Worth her salt

How sea­son­ing makes a cook, by Samin Nos­rat

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page -

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.

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