Salt is one of those topics that, the more you know about it, the more you know you don’t know. Books have been written about salt. Wars have been fought related to salt – who owned or had rights to it. Salt as a food related element shaped how humans and society developed.
Given that level of subject gravitas, we will talk about salt a few times. Today, I just want to explore a few basics on how to salt our food.
Salt is a mineral without which humans can’t survive. Our bodies do not store salt well so we need to consume it regularly. Among other critical body activities, blood pressure maintenance and nutrient delivery to and from cells depend on salt. How convenient that, in the grand plan, salt also makes food taste better. James Beard said “Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient. Learn to use it well and your food will taste good.”
All salt comes from the ocean. It is either sea salt evaporated from an existing ocean or from an underground ancient sea or ocean that is now mined as rock salt. Salt can be highly refined or a product of simple evaporation. There is a wide array of specialty salts, some naturally occurring and some enhanced, but there are three salts most commonly used in everyday cooking.
Table salt, the kind most of us grew up with in a shaker on the table is a dense granular salt that, measure for measure, is very salty. It is highly refined and often contains anti-clumping agents so that it is free flowing. Iodine was added in the 20’s to help prevent goiters. There were health benefits at the time and, although it is unlikely that it is still necessary as a health precaution, iodine is still frequently added to table salt. Iodine does add a metallic taste to salt. Dextrose may also be added to table salt to stabilize the iodine. Disclaimers that these elements do no harm aside, I think I would rather just add salt.
Kosher salt is used in the traditional Jewish process of “koshering” – the practice of how blood is removed from meat. Diamond Crystal and Morton are the two major producers of kosher salt in the United States. Differing production methods used by these manufacturers create very different textures of salt. Morton’s is more dense and therefore more salty. Diamond Crystal crumbles easily, broadcasts well and adheres to food efficiently. Diamond Crystal also dissolves quickly and is almost half as salty by volume as Morton’s. Kosher salt is economical and many restaurants use it in food preparation. I have a preference for Diamond Crystal for its clean taste and forgiving salt levels. Both of these salts are free of additives.
Sea salt is what is left behind when seawater evaporates. Harvesting and refining methods create different tastes, textures and colors of sea salt. Fleur de sel is created using low-yield, labor intensive methods. It can be pure white or it can take on color from sea minerals, sel gris. Maldon salt and fleur del sel have a flaky and crunchy texture. All of these natural methods make for an expensive product. Refined granular sea salt is created more rapidly by boiling down ocean water and is able to be produced more economically. Refined sea salt is ideal for everyday cooking and the salts produced by more labor intensive methods are best used as finishing and garnishing salts where their unique flavor and texture can be more appreciated.
Now, back to that promise of basics. In addition to choosing which salt to use, when to salt is a significant determinant in the flavor and texture of your final dish .
My first chef, Judy Rodgers, introduced me to the practice of salting early. When Judy lived and cooked in Southwestern France, she became aware of the local custom of salting early. A little salt early made for better results than the same amount of salt, or less, later. Most American cooks are taught that salt is always added at the last minute fearing that salt would draw out moisture and make meat tough. Salt does initiate osmosis and you can see moisture on the surface of recently salted meat. In time, that moisture will reabsorb, drawing the salt into the meat and seasoning it from within. It also alters the protein strands and allows them to absorb and retain water better as they cook, making them more juicy. If you have ever brined meat, that is in essence what you were doing.
The size and type of meat you are salting determines how far ahead you should salt. The beloved Zuni Cafe’s roasted chicken is an example of Judy’s commitment to salting early. The Zuni roasted chicken, in addition to being a prescribed size, is always salted 24 hours in advance. Larger roasts like a rib roast or leg of lamb could be salted two days in advance. Because fish is more delicate and less dense, it should rarely be salted more than a few minutes ahead.
If you are interested in knowing more about the salting early concept, I recommend the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. The book very thoroughly explores what to salt and when. It is also a wonderful read and full of delicious, well tested recipes. There is also good information online regarding salting in advance.
Vegetables also benefit from salting ahead. When roasting vegetables, toss them with salt and olive oil before putting them in the oven. Blanching water for vegetables should be well salted. A kitchen myth that salting legumes before cooking makes them tough is just that, a myth. Salt can be added to the soaking water for beans or when you begin to cook them. Beans that are tough or do not cook evenly are often old or have been improperly stored. Sometimes they just need to be cooked longer. There is no science that supports salt making legumes tough.
Pasta needs to be cooked in water that is “salty like the sea’. No amount of salt in the sauce or at the end will make up for the cooking water lacking salt. The same is true of potatoes. Pizza and bread dough cannot be salted after being baked – it must be integral. Salt tightens the gluten structure and determines the resulting texture and crumb. Salt is not only critical to the taste of cheese, it firms proteins and slows the growth of microbes.
It may seem odd to taste salt on its own but it can be very informative. Set up a blind tasting to educate yourself and better understand this basic ingredient you use every day. Not all salt is equally salty by volume. Learn to taste often while you cook. Taste the ingredients raw and all the way through to the finished dish. You will be educating yourself and learning to use salt for its best and greatest impact. You will also probably find that you use less salt.