cooking essentials: take it with a grain of salt

ThePretentiousChef avatar
By Andy Anderson !
from Wichita, KS

Ever hear the expression: “Take it with a Grain of Salt?” You have to admit that salt plays a sizeable part in our lives. As a matter of fact, if you did not have traces of it in your body, you would not be alive. Some people love salt; some do not. Some folks sprinkle it on everything; some are on a salt-free diet. However, whatever your take is on this ubiquitous cooking ingredient, possessing a good understanding of salt and how it is used in the preparation of food, will make you a much better chef. So, you ready… Let’s get into the kitchen.

serves Lots
prep time 5 Min
cook time 5 Min
method No-Cook or Other

Ingredients For cooking essentials: take it with a grain of salt

  • salt
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How To Make cooking essentials: take it with a grain of salt

  • 1
    How Does Salt Enhance Flavor? The tongue and its relationship to taste is an interesting field of study. Years ago, it was thought that parts of the tongue were dedicated to four basic tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter. Later umami was added bringing the number to five. New research now shows that the taste buds actually respond to several tastes each, and at different levels of sensitivity; plus, they interact with each other to either enhance or suppress specific tastes. For example, low concentrations of salt tend to enhance bitter ones, while moderate concentrations will suppress them.
  • 2
    The Humble Watermelon. This juicy fruit is composed of flavors that are bitter, sour, and sweet. When you add a bit of salt, it will suppress the bitterness; therefore, making the watermelon taste sweeter. Salting a watermelon was always considered a very “Southern” thing to do; however, over the years more-and-more folks at Summer picnics around the country, pull out their shakers when watermelon is served. Another common use of salt is to reduce the bitterness of canned tomatoes. By reducing the bitterness, you bring out the savory and sweet nature of the tomatoes. All without using a single bit of sugar. I began this segment with the question: How Does Salt Enhance Flavor? But you could also replace “enhance” with the word “change.” The right amount of salt can change how the tongue perceives what a food tastes like, and in knowing that you become a better chef. At the Culinary Institute and Cordon Bleu we spent a lot of time discussing and experimenting with salt.
  • 3
    Salt is Salt, Yes? Let us begin by defining salt. First of all, salt is not a spice or an herb (both of these come from plants), rather it is considered an organic mineral known as, sodium chloride, (chemical name: NACI), and it is obtained in one-of-two ways: 1. Mined from the earth. 2. Obtained from a salt-water body (ocean, sea), and then evaporated. However, whether mined or evaporated, it is put through a rigorous series of processes before being sold How it is obtained and processed determines the type of salt it will eventually become. There is a third method, but it is similar to the evaporative way. It involves hitting a deposit of salt with high-powered water hoses. The water dissolves the salt formation, and it spills into ponds where it evaporates. This is one of the main ways kosher salt is produced.
  • 4
    Salt falls into two major categories: 1. Cooking 2. Finishing (sometimes referred to as artisan salt) Cooking salts are used during the preparation process, for example, adding a pinch of salt to your flour when baking a cake. Or adding a bit to a soup or stew. The size of the grains (small, large, or flakes) makes little difference because the grains will dissolve into the recipe. With cooking salts, you are going for flavor, not mouthfeel. Finishing salts, on the other hand, are used at the end, and therefore contribute more than just flavor; they contribute to presentation, crunch, and mouthfeel. For example, I put flake salt on my homemade caramels. When you bite in, you get the sweet taste of caramel along with the crunch and bitterness of the salt. Actually, any salt can be used in cooking, but not every salt is right for finishing. Truth be known, we probably all have our favorite brand of salt. You know what I am talking about. The one we constantly reach for on the shelf (or order on Amazon). Maybe it is the blue carton with the illustration of the little girl with the umbrella (table salt) or maybe not; however, if you just use one type of salt you are missing out on some interesting flavor combinations.
  • 5
    Does Salt Have an Expiry Date? If stored correctly, (keep it dry), salt will never expire. I have an old glass jar of salt from my Aunt Josephine that is over 100 years old (time flies). Once, I opened it up and took a taste. It tasted just like good old salt. In addition, I have blocks of pink salt that I use for presentation at events, and they are literally millions of years old… Salt does not expire.
  • 6
    Summing It Up Although composed primarily of sodium chloride (some with minerals), different versions can influence things like texture, flavors, even the amount of saltiness. So, let us look at some different types of salt, what they are, and how best to use them.
  • 7
    Table or Cooking Salt, also known as Big Salt The first use of table salt was way back in 1670, where it was described as on the table for the customers use. Hence the name “table” salt. It is usually mined (although it can be evaporated) by the use of big machines. Hence the name “big” salt. Finally, it is used extensively in the cooking of many recipes. Hence the name “cooking” salt. However modern-day table salt is more than just sodium chloride. Ninety percent of the table salt sold in markets across the country contains iodine. In addition, you may also find dextrose (a sugar) used to stabilize the iodine. But that is not all, most table salts contain anti-caking agents, the worst two being Calcium aluminosilicate and Sodium aluminosilicate, although it could be any one of a dozen other chemicals. Iodine is okay because the body needs it for several very good reasons that I will not expound upon, and even if your diet supplies you with enough iodine (most diets do), there is no evidence that getting a bit more causes any problems. However, when I look at the ingredient list and it includes anti-caking agents that contain aluminum, I look for another brand. Although iodine in salt supplies a nutrient that the body needs, it can give foods a metallic taste, and for that reason I do not recommend it for cooking. And, for your information, “iodized” salt first became available on grocery shelves in Detroit, Michigan on May 1st, 1924.
  • 8
    Kosher Salt A favorite of chefs and home cooks for its coarse uniform, easy-to-pinch granules. It is produced by boiling off brine that is pumped into a salt deposit and has larger grains than common table salt. Despite its name, only some brands are actually certified by a hechsher as having met kosher requirements. The name is actually due to the fact that this type of large-crystal salt is used in making meats kosher. Kosher salt is never iodized, but it may include anti-caking agents. So, be a smart consumer and check the ingredients. If it says 100% no additives, then you are good to go. For your information, Morton Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, is free of additives. And, I always have a box or two hanging around the pantry. It is my go-to cooking salt. Full Stop.
  • 9
    Sea Salt Most salt varieties labeled as sea salt are processed from evaporated seawater. The mineral content of sea salt will be determined by the area of the world where the harvesting took place. A very popular brand is Maldon, which is harvested off the coast of Great Britain. It is made by boiling seawater to remove impurities, and then continuing the heating process until it crystalizes. Then human intervention comes in and a “salt maker” carefully extracts the salt, making sure to maintain those big, beautiful flakes. When it comes to plain sea salt, Maldon is my hands down favorite. In addition, you can find sea salts that have been smoked (salmon-smoked, hickory-smoked, etc.). Sea salts are not usually all that expensive but may contain anti-caking chemicals. So, read those ingredient labels before purchasing. Because of its delicate flaky nature, sea salt would be in the category of a finishing salt.
  • 10
    Fleur de sel (flower of salt) Fleur de sel got its start in the waters off the coast of France and is considered by some to be the best-of-the-best. The harvesting technique is quite interesting. When the saltwater is brought into the ponds, as it evaporates it develops a crystalized layer that floats on the top of the water. That layer is carefully harvested off the top. This makes it lower in sodium than regular salt, and contains higher concentrations of minerals, with a light briny flavor. Other countries have their own versions (Italy, Spain, Portugal); however, it was France that developed this harvesting technique… Way To Go Dudes. Uses Its fine flakes that almost melt in contact with moisture make is a very expensive, but excellent finishing salt, for fish, beef, pork, or vegetables. It is also used in cooking; however, as I mentioned, it is pricy.
  • 11
    Sel gris (sometimes referred to as Celtic Sea Salt) Sel gris is made from the same evaporate salt ponds that fleur de sel comes from; however, where fleur de sel is skimmed off the top of the ponds, sel gris is collected from the bottom. This gives it a higher mineral content, less briny flavor, and a light grey color. Think of it as a step below fleur de sel and a step above common sea salt. Uses It is used as both a cooking and finishing salt. It works well sprinkled over fatty meat, and roasted root vegetables. Plus, because it is rich in minerals, it is ideal for baked goods.
  • 12
    Himalayan Pink Salt Although there are other versions, the most common version is mined in the Punjab region of Pakistan, mainly from the Khewra salt mine. The pink color is derived from traces of iron oxide. Although it may look exotic, it is primarily sodium chloride, and therefore not much different than common table salt. It just looks cool. Uses Besides in cooking, you can find it used in things like salt lamps, carved into bowls, and cut into thick slabs and used for food presentation trays.
  • 13
    Hawaiian Alaea Red Salt This particular version is made from standard Hawaiian evaporative sea salt and is much lower in sodium than common table salt. As a matter of fact, it can have a mineral content of up to 20 percent. It receives its red color by combining it with the red volcanic clay alaea, which is said to have detoxifying properties. Uses It is used in many native Hawaiian dishes and has historically been used in religious ceremonies. It can add a flash of color as a finishing salt and is also a good choice for those watching their salt intake, since it has lower sodium content than normal table salt.
  • 14
    Truffle salt One of the most common flavored salts, truffle salt is a great way to impart a subtle amount of truffle into a dish without needing to buy actual truffles. There are versions that incorporate both black and white truffles, and different brands use different salts mixed with varying amounts of tiny truffle bits. Uses This would be an excellent finishing salt. For example, white truffle salt is made with fleur de sel and is superb for finishing a simple dish that needs a little something special.
  • 15
    Sal de Gusano I added this one, just to give you an idea of what unique varieties of salt are out there. Dried worm larvae are toasted and ground with rock salt and chile peppers to make this traditional Mexican salt, Uses It is used as a smoky seasoning and an accompaniment to mezcal. Hey, it is salt mixed in with dried worms… what could go wrong?
  • 16
    Measuring Salt This is where it gets to be fun. Although all salts are composed of sodium chloride, with a few trace minerals thrown in for good measure, depending on the type of salt you use, it will weigh differently. I am not talking about specific density; I am referring to grain size. Salt can be fine ground like common table salt, medium or coarse ground like kosher salt, or even flakes. In most recipes, when the chef calls for a teaspoon of salt, they are usually referring to a teaspoon of regular table salt. However, what if all you have is kosher salt? You can use it without problem, but you will need more. Kosher salt has bigger grains, so when you measure out that teaspoon, there will be more air between the grains, hence less salt. A teaspoon of table salt weighs 6 grams, but a teaspoon of kosher salt weighs only 4.8 grams. So, you will need another 1.2 grams of kosher salt. One indispensable item in any good chef’s kitchen is a scale. My suggestion is that you measure what you need. So, if you need a teaspoon of table salt, and you are going to use another type, place it on the scale until it reaches 6 grams. Easy/Peasy. To be sure, there are thousands of sites on the internet that will help you convert the weight of one salt to another. In my opinion, just weigh it. If you do not have a scale… get one. Full Stop.
  • 17
    Well, this is just a small primer into the world of salt… I hope you enjoyed it. Keep the faith, and keep cooking.
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