80/20 Cooking

By popular demand, we're following up our 80/20 strength training post with 80/20 guides to various skills, on the principle that "there aren’t enough 80/20 explainers of hobbies and skills because it’s intense devotees who usually write them."

First up: cooking.

The first rule is to memorize the title of Samin Nosrat's "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat." I feel a bit bad saying that you don't actually need to buy the book, because I want to support her for giving me this gospel, but almost-all the value I got from it was just from the principle that most dishes are greatly improved by adding the right amount (aka a lot more) salt, fat and acid. (I don't actually remember what she said about heat).

This is easiest to do with a stew or sauce, so that's a good place to start. Your stew can be as simple/dumb as heating a tin of chopped tomatoes and adding some protein, it'll still work. Once you've finished cooking your dish, give it a little taste then add some salt. Taste it again, and add more salt. Taste it again, and add more salt. You should notice a couple of things:

1) often a dish that initially seemed to have "failed", that was absolutely tasteless despite all your original efforts, actually had great flavor inside it all along; it just needed some salt to unlock that flavor.

Nosrat has a great anecdote about how your memory that watermelon at the beach as a child tasted better than any watermelon you eat now may not just be nostalgia but actually scientific: the salty sea water on your hands gets into the watermelon, and unlocks more of the taste. We sometimes recreate this as adults with (excellent!) recipes like watermelon salad + salty cheese + mint, but we don't realize how much work the salt is doing there.

2) most dishes are improved by adding way, way more salt than you usually add* (*assuming you're a modern professional-class person who's been told all their life that Salt is Bad... while most of the world, most of the restaurants you visit, and all the manufacturers of packaged food you consume have figured out salt makes things more delicious).

Once you've added salt until juuuuuust up to the point where you're worried the dish is tasting too salty, add your acid–you can match the acid that fits the cuisine you're cooking, but also you can default to either lemon or vinegar. The acid cuts against the saltiness, somehow, so if your first salting was perfect you might add a final little bit of salt; if your first salting went a bit too far, the acid should help you come back to where you want to be.

(As for fat: I honestly don't remember what she said about it exactly, but I've started adding olive oil to more of my dishes, and it seems to be good. Anthony Bourdain said that the main reason restaurant food tastes better than home food is that it's full of butter).

The final component of the 80/20 is something I've already talked about here: tasting, seasoning, tasting, seasoning, tasting some more. This both allows you to improve the current dish you're working on and develop better intuitions for your future cooking.

But I really want to stress the improve the current dish part: I used to think that if I made (say) a pot of dhal and discovered after an hour of cooking that it tasted kind of flat and flavorless, I had already failed–I had used the wrong ingredients, or cooked them wrong, or something. It turns out that's not how food generally works: like the hero in a feel-good teen movie, the special something was inside all along. It just needed a bunch of salt to get it out.

p.s. as a bonus tip, the post that started this whole blog: in praise of MSG.

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