, you set the dial. You put something in there. And then, you know, you come back 18 minutes later, and it's done (laughter).
NOSRAT: But in my experience, like, no two ovens are the same. Even my oven, you know, on different days acts differently. And depending on what the weather is outside, what the weather is inside, if your thermostat is old or new, if it's accurate or not, how many times you've opened the oven door, a million different things will affect that temperature. And so very rarely is that actual temperature in there the very specific thing to which you've set the dial. In fact, a lot of those thermostats have sort of like a plus or minus of up to 20 degrees.
BRIGER: That's a lot.
NOSRAT: And so it's crazy. You might set it to 350, and it could be anywhere between 330 and 370. So, you know, we have this false sense of precision when we cook in the oven. But it's actually, in some ways, the least precise form of cooking because, I think, it also gives you this false sense of, oh, well, I don't need to, like, pay attention. So you sort of turn down your senses (laughter), and you're paying less attention. And that is often where things go wrong, so I watch my oven things like a hawk. I do set timers but mostly to remind me to move things around because the back will always be hotter than the front. And in my oven, the left side is hotter. But if I'm cooking at someone else's house, maybe the right side is hotter. So I rotate things. I move them up and down, up different racks. And I'm just always paying attention so that I can know when the thing is done.
BRIGER: Yeah. There was a good tip in the show where you talk about roasting a chicken. You put the legs, the parts with the dark meat, at the back of the oven so it gets more heat when it's cooking.
NOSRAT: Yeah. And that would probably be a good thing to do with a turkey, too, honestly - anything that you have to cook where it's got multiple different parts that have different cooking qualities. I always think about putting the thing that needs the higher heat, the longer cooking time, toward the back. And I, actually, learned that from an old episode of a Jacques Pepin cooking show. (Laughter) So it was an honor to get to sort of present it to a whole new audience.
BRIGER: Well, one of the things I like about the fact that your book is illustrated - and apart from the fact that the illustrations are just beautiful - is that there's no photographs in the book. And I feel like a lot of times, when you have a cookbook and there's photos, people are always disappointed, like, oh, what I made doesn't look anything like the photograph. And so there's, like, this perfectionism built into that kind of style of cookbook.
NOSRAT: What I make doesn't even look like the photograph.
NOSRAT: I mean, usually, especially any time I've worked on a shoot, there are multiple stylists there. And there's lighting. And, you know, I'm not a food stylist. I don't make food for photos. I make food for people. And I felt very much that I didn't want to tell people - I didn't want to sell them something that I knew that they wouldn't ever be able to get themselves. Right? And so it's that same thing. And I'm that perfectionist, too (laughter). And so I always have to fight against those tendencies in myself.
And I knew that my message in this book was one of trying to get you a little bit looser and less dependent on measurements and, like, perfection and to understand the thinking behind a recipe so that if something calls for chard but you only have spinach, you can use that or if it calls for chicken breast but you only have pork loin, you understand that those are both tender, quick-cooking cuts of meat. And you can substitute them for one another. And so if I gave you a picture of what my version looked like on a particular day, it would be kind of disingenuous. You know, it wouldn't match up to my message because yours probably won't look like that if you're actually doing what I hope you do, which is make the decisions that help you, in the moment, make the best possible meal for your own self and your loved ones.
BRIGER: Let's talk about the show a little bit. One of the things I really love about the show is the experts that you have, the people that you've chosen to present various food cultures. You know, there's a lot of grandmas on your show. There's a lot of rural people. There's a lot of people of color. They're not really the typical experts you see on cooking shows.
NOSRAT: You know, when I started cooking, I was told repeatedly that I wouldn't know anything about cooking until I'd been doing it for 10 years and after I was doing it for 10 years that it would be, like, in my body. You know, and then later Malcolm Gladwell wrote his 10,000 hours, which is the same thing, right?
NOSRAT: Do it till you master it. And by that kind of thinking, if practice leads to mastery, then I've always thought - well, then who are the most masterful cooks? It's grandmas.
BRIGER: You've got to talk to the grandmas, yeah.
NOSRAT: Yeah (laughter). And who are the people who've been doing it the longest and often with the least resources? You know, even at my house where I grew up, like, I would go home early in my cooking career and just be, like, horrified realizing that my mom, like, used the dullest knives of all time. You know. And she - Persian cooking, which she's so good at, involves a lot of chopping - a lot. And if she just had sharper knives, it would be a lot easier and faster. But she would never let me sharpen her knife. She's like, no, no. I like them this way. And I found that amazing.
BRIGER: (Laughter) We'll talk about your mom later.
NOSRAT: The amazing thing is that, like, you know, it's easy in the bubble of a professional kitchen to get really sort of, like, finicky about your tools (laughter) and your resources. And then you go out into the world and you see people making so much out of so little. And for me, I think I have always been inspired by, like, the peasant cooking and the grandma cooking because, in general, like, the story behind that kind of cooking is, it's people who had to feed a lot of people without a lot.
BRIGER: I think that the show itself is kind of a warming experience, watching it. And I do think a lot of it is because of you. You're this very joyful person. It looks like you're having a lot of fun while you were filming it. You're very exuberant. You have a very expressive face. That look...
BRIGER: You know, you wear your emotions on your face. But I also...
NOSRAT: I made a joke that I was like the - I mean, it's not a joke; it's the truth - that I'm the worst actress in the world.
BRIGER: Well, that's what I was going to ask you, yeah...
BRIGER: ...Because I read that you're a terrible actor because of this...
NOSRAT: (Laughter) It's so bad.
BRIGER: ...Because you can't fake it.
NOSRAT: I couldn't fake it. And you know, it became a problem (laughter).
NOSRAT: I'm sorry to talk over you. I was just...
BRIGER: No, no. So how did that come into play in making this show?
NOSRAT: (Laughter) Well, we all learned a lot about each other as we went along. You know? And I think we all realized very quickly that, while I'm really good in certain ways, like - I can do a million takes of any cooking thing. I can tell any story one million times with the same amount of joy. But I cannot pretend to be surprised (laughter)...
NOSRAT: ...When I meet someone the 15th time.
BRIGER: Yeah. So I've heard that they wouldn't show you who you were meeting.
NOSRAT: (Laughter) Yeah.
BRIGER: Like, they would hide the people from you so they'd get the first take.
NOSRAT: They started sequestering me (laughter). Like, I would have to hide in the van with, like, a coat over my face.
NOSRAT: Or like, one time we drove - in Mexico, we drove around the block, like, nine times.
NOSRAT: I was the butt of a lot of jokes, which I'm totally comfortable being.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "SWING 39")
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 Netflix food series. The titles are named after what she describes as the four basic elements of cooking.
BRIGER: When you were talking about making the show with your director, Caroline Suh, it sounds like you talked about wanting to present feminism in the kitchen. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because you know, the kitchen has historically been a place that feminists felt trapped in?
NOSRAT: Yes. Absolutely. Like, historically, especially in the States, a big part of, let's say, women's liberation and feminism and that first wave of feminism was about getting women out of the kitchen because, like, household chores were not equitable. And it became this, like, very important symbol for feminism to get that to be not the main duty of only women. But to me, you know, I believe one definition of feminism is, like, equal rights for all - treating all people equally. And that means sharing all household duties equally. So I think as far as cooking goes and teaching people to cook, I hope to teach all people to cook. It's not - has nothing to do with gender, you know? And perhaps, by inspiring more people, I can inspire more men to take interest in it and bring them into the kitchen. But in terms of the power of a platform and the power of media, listen. Like, there are so many other shows where you can see all of these fancy restaurant chefs, most of whom are men, most of whom are white men, you know? And they're getting featured.
But this show is about home cooking. And home cooking - often, home cooks don't get credit for their work, don't get paid for their labor. And more often than not, for the last 10,000 years, they've been women. So 200 years ago, about, is when restaurants started. And when restaurants started, men entered the kitchen. And there was pay involved and glory and awards and titles. And then the professional kitchen became the men's place, and that's been reflected in media. And this was an opportunity for me to elevate and honor home cooks, most of whom are women and have been women for the great part of human history. And I don't think that it's always acknowledged by the media. So I think once we had that discussion, we were all on the same page.
BRIGER: You also have your own mom as an expert on the show. And you have her teach you to make the Persian rice dish tahdig.
BRIGER: And it seems like you have a lot of apprehension about that.
NOSRAT: You know what my friend pointed out the other day (laughter).
NOSRAT: She said, you know, your mom's on the fourth episode. So by then, we've seen you go all around the world with all these other people. And you're so joyful, and you're so over-the-top and loving and open. And then your mom comes up and just, imperceptibly, you tense up (laughter).
BRIGER: Yeah, you totally do.
BRIGER: There's this, like, kind of friendly tension throughout that whole...
BRIGER: ...Scene. At one point...
NOSRAT: Pretty accurate (laughter).
BRIGER: Yeah. You say, like, this might be the first time we've ever agreed about anything. And she says, let's keep it that way.
NOSRAT: I mean, I knew that it would not be easy. It wouldn't be the easiest scene. But I just knew it would be - make amazing television. And in a way, I mean, I was so happy to get to include her in my work. You know, my parents are immigrants. Like, I think, in a lot of ways, they don't really understand - my mom isn't on the Internet a lot. She doesn't really get what Netflix is or what the power of that is. She doesn't really text. (Laughter) She doesn't - she knows I wrote a book. She knows it was popular. I don't think she gets what I do, you know? And so this was a way for her to get to be involved. And I felt really happy to be able to do that.
BRIGER: Yeah. Your parents moved to San Diego right before the Iranian Revolution. And you were born there. And you said that you learned to be a chameleon as a way to adapt to situations, like living in a pretty white town like San Diego or going to UC Berkeley. Is it exhausting to be a chameleon? Like, do you feel like you always have to be on?
NOSRAT: Not necessarily on, definitely sometimes exhausting. You know, another word for it's code switching.
NOSRAT: That's, like, the more sort of, like - whatever. But yeah, it's definitely - it can get hard to remember who I am underneath all of that. And it can - I think - I started going to therapy about 10 years ago. And I think that was one of the first times anybody asked me, you know, how I feel and that I really, like, took that as a question that needed to be answered instead of, like, a polite, oh, I'm fine. You know, thank you so much for asking.
NOSRAT: And still, sometimes, like, my therapist will say, like, what would bring you joy today or what's fun? And I'm like, what's fun? I don't know. I only know hard work, you know? (Laughter) And so I think, for me, in this, like, I would say, last 10 years, I've been spending a lot of my time and thoughts and energy trying to figure out who I am when no one's looking. And how do I be that person when people are looking?
BRIGER: Well, Samin Nosrat, thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR.
NOSRAT: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Samin Nosrat hosts the four-part Netflix series "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," which is also the title of her best selling cookbook. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Bradley Cooper about his new film "A Star Is Born" or with Mark Griffin about his new biography of Rock Hudson and his double life as a Hollywood heartthrob and a closeted gay man, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "LITTLE BIRD SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.