The four elements of good cooking
What are the basic elements of flavour? The most essential principles beyond ingredients and spices? To uncover those there is no better source than Samin Nosrat and her amazing book Salt Fat Acid Heat. Here is what I learned from her.
SALT enhances flavour.
We tend to think of salt in terms of 'saltiness' and less as a flavour magician. Yet, most chefs will tell you that the most frequent kitchen crime is under-salting food.
So let's repeat that: salt enhances flavour. It makes flavour - any flavour - more intense. This is why, for example, salted caramel works, not because salty tasting caramel is nice, but because salted caramel tastes more caramelly.
Notice the difference between salty and salted - you are aiming for the latter: to bring out the flavours you want your food salted not salty.
Samin recommends to salt 'from within' - to let salt infuse the food rather than sit on the outside of it. One of the simplest yet game-changing pieces of advice in her book is to use 'water as salty as the sea' when boiling food, e.g. pasta, or potatoes, or veggies. If this sounds like a lot of salt to you, keep in mind that the cooking water (with most of the salt) will be thrown out after it's done it's magic.
FAT carries flavour.
Literally. Fat helps flavour molecules to cling to our taste buds for longer and so intensifies and prolongs the taste experience.
Fat also facilitates browning (which in itself transforms flavour through the Maillard reaction) and crisping and makes emulsions (the temporary bond of fat and water, e.g. vinaigrette, mayonnaise) thick and creamy.
ACID balances flavour.
Acid gives flavour a boost by offering contrast.
On its own, acid puckers the mouth and is anything but pleasant. But you only need a dash of acid to add that layer of fresh, bright and lively that makes everything we cook come to life.
A squeeze of lemon juice, a dash of vinegar, a dab of mustard, or some sauerkraut on the side can do wonders for livening up a dish that would be otherwise dull or cloying, say stir-fired greens, bowl of soup, mac and cheese - or even, a tray of roast potatoes (adding lemon is very common when roasting potatoes in Greece). Often it makes all the difference between a taste experience of 'meh' and 'wow'.
HEAT transforms flavour.
This is kind of obvious. Yet few of us are using it deliberately.
When you apply heat, you can watch onions and garlic transform from pungent to sweet and succulent, greens turn brighter first, and then dull, dense hard root veg emerge soft and mellow and even the blandest tomato gains concentrated flavour when roasted.
Understanding these basic principles has certainly made me approach my cooking from a different angle. I'm keen to hear from you too - has it influenced your own cooking?