Worth her salt
How seasoning makes a cook, by Samin Nosrat
My parents left Tehran for San Diego on the eve of the Iranian revolution, shortly before I was born in 1979. The most delightful aspect of our home culture was the food – it brought us together. Rare were the nights when our extended family didn’t join us at the dinner table, which was always full of plates mounded high with herbs, platters of saffron rice and fragrant pots of stew.
As a child I only ever found myself in the kitchen when Maman enlisted me and my brothers to peel raw fava beans or pick the herbs destined for her traditional Persian cooking.
I never thought I’d be a cook. I had literary ambitions and eventually moved north to study literature and writing at university in Berkeley, California. But then a series of serendipitous events brought me to Alice Waters’s restaurant Chez Panisse, where I applied for a job bussing tables as a student. Someone must have just quit, because even though I had no restaurant experience, I was hired on the spot. My first shift was the following afternoon.
Walking through the kitchen the next day, I immediately fell under the spell of the chefs in their spotless whites, moving with grace and efficiency as they worked. The sheer beauty of the kitchen, filled with baskets of ripe figs and lined with gleaming copper pans, mesmerised me. A few weeks later, I was begging the chefs to take me on as a volunteer. Eventually, they awarded me a proper apprenticeship, and then a job.
Since the menu at Chez Panisse changes daily, each kitchen shift begins with a menu meeting, when each chef is assigned a task for that day’s dishes. As an intern, sitting in on these meetings was inspiring and terror-inducing in equal measure. I was surrounded by some of the best cooks in the world. Just hearing them talk about food was enormously educational. How did they all seem to know how to cook anything the chef could imagine when they consulted cookbooks only on rare occasions?
I felt as if I’d never catch up. But gradually, I learned to detect the nuances that distinguish good food from great. I started to see some basic patterns in the seemingly impenetrable maze of seasonal menus. Salt, fat, acid and heat were the four elements that guided basic decision-making for every single dish, no matter what. The rest was just a combination of cultural, seasonal or technical details, for which we could consult cookbooks and experts, histories and maps. It was a revelation.
As I watched the cooks use salt in far greater quantities, far earlier and far more often than it had ever occurred to me to do, I began to internalise the first and most important lesson of my cooking career: salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient. Learn to use it well, and your food will taste good.
Salt’s relationship to flavour is multidimensional: it has its own particular taste and it enhances the flavour of other ingredients. Used properly, salt minimises bitterness, balances sweetness and enhances aromas, heightening our experience of eating. Take the salted chocolate and caramel sandwich cookies featured overleaf, which are sprinkled with flaky Maldon salt. Besides providing a satisfying crunch when the flakes hit your tongue, the salt offsets the bitter cocoa, intensifying the chocolate and caramel, and offering a welcome savoury contrast to the sugar’s sweetness.
By the time I arrived at Chez Panisse, the kitchen had already been running smoothly for decades. Its success relied on each cook thinking ahead to the following day’s menu and beyond. Every day, without fail, we jointed and seasoned meat for the following day. I thought they were just being efficient: it didn’t occur to me that seasoning meat in advance had anything to do with flavour. I didn’t yet understand the important work salt was quietly doing overnight.
Then, inspired by a slow-roasted pork dish I’d cooked at work a few days earlier, I threw a dinner party and attempted to recreate the preparation. After a trip to the butcher first thing in the morning, I rubbed salt and a little sugar all over the pork shoulder. I knew it would take hours of roasting at a low temperature to grow tender, so I immediately slipped it into the oven. After six hours, it emerged caramelised and tender to the touch: it looked perfect. But when I cut into it, my heart sank. The centre of the roast was as bland as could be.
I couldn’t bring myself to serve food I knew wasn’t right, so I changed gears. I shredded the meat so I could season it properly throughout
and threw a taco party. Now, I’m from southern California, home to some of the best tacos in the world, but the pork ones I made then are among the most memorable I’ve had.
That was the day that I learned how crucial it is to give salt the time to distribute itself and diffuse. It’s why we salted our meat the night before cooking at Chez Panisse. And that’s why you should make it a habit to season earlier, too. Slow-roasted pork shoulder tacos Serves 8 30g sea salt 100g sugar Boneless pork shoulder (approximately 1.8kg in weight) To serve Sour cream Corn tortillas Mexican cabbage slaw (see recipe below)
1 In a small bowl, mix together the salt and sugar. Put the pork in a large, shallow bowl and rub the salt and sugar mixture all over it. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
2 An hour before you plan to start cooking, remove the pork from the fridge and discard any juices. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2. Put the pork in a roasting pan and into the oven. After the first hour, baste with pan juices and repeat every hour. Cook for about 6 hours, or until it collapses, yielding easily to the tines of a fork.
3 Let the meat cool for 15 minutes, then shred it using two forks. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. Serve with sour cream, tortillas and slaw. Mexican cabbage slaw Serves 6 to 8 ½ medium head of red or green cabbage (about 700g) Salt ½ small red onion, thinly sliced 60ml lime juice 1 fresh jalapeño pepper, finely sliced 10g coriander leaves, coarsely chopped 45ml red wine vinegar 90ml extra virgin olive oil
1 Quarter the cabbage through the core. Use a sharp knife to cut the core out at an angle. Thinly slice or shred the rest of the cabbage and put in a colander set inside a large salad bowl. Season with two generous pinches of salt, to help draw out water, and toss the slices. Set aside.
2 In a small bowl, toss the sliced onion with the lime juice and let it sit for 20 minutes to macerate. Set aside.
3 After 20 minutes, drain any water that the cabbage may have given off – sometimes there will be none. Put in the bowl and add the jalapeño, coriander and macerated onion – but not its lime juice yet. Dress the slaw with the vinegar and olive oil. Toss well to combine.
4 Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding the lime juice used for macerating, and salt as needed. When your palate zings with pleasure, it’s ready. Serve chilled or at room temperature. You can store leftover slaw, covered in the fridge, for up to two days. Salted chocolate and caramel sandwich cookies (on the cover) You will need to start these the day before you intend to bake them. Makes about 24 For the cookies 225g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped 155g flour 50g unsweetened cocoa powder 2 tsp baking powder 115g unsalted butter, at room temperature 225g sugar, plus more to roll the logs in 2 large eggs
Salt, fat, acid and heat were the four elements that guided decisionmaking for every single dish
½ tsp fine salt 1 tsp vanilla extract 75ml whole milk Granulated sugar, for rolling Maldon salt, for finishing For the salted caramel filling 50g granulated sugar 30ml water 60ml double cream 1 tsp vanilla extract 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature ½ tsp fine salt 115g caster sugar
1 First make the cookie dough. Fill a saucepan with about 3cm of water and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Put the chocolate in a large, dry stainless steel or ceramic bowl and set it so that it hovers over the simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the liquid. Stirring occasionally, melt the chocolate until it’s smooth. Remove and set aside.
2 In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa and baking powder.
3 Use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to beat the butter on medium-high speed until creamy: about 2 minutes. Add the sugar slowly in a thin stream. Continue mixing until it is completely smooth and soft, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
4 Add the eggs one at a time, then the salt, vanilla, melted chocolate and milk, mixing well after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture. Mix until barely incorporated. The dough will be quite thick and stiff.
5 Divide the dough into 4. Put each portion on a large piece of clingfilm. Using the wrapping to help, roll and shape each piece into a log 3cm in diameter. Twist the ends to seal. Chill overnight.
6 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put another sheet of parchment paper on your work surface. Pour a line of sugar as long as the dough logs on to the parchment. Unwrap a chilled log of dough and roll it in the sugar to coat evenly. Using a thin, sharp knife, slice the dough into 6-8mm slices. Lay the slices on the baking sheet, leaving about 3cm between each. Sprinkle each slice with a few flakes of Maldon salt. Repeat with the remaining dough.
7 Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look set but still feel soft to the touch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
8 While the cookies bake and cool, make the caramel filling. Stir together the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until the mixture turns dark amber in colour.
9 Remove from the heat and slowly add the cream and vanilla, stirring with a whisk until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch – about 25 minutes.
10 Combine the butter and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer, still fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat on a medium-high speed until light in colour and fluffy – about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low, add the caster sugar, and mix until completely incorporated. Turn the mixer off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the prepared caramel. Beat the mixture on mediumhigh speed until airy and thoroughly mixed – about 2 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and refrigerate until stiff – about 45 minutes – before using.
11 To assemble the cookies, spread about 2 teaspoons of filling on to the bottom of a cooled cookie, then set a second cookie on top, right side up. Press gently to sandwich.