Out of Bounds

Salt: The Magic Ingredient

This is the fifth and final installment in my review of cookbooks that make great Christmas gifts for wild protein eaters

By Rob Breeding

When I was young, a salt shaker was a permanent fixture on our dining room table. My family didn’t start meals with a prayer, but instead, the passing of the salt. 

Dad usually salted too heavily, drawing a frown, and occasionally, an angry rebuke from Mom. The rest of us followed Dad’s example, though none shaking quite as enthusiastically as the old man.

Today, when confronted by a salt shaker, my first instinct is to chuck it out the window. I’m no longer sure how to use one, at least as designed. If my only access to salt is via a shaker, my second instinct, assuming I’ve resisted the first, is to shake a small pile into my palm and pinch a bit to sprinkle on my food.

There are no salt shakers in my home. Next to my stove sits a ramekin filled with kosher salt; it’s coarser texture is much easier to pinch and sprinkle than table salt. I season and taste as I go. Proper seasoning is my responsibility as a cook.

Salt is the first of four major culinary elements in Samin Nosrat’s “Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.” This is the fifth, and final installment, in my review of cookbooks that make great Christmas gifts for wild protein eaters. 

The previous titles were obvious. Michael Ruhlman’s “Charcuterie” has been adopted by the wild game eating community, and titles by Hank Shaw and Steve Rinella are no-brainers for the camouflage crowd.

“Salt” may seem an unlikely candidate to round out my cookbook series, but only because expectations sometimes impede our ability to incorporate useful information. If it’s a cookbook for hunters, we assume the author must be a burly former college linebacker sporting an impressive beard in an author photo that depicts them breaking down an elk quarter with Crocodile Dundee’s Bowie knife.

A well-worn leather apron is a given.

What we’re not necessarily expecting is a woman, a daughter of Iranian immigrants, a UC Berkeley grad, and a chef who learned the craft in Alice Walters’ famous, and definitely upscale Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.

Expectations often deceive, but Nosrat’s four essential elements remain true whether our protein was gathered by rifle, fly rod or slaughterhouse. Salt seasons and heightens flavor. Fat carries that flavor to our taste buds and gives food a pleasing luxuriousness on the tongue. Acid balances flavors and cleanses the palette. Heat transforms texture and flavor. 

Think about it. Game meat, without the Maillard reaction, is just chewy gray lumps, or maybe tartare. That animal died so you can eat. It deserves thoughtful preparation in the kitchen.

Reading “Salt” is a bit like going to cooking school. The book breaks down each of these culinary elements in exhaustive, but easily relatable detail. In the early days of the Food Network I received a similar, though less exhaustive, education from Alton Brown, when I watched episodes of “Good Eats” over and over. 

Nosrat’s book might have saved my parents much marital strife. She emphasizes the importance of seasoning as you go, while always accounting for the inherent salt in some ingredients. Shrimp dip — a simple recipe made by blending canned shrimp, cream cheese and garlic — was a family favorite, but Dad insisted the garlic flavor ride along with garlic salt. 

His dip was basically hypertension on a potato chip.

I grate a bit of fresh garlic into my dip these days. Canned shrimp and ridged crisps bring all the seasoning this snack needs.

While there’s not a stitch of camouflage in sight, if you’ve got a budding wild game chef on your hands, “Salt” is an essential guide that will teach them how to maximize the flavor and quality of what they cook.

That’s important. You’re not really a hunter if you can’t manage this final step.