Salt is ubiquitous.
It can be found in kitchens around the world and listed as an ingredient in practically every recipe ever created! But, despite its prevalence in our culinary repertoire, rarely do we stop and consider how to best make use of the many qualities that salt can provide our cooking.
This blog post is dedicated to providing some practical information and tips to choosing the perfect salt for the job and how to use it in the best way possible.
Salt acts as a flavoring agent. We all enjoy the flavor of salt and, although we all like slightly different amounts of salt depending on our own unique tastes, there is actually an ideal percentage that most chefs aim for: approximately 0.5% by weight of the food. However, many things impact how much salt we individually perceive as the perfect saltiness in our food such as continuously eating salty food (you can actually build up a “salt tolerance”), smoking (smoking dulls the sense of taste), dehydration, and a variety of medical issues. Salt also enhances our perception of other flavors in food by reducing bitterness and increasing sweet, sour and umami flavors.
Salt keeps food safe by drawing moisture from food and reducing water activity. Using salt to reduce the active water in everything from beef jerky to butter helps increase the shelf life and keep foods stable! Salt is also used in the production of fermented vegetables, another food technology that increases food safety and shelf life. In this case, the salt helps create the anaerobic environment required for lacto-fermentation by drawing the liquid from the vegetables’ cell walls to submerge them in. Salt also keeps food safe by increasing salinity thereby favoring the growth of more salt-tolerant bacteria and creating an environment hostile to bad bacteria. Beyond steering clear of iodized salt, it really doesn’t matter what type of salt is used for making food safe because it eventually dissolves and distributes itself evenly throughout the food through osmosis; however, smaller grain salt dissolves more quickly, speeding up the entire process.
Salt changes the texture of many foods. Chemically it changes proteins and how proteins interact with other things. For instance, adding salt to eggs before whisking results in fluffier scrambled eggs, adding salt to cheese makes it firmer, adding salt to meat keeps it moist by helping the proteins retain their natural juices, and adding salt to dough strengthens gluten strands and allows them to hold the carbon dioxide gasses better.
But, even more profoundly, different types of salt have different shapes and sizes. And those morphological characteristics make all the difference in how we experience the salt when we eat it – especially with salts added at the very end that still retain their shape. For example, pretzels don’t “taste” right unless they are coated with “pretzel salt”. Flat, pyramid shaped Maldon salt crystals literally melt on your tongue because of their huge surface area(just like the flat chocolate pieces found in chocolate chip mint ice cream do). And, chunky grains of fleur de sel are perfect to top the focaccia right before it goes into the oven or sprinkled on freshly buttered bread to provide a special crunch that perfectly contrasts the soft dough of the focaccia or smooth texture of the butter.
Do not forget that we experience food using all of our senses and the way food looks plays a very important role in this process. Finishing salts are salts added to finished dishes to provide a texture and/or look to the food. This is where the selection of salt for its grain size, shape and even color can have the biggest impact. We like to use very coarse grain salt to finish baked goods (such as our chocolate chip cookies), celtic sea salt to finish our focaccia, and Maldon salt to finish our crackers. If you don’t want the salt obvious in the finished product then use choose one with a fine grain.
A few tips:
- Your taste buds are sensitive to temperature. As a result, we perceive the “saltiness” of food and the flavor that salt brings out in food differently at different temperatures. It takes a little more salt to do the same thing in cold food than for room temperature or hot food. So, if making something that is going to be served cold (e.g. gazpacho) then slightly over salt.
- The crystal size of the salt grain does not impact flavor but greatly impacts how we “experience” the salt. The flat/pyramid shape of maldon salt dissolves differently on our tongue than large grained Kosher salt and also differently than fine table salt.
- Since salt grains vary widely it is much more accurate and consistent to weigh salt instead of using a volume measuring device like measuring spoons. A half teaspoon of fine salt contains much more salt than a half teaspoon of coarse salt.
- Salt as close to the end of the cooking process as possible. Many things can change during the cooking process, such as evaporation, and what may start out as perfectly seasoned can easily become over salted.
- Remember, different people have different salt tolerances. When in doubt, undersalt and let your guests add more salt for themselves at the table when possible.
Most importantly, always check the salt of your food before serving!