Friday, January 26, 2018

Salt: Understanding the Most Important Seasoning


Any time a base reacts with an acid a salt is born in the resulting neutralization reaction. There are many types of salt but the one humans care the most about is sodium chloride (chemical symbol: NaCl), the union of the gas chlorine and the metal sodium by an ionic bond. In its natural form, it is a crystalline mineral called Halite. Sodium Chloride is the only salt I will be discussing in this article so any mention of salt from here on will refer to it.
            Salt is one the most important items in the kitchen along with water, fire, and a sharp knife. It enhances the flavor of any food you put it on by bringing out the subtle flavors in that food and countering the taste of bitterness. Basically, it balances flavor, which is why nearly every dessert recipe calls for a ¼- ½ teaspoon of salt. You don’t taste the salt in the recipe, but you taste what the salt does.
            There are several types of salts you will encounter in the grocery store.
Table Salt: This is salt produced by dissolving mined salt in water and then purifying and cooling the resulting brine to get “pure” salt crystals. The salt crystals are ground into uniform grains and mixed with anti-caking agents and usually iodine (to prevent iodine deficiency, a serious medical problem from the past still common in some developing nations)
Kosher Salt: Very similar to table salt, but with kosher salt the crystals are coaxed to grow from the top of the brine resulting if more uneven shapes. These crystals are rolled into flakes which are not only more uneven than table salt but also larger. Kosher salt has less anti-caking agents and no iodine. It is probably the number one cooking salt. Chefs says it’s easier to sprinkle on food and it tastes better than table salt. 
Sea Salt: If you take sea water and put it into shallow beds then let the water evaporate the resulting salt is sea salt. It has trace amounts of different minerals in it from the ocean that give it different flavors and colors depending on the region of the world it’s from. My grandfather (a former caterer) swore by the stuff. I seldom use it. Some minerals it might contain are: sulphate, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, borate, etc. Sea salt usually has irregular shapes as well. 
Finishing Salts: These are flavored salts that can include sea salts. A common one would be smoked salt, which is exactly what its name suggests. You don’t cook with them, instead you sprinkle a little on the finished dish to impart some subtle flavor. You’ll feel like a fancy chef finishing your newest masterpiece when you use them. 
The salt with the largest most irregular crystals here, is a type of sea salt. Across from it the finest salt is iodized table salt. Between them are regular kosher salt at the bottom and coarse kosher salt at the top.

An assortment of finishing salts. Starting with the black and moving clockwise: smoked salt, Hawaiian red salt, Himalayan pink salt, Eurasian black salt (not black at all), and Sel de Guerande. 
             Learning to salt food properly is one of the most important skills you can learn in the kitchen. The key is to get just enough salt to enhance the flavor of the food while making sure salt is not all you taste. There are four techniques for salting food right.

1) Salt with your hands. Don’t pour it out of a container. This gives better control of how much salt is going into the dish. Eventually your fingers will develop a feel for it and you’ll know exactly how much seasoning one of your pinches provides.
2) Salt from up high. This means don’t hold your hand real close to the food (mainly for meat/fish). Hold your hands up high and let the salt fall like snow. It will cover the food more evenly.

3) Salt the individual components of a dish and salt the dish a little at time. These two go hand in hand. Let’s say you are making a stir fry that requires you to add vegetables or meat at different steps. After the addition of each new ingredient add a little bit more salt. Don’t try to salt it all at once (at the beginning or end) because you might add too much. You can always add more salt if you have to, but taking it out will either be a pain or impossible.

4) Last, you need to salt food at the right time. Large pieces of meat like roasts can be seasoned the night before cooking to let the salt work its way into the meat. Pasta, potatoes, and grains should be cooked in salted water. Most vegetables should be salted after adding them to the pan unless the goal is to pull water out of them before use in which case you should salt them ahead of time. Small or thin pieces of meat can be salted just before cooking. Most recipes will tell you when to salt the foods.

Finally, a word on health. Salt in and of itself is not a bad thing. Your body requires it for proper health, but as with anything too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As long as you are drinking enough water and have healthy kidneys there is no evidence that going on a low salt diet will make a healthy person live any longer. If you have high blood pressure however, follow your doctor’s advice on salt, whatever that may be.

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