The Four Basic Principles of Cooking- Salt. Fat. Acid Heat
No, I’m not copying her concept or even trying to emulate it. The basic cornerstones of cooking have been around for ages and honed by master chefs are now being studied by home cooks.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the basic principles of cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. These tenets of the culinary world are nothing new. In fact, they have been around for a very long time and if you understand each of them (and more importantly how they interact with one another,) you will be a better cook.
Learn about the four basic principles of cooking and how to use them in any recipes: salt, fat, acid and heat!
These topics take years for the best of the best to master and understand. Many of which will tell you they still continue to experiment with daily.
All of which makes food art. We all have the same finite list of ingredients, but will create strokes in different ways. If you do wish to take a deep dive into these concepts, I highly encourage you to both read the book Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat and also watch her short docu series on Netflix.
Her personality, laugh, curiosity and motivation to learn is infectious and will inspire you to up your cooking game.
Salt, fat, acid, and heat need to work in harmony for a dish to taste delicious. Without that balance, it will fall flat. The following is a brief overview of each idea and how it plays into your everyday cooking.
Here are the basics for Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat:
Let’s start with salt. I love salt! Yes, it has gotten a bad reputation over the years for reasons we won’t go into, but it shouldn’t be looked down on. Salt is a simply a mineral. Sodium chloride to be exact and it happens to be one of those things our bodies can’t live without. Surprise! It is built in our system to crave salt because without it, we wouldn’t be functioning.
Salt is also one of the reasons you taste what you taste when you are eating a meal.
Don’t believe me? Make a soup without salting it (no bouillon either as it is a significant source of salt) and taste it. Then grab another spoonful and put a tiny touch of salt in it. The difference will be staggering. Salt makes food come alive. It is the yin to a recipe’s yang; what really allows flavors to come forward.
All salt comes from the sea or at least it did originally. It is created when the waters of the ocean evaporate. And yes, this includes salt caves and salt flats if you were questioning my last sentence.
Salt all might originate from the sea, but not all salt is built the same. The way salt is procured can alter its salinity level (or saltiness) and its shape. Some types of salt are great for seasoning meat before you cook it while others are great for stocks and even more that are perfect for finishing a dish.
Table salt is the salt that you see in saltshakers from coast to coast. Yes, it is a salty salt. Stay with me. I tend to stay away from it in my cooking because it typically has iodine in it (a product of iodine deficiencies way back when which are now almost nonexistent) and anti-caking agents. Not my favorite. It tends to taste metallic to me as well.
Fun fact: table salt is cubic in shape and extremely dense making it incredibly salty.
So if I am not using table salt, what do I have? My kitchen always has two kinds of salt. Yes, not one but two and they are two very different types of salt for two very different uses. If you want to go past that and create a salt collection, by all means, have at it, but two is the bare minimum in my book.
The first is kosher salt. You’ve seen the boxes at the grocery store. This type of salt was traditionally used in the process of koshering or removing blood from meat and that means it is pure, unadulterated salt. It is fantastic for salting water, seasoning meats and soups. It is the workhorse salt of the kitchen, a true kitchen basic.
Flaky sea salt has a much more delicate texture and typically involves a labor-intensive process to harvest it. Due to that process, it also happens to be a bit more expensive. That said, it can truly make a meal. The flakes are a perfect way to finish a steak, or top a salad, or even finish off a fresh-from-the-oven batch of cookies. It is going to bring out flavors that are already in the dish, but it will also add a little pop of texture. I love it so much that I buy it online by the 3lb tub. When you hear me reference Maldon Sea Salt, this is the salt.
The biggest thing to remember when you are cooking is to use a light hand with salt and taste often. It is easy to add a touch more, but as soon as you have gone over the edge there is no turning back and it’s a fine line between perfectly seasoned and a dish tasting like a salt lick.
Moving onto another favorite, fat! Fat gives us crispy foods like fried chicken, perfectly caramelized steaks, flaky pie dough, and even something as simple as a bright vinaigrette for your salad.
If there is one thing you take away from this section to remember it is this: fat is a vehicle for flavor. Flavorful in and of itself, fat also grabs onto other flavors. This in turn enhances those flavors because it coats the tongue and allows those flavors to really inundate your taste buds.
PRO TIP: Fat is a vehicle for flavor.
Fat comes in lots of forms. You have oils and nut oils, there is of course butter, as well as animal fats – think schmaltz, bacon fat, and duck fat. Then there are other meats themselves, nuts of all kinds, dairy like cheese, sour cream, and yogurt. Whole eggs, oily fish like sardines and mackerel, even avocados fall into this category.
Fat can be used as the main ingredient. Think of the roll eggs and heavy cream play in ice cream. Alternatively, it can be a cooking medium. The olive oil you cook your filet of salmon in perhaps? It can even be a way to season a dish. That smear of mayo on your turkey club is there for a reason and yes that falls into the fat category.
Something to remember about fat: If there is too much fat in a dish, it is sometimes salvageable with salt and/or acid. Play around and try adding one or both to see if you can find balance again. Fun (well, not so fun) fact: fat can go bad.
This is obvious when it comes to meat, fish, or dairy, but the same is true of oils and nuts. Rancid fats have a musty smell to them and a very distinct taste. If it smells stale, throw it out. The oils have gone bad and will ruin whatever dish they are added to.
PRO TIP: If there is too much fat in a dish, it is sometimes salvageable with salt and/or acid.
Case and point: My girlfriend made a huge batch of pine nut tarts over the holidays and didn’t taste her pinenuts beforehand. Let’s just say she went to the store to buy some pre-made tarts later that day.
Just as every dish should have some element of salt and fat, they should also have acid. Without that acidic element, a dish will have no zing, no zip, no pizazz. Acidic ingredients are the ones that hit you back near your jaw and make you salivate. Used correctly, acid won’t make you pucker in pain, it will give your dish balance and intrigue.
Dig deep back to your high school science days. Do you remember the pH scale, which separated things that were basic and acidic? The number 7 is neutral; anything below 7 was basic and anything that was above that number was an acid. If you don’t have pH paper handy to test an ingredient, your tongue will work as an incredible substitute. If the ingredient makes you pucker a little or makes your mouth water, it is probably an acid.
Let’s go through some of the acidic ingredients you already have in your kitchen. All of the following are acids: vinegar (this one might have been obvious,) citrus, wine & beer (gasp!) condiments (ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, salsa, you name it, each is an acid,) cured meats, cheese, yogurt, crème fraiche, sour cream (you see where I’m going with this,) pickles of all kinds, coffee, tea, tomatoes (yes, really,) and even honey and molasses.
Acids can be added toward the end of a cook to brighten a dish. For example, a dash of vinegar in a big pot of beans makes a world of difference. It can be a garnish as well. Anyone who has gotten a taco with a wedge of lime on the side knows that fresh acidity really changes every bite.
Some other examples of acids in dishes are pickled onions with a plate of BBQ, Worcestershire sauce in a Caesar salad dressing, or a dollop of crème fraiche to finish a soup. All these things do their part to give you a well-balanced dish with beautiful bites every time.
Heat is a bit more challenging as it cannot be tasted like the other three. That said, it can be seen, heard, and smelled. It will also make or break whatever you are cooking. Put the right heat on a pork chop and the results can be heavenly. Put the wrong heat on a pork chop and you will end up with an unappetizing, grey hunk of meat. No one wants that. Heat changes whatever you are cooking on a molecular level.
I’ll let you in on a secret and this might take a bit of a leap of faith on your end. Your cookbooks and recipes will give you a general rule of thumb for heat levels, oven temp, timings, etc. but what you are using in terms of ingredients and or tools will never be the same as what they were using when writing and testing that recipe.
Meaning, you need to use your best judgment on those things and that might just mean deviating a bit from what is being suggested. I can’t tell you how many times actual baking times don’t match up with what is in the book Note: This does not apply to internal temps though for things like chicken, etc.
The best way to master this skill is to cook and cook often while paying attention to the food. Is the steak in the pan sizzling more or less when it is at the right temp? When do you smell herbs and spices that have been added to oil?
When is a steak perfectly brown on one side or mushrooms releasing their water. The better you can use your other senses to judge the food and what’s happening to it while it is on the heat, the better.
A few quick tips:
A cast iron pan is a great, inexpensive addition to any kitchen because it heats evenly and will last a lifetime if taken care of. (Check out my article on how to season a cast iron pan here.)
Get a thermometer for your oven. Ovens need to be calibrated and 9 times out of 10 even the newest model is off by 25 degrees or so up or down from what it is set at. Once you know which way it swings, you will be wiser when it comes to preheating.
If you are cooking on a charcoal grill, lump charcoal is the way to go as it burns for longer periods of time. You want it to burn down enough so there is no flame. Those radiant, hot coals will give you a more even heat and be less likely to flare up when you are cooking.
You might be feeling overwhelmed right now. Take a deep breath; there will be no test. To put all that you have learned here to use, all you have to do is cook and cook some more. Each time you are cooking, taste and taste often.
Pay attention to these different elements. The more you start to become aware of them and their dance, the better you will get in the kitchen. Please know that there will be great successes along with many failures and flubs. When those flubs happen, look back, take notes, and order in.Learn about the four basic principles of cooking and how to use them in any recipes: salt, fat, acid and heat!