Shelf Life

Samin Nosrat on the Salty, Spicy Ingredients She Always Has on Hand

After moving to San Diego from Iran in the seventies, Samin Nosrat’s parents kept their heritage alive through meals. As Samin remembers, “My mom was like, ‘When you go to school, that’s America, but when you come home, this is Iran.’ She’s an extraordinary cook, so we grew up eating really delicious Persian food and speaking Farsi. But I would also go to school and be jealous of other kids’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” After stints working in the kitchen of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and helping (the also legendary) Michael Pollan write a book, the cookery whiz distilled her knowledge into Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—a fun, science-y guide to the four building blocks of makin’ things taste good. Here, the ingredients that always stack up in her own kitchen endeavors.

1. Hot Sauce

“I’m a deep believer in the power of condiments—they’re this incredible gift. I eat pretty simply at home, usually a pot of beans or rice with eggs and greens. And one way I make those same things taste good and different every time is with multiple kinds of hot sauces. Valentina is my favorite Mexican one—it’s very acidic. Lately, I’ve been putting this Italian chile paste called Bomba di Calabria on everything. There’s just something about Calabrian chiles—they’re bright, neon red and so spicy and delicious.”


2. Kosher Salt

“Everybody gives me salt now because I wrote a book about it. I really love the Jacobsen Salt Co. kosher salt, which only costs $12 for a big box. My guess is that it’s the dregs of their big, fancy salt pieces, so the price is between fancy salt and bulk-bin salt. You still get a nice textural thing if you use it for sprinkling, but it’s not so expensive that I feel wasteful using it in cooking. I also like Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt—just the regular old stuff in the red box.”


3. Rice Wine Vinegar

“I love seasoned rice wine vinegar. I should probably be a little ashamed about it because it has sugar in it, but it’s this delicious secret ingredient in a vinaigrette. Especially for kids or people who say they don’t like salads, it’s a way to convert them into vegetable-lovers.”


4. Olive Oil

“I’m always changing the olive oils I use, and it’s fun to taste different ones. I will say that the Kirkland Signature Organic Olive Oil is actually quite good and made in Italy. Every year, it tests very high on the independent scoring analysis for quality. I also have a really, really tasty one from a local place called Séka Hills, which comes from olive orchards that are on an Indian reservation.”


5. Tahini

“I always have obscene amounts of tahini. It’s a great way to make things creamy without actually adding dairy. I have three go-to flavor palates: Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Japanese, and there’s sesame in all of those cultures. I make a delicious Japanese dressing by stirring together a few drops of toasted sesame oil from tahini, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar. Or I make a tahini sauce with yogurt and cilantro to drizzle over roasted sweet potatoes to give them an Israeli feel. I even use it for an easy version of sikil pak, which is an awesome Yucatecan pumpkin-seed sauce.”


6. Aromatic Spices

I love the Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland. They have this extraordinary Vietnamese Saigon Cinnamon that has the most powerful taste of cinnamon oil. I also get my vanilla beans from them. Plus, all of my sweet recipes use cardamom, and all of my savory dishes use cumin—if you don’t like those two things, you’re kind of screwed at my house.”


7. High-Quality Dried Beans

“I love Rancho Gordo beans—that’s a great go-to brand sold in lots of stores, and you know you’re going to get a new harvest. There’s another good one called Zürsun Idaho Heirloom Beans. Most people think of pantry items as timeless and just keep pushing them to the back, but everything in there still comes from the land and has a shelf life. Restaurants have a policy called FIFO (First In, First Out), which means putting older stuff at the front of the fridge or cabinet so that it gets used sooner, and you should do that at home. When you cook beans, you’re rehydrating them, so if they’re really dry and old, they’re not going to absorb moisture properly or evenly. Crops harvested within one to two years are best. The other day, I cooked a pot of beans, and everyone kept asking me why they were so good. I told them two reasons: I pre-soaked them, and they were last year’s batch—so they tasted fresher.”