“Making a book is a really lonely thing,” Samin Nosrat says. “So, knowing I have this person who has this very incredibly sophisticated way of visualizing information alongside me — it was good to know she was there.”
She’s referring to Salt Fat Acid Heat, her new cookbook that eschews traditional recipes in favor of thorough explanations of the underlying science of the kitchen — and to its illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton, whose whimsical charts and graphs (and the occasional doodle of a pastry with a bite taken out of it, captioned “Samin was here”) make the whole thing come together.
Nosrat, an educator who’s worked with Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and later with Michael Pollan, grew up in a Farsi-speaking household in San Diego. She developed a love of food from an early age, but what fueled the writing of this book was what Nosrat calls a “nostalgia of deprivation” for a certain type of chocolate cake. Her mother’s insistence on sourcing dense, dry cakes from Southern California bakeries contrasted with the lighter versions Nosrat craved, cakes that were essentially made from a mix. Later, after the “golden age of the flourless chocolate cake” — better known as the ’90s — had passed, a fellow Chez Panisse cook named Lori Podraza brought in a chocolate cake whose texture exactly matched what Nosrat had hungered for all her life.
“I went home and realized they’re made with oil,” Nosrat recalls. “The buttery cakes are the rich, dense ones and the oil cakes are the lighter, tender ones. This was way before I even understood the science. For me, it’s almost been an emblem of the journey, this oil cake that started this quest for me.”
Salt Fat Acid Heat’s approach is methodical in its text and illustration. It contains a full-page “salting calendar” that goes from three years in advance (for prosciutto, jerky, and “rations for the apocalypse”) to the moment you serve. There are pie charts that explain the proportions of herbs that go into aromatic flavor bases like soffrito or the Cajun Holy Trinity, a “salad axis” for choosing the right dressing, and an “avocado matrix.” Pull-out wheel diagrams spell out the fats and oils and the seasonings used in more than two dozen national cuisines. And a two-page illustrated flow chart walks novice chefs through the perilous process of making mayonnaise and fixing it when it inevitably breaks. (Step 3 is “Start whisking like your life depends on it.”)
Playful, yes, but a set of seven mini-Venn diagrams illustrating the variables that determine the texture of doughs and batters is also remarkably elegant in its simplicity. Like Google’s logo, they’re color-coded in green (yeast), yellow (fat), blue (water), and red (kneading). In all likelihood, you’ve never comprehended so clearly that swapping out fat for yeast in doughs that require water and kneading is what separates structured confections like cream puffs and strudel from chewier preparations like sourdough bread and bagels. And it took years for that to come together.
“I definitely don’t know if I could have articulated it before this book,” Nosrat says, “I had two baker friends at Tartine who I talked to at length to help me understand stuff, and I was like, ‘There must be some way to understand all the different doughs and textures.’ I would draw all these spectrums on computer paper and they would say, ‘This isn’t right.’
“That one probably took me two years of experimenting,” Nosrat adds. “And when I brought it to Wendy to help me visualize it … she said, ‘It can’t be one Venn diagram, but it could be all these mini ones.’ ”
Salt Fat Acid Heat’s core idea is that with an understanding of the four elements, you can prepare something delicious using about just any ingredient, without even following a recipe. In a sense, you cannot make cooking any more democratic than that. (The simplicity gave Nosrat a fair amount of anxiety, however: “I was really nervous that scientists would knock me.”)
What amused her to no end was finding out that MacNaughton wasn’t lying when she said that she and her wife barely cooked and subsisted on Balance bars and the salad bar at Whole Foods.
“The first time I went over to her house, she always said that, and I thought, ‘She’s exaggerating.’ But then I opened the cupboard and there was, like, boxes of Balance Bars,” Nosrat says. “She sort of downplayed how little she understood about cooking — not in a disingenuous way, but it was a shock at first when I realized, ‘Oh, I’m here with a beginner.’ ”
Quickly, however, that became an advantage. Nosrat realized that MacNaughton was the ideal sounding board, forcing her to sharpen her technical-writing skills and explanatory prowess to convey complex concepts to the layperson.
“That’s a hard thing in a cookbook,” she says. “You’re trying to be smart and speak with authority, yet still be accessible.”
Food porn being what it is, the idea of a contemporary cookbook without even one photograph might seem like a hard sell to a publisher. But Nosrat knew from its genesis, way back in 2000 while she was working at Chez Panisse, that that would be central to Salt Fat Acid Heat’s success. Michael Pollan, who wrote the foreword, agreed, pressing her to develop it further around 2011, when Nosrat spent time at Mesa Refuge, the writer’s retreat in Point Reyes Station. She sold the proposal to Simon & Schuster in 2013, and the book took nearly four years to come together. After introducing herself to MacNaughton via an email that contained the phrase “If you think I’m stalking you, you would be right,” the two exchanged innumerable messages and texts. They had “mega-drawing days” that turned into dinner parties.
MacNaughton’s illustrations are crucial, but Nosrat’s pedagogical instincts are what carry the day. She is, by her own admission, a nerd with a literary bent, and there are references to Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens’ poetry, and John McPhee’s Oranges. Readers will learn about the Maillard reaction (essentially, toasting or browning) when making salted caramel sauce and the role of glutamates in umami for pasta alla vongole. Once you get your bearings, you will learn that cooking means constant flux and that no recipe is infallible. At least, that’s how it worked for Nosrat.