Photo by Tamara Beckwith
If You Learn One Thing About Cooking, Learn This
It's impossible to overstate the importance of salt's role in cooking. Salt is adored by cooks the world over not only because it adds zing to savory dishes, but also because it suppresses bitterness, enhances sweetness, emboldens aromas, and generally makes ingredients taste more like they should. However, for such a seemingly straightforward seasoning, there are enough culinary uses and different varieties of salt to leave a lot of home cooks overwhelmed, confused, and pretty darn salty.
With this in mind, I put together the following guide to help frustrated cooks navigate the complicated world of salt.
1. You really only need to know three salts...
There's a lot a variety in salt, with colors ranging from pink to black, and flavors ranging from smoked to herb-infused. However, a good cook need only know three to create a perfectly salted dish.
Kosher Salt: A larger-grained salt that's perfect for everyday use. It dissolves fast and disperses quickly, making it perfect for sprinkling on meats and veggies or into salad dressings, soups and marinades. Popular brands include Morton and Diamond Crystal. Each are made using two different methods. Diamond Crystal flakes have more space between them, making each pinch "less salty" than Morton's flakes. A good rule of thumb to make sure you're always salting consistently is to pick one brand and stick to it.
Table Salt: This is the fine-grained salt you see on tables in salt-shakers across the country. It contains Iodine, an essential mineral that our bodies need but can get in sufficient quantities through other foods. (It was made in the 1920s when Iodine deficiency was a thing.) Its fine grains make it ideal for baking, but it isn't all that useful as an everyday salt due to the likelihood of over-salting. It's usually treated with an anti-caking agent.
Sea Salt: Like the name implies, sea salt is made from evaporating salt water and harvesting the crystals left behind. It comes in two different sizes, fine-grind and flaked. Go with the flaked. It's meant to be used as an added final burst of flavor to dishes--the bigger flakes will make more of an impression on your tongue.Use it as a garnish on top of dark chocolate brownies or take a cue from Mark Bitterman and dress up your salad with it: His pro-tip for understanding the power of salt? "Fix a green salad, and make your own salad dressing with very little salt – or no salt, if you dare. Then add sea salt to the finished, dressed salad. It snaps! It explodes on the lettuce! The whole thing will have a tangy, Pop Rocks quality."
2. Know how to strategically salt.
First things first. Most home cooks massively under salt. A good trick of the trade is to salt early, salt often, and constantly taste as you go along. Say good-bye to the salt shaker in favor of a small bowl of Kosher salt that you can easily reach into while cooking. A pinch of salt means a hefty nip using three fingers. Try sprinkling from at least ten inches high to ensure even salting. Go big or go home. Adding salt as you cook and tasting while you go creates a well-seasoned finished product, whereas adding salt at the end of the cooking process just creates a salty dish.
Strategically salting also means knowing how salt reacts with the ingredients your cooking. For example, adding salt to sautéed mushrooms in the beginning of the cooking process will draw out the moisture in the mushrooms before they have a chance to caramelize, leading to soggy shrooms.
Some good guidelines to follow are:
Add salt to meat, poultry and fish just before cooking.
When making a sauce, add a pinch of salt to ingredients like garlic and onions while sautéing, add your liquids and salt again. Finish cooking, taste and adjust the salt once more if necessary.
For blanching and boiling veggies, GENEROUSLY salt the water prior to cooking. For steamed veggies, salt immediately after cooking, and for roasted veggies salt prior to cooking.
When cooking pasta or boiling potatoes, always salt your water before adding the food. (It should taste almost as salty as the ocean.)
Also keep in mind that as stocks, soups and sauces reduce their saltiness will become more concentrated.
3. Learn how to salt food without using salt.
Adding saltiness and seasoning to food doesn't have to mean adding a pinch of the white crystall-y stuff. Naturally salty foods like cheeses, capers, olives, anchovies, cured meats, soy sauce and fish sauce all add salt, flavor and complexity to dishes. Other great ways to boost flavor without salt include adding fresh herbs, acids like citrus juices and vinegars, dried spices, chili, tomato, or miso pastes, etc. It's important to remember to cut down on added salt when using naturally salty ingredients and to always taste as you go along.
While learning how to properly salt food is wildly important for creating a delicious finished dish, there's no magic formula for a perfectly seasoned product. The more you cook, taste, try and fail, the better your food will become. No go forth and salt, my lovelies!