Over the last few years I’ve read more non-fiction books than I usually do. I have also cooked after a break of many years. I restarted my cooking to help our budget. I continue my cooking because I’ve learned to enjoy it again.
When I restarted, I found cooking easier than I remembered. It was an easier process and somehow I had gained expertise and confidence after many years of not cooking on a regular basis. I experimented with recipes and trying new techniques. I continued to add to my experience as I cooked and baked.
For example, I’ve baked chocolate cookies every weekend for the last 15+ years or so. When I started baking them, I would often burn a batch of them, the texture would be too thin and the flavor was inconsistent. Sugar makes up for many deficiencies but my cookies weren’t always optimally flavored, especially the burned ones.
After 15+ years, I know the right oven temperature, how long I should pre-heat the oven, when to add a little extra flour or to hold back and other tricks I’ve learned over the years. An important one is to make sure I have a good grip on the cookie sheet when I pull it from the oven so I don’t flip it on the floor. Another is to check and make sure the cookies won’t expand over the edge of the sheet during baking, thus dropping bits to the bottom of the oven so there is a lovely smell of charred cookie while they are baking.
Eventually I wanted to improve the flavor and realized I wanted to learn advanced cooking techniques. I had learned how to put a few ingredients together and have it taste good. I wanted to learn how to cook things that tasted great. I tried searching for hints and I found one or two, but videos and short blog articles weren’t enough. After some search I found recommendations for two books for advanced cooking techniques, “The Flavor Bible” and “Salt Fat Acid Heat”. I was able to purchase both of them and both have been helpful. Here are my observations and thoughts on both of them.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat: Master the Elements of Good Cooking” by Samin Nosrat
This is the book I purchased first. The book is split into two parts, an explanation of how salt, fat, acid and heat affect foods and a second section of recipes.
The first section filled in gaps in my cooking education and the impact of these four elements. Cooking consists of chemical reactions and changes in an area can change an okay dish taste great. The right mix of salt, acid, fat and heat at the right time can change a plain foods into a memorable dish.
I now use salt to enhance flavor and tenderize meat. I check on the temperature of foods and adjust in order to maximize the flavors. With different fats and acids, I create lunches with a flavor that pops for food I look forward to eating.
Each element section has reference charts for various items and a section on how to balance the food if too little or too much of an element is added. The narrative structure makes for an easy read to help understand these concepts. The illustrations add color and depth to the explanations so the reader has a good primer for their cooking.
The second section starts with an explanation of some kitchen basics, such as choosing the right tools, and how to prepare ingredients. The recipes include detailed instructions for preparation, with references to the elements used in their preparation. There are also some recommended menus and other books for reading.
“The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
I was a little surprised at the format of this book. I am used to cookbooks filled with tips and recipes for cooking and baking. This book has a different format and is more of a reference to be used with cookbooks. The book consists of three sections, with the third section being the largest.
The first two sections are an analysis and explanation of what defines the flavor of the foods we eat. The first section covers the basics of how the taste, aroma and texture/mouth feel contribute to our imprint of cooking. The second section builds on that and discusses how food is often used to communicate with other people depending on what is served, how it is served and what foods are used for dishes. A hot soup in the summer does not taste as good as hot soup served on a cold winter day. The hot food will make a person feel weighed down and slow during the heat of the day. The exact same food in the winter will seem like a comfort food, perhaps bringing up positive memories from past meals.
The third section is the longest and is primarily a set of references. It is an index of foods, seasons, types of cuisines, and other categories with a listing of flavors that go well with each category. As an example, the entry for Corn lists it is associated with the season summer, with a sweet flavor. It can be cooked by boiling, grilling, roasting, saute, or steaming it. It is a heated food and has a long list of flavors that can enhance how it tastes or that it would make a good accompaniment. If an ingredient in the list is bolded, that indicates it is a very good fit for the food. So butter and salt are a very good fit, while salmon and eggs still fit but not as well with corn.
Thoughts on these books.
I found both books helpful and I feel I improved the flavor and taste of my cooking. They are both good references that I look at when I have a question. I am glad to have them for references as I work to improve my cooking. I find my lunches tastier, my cookies better tasting, and my bread with a fuller flavor than before.
However, I know that I am not using either book to its full potential. While I enjoy cooking, it is not something I do on a full time basis. I want to make good food quickly with minimal tools. There is an implied theme in both books that the reader has a very well stocked kitchen, quick access to fresh ingredients, and time for minute details.
As an example, I tried a recipe for apple pie using the recommended techniques. The techniques involved repeatedly chilling the tools and ingredients over several hours. The intent was to maximize the crust flakiness from the butter in the recipe. I normally use a recipe that requires less time and thus less planning ahead to prepare the recipe. I followed the steps and the pie was tasty but I didn’t succeed with maximum flakiness.
After this attempt, I was discouraged by the amount of time and preparation so I have not tried any of the other recipes in the book. The recipes look good but I’m not at a point where I have the patience to try them. I also feel the same about the recommended flavors for blending. They look interesting but to use them requires planning and preparation to make sure I have them for recipes. Again, this isn’t an area where I want to focus a lot of time while still seeing the value of the references.
I do recommend the books, for experienced cooks who are interested in improving their techniques. I suspect that beginning cooks might get frustrated with both of these books and not take full advantage of the information.