Steve De Long
This is Part 3 of our discussion on Salt and Seasoning. If I attempted to cover the best salting practice for every type of food this would be a very long section indeed so instead I’m going to provide some overall guidelines and then go into some specific situations that I think will be very beneficial.
The basic rules according to Bitterman are:
1. Eat all the salt you want as long as you are the one doing the salting.
We are often afraid of salt. So the most common problem in cooking is actually under salting your food. Professional chefs are very aggressive in salting because salt makes food taste MORE like itself. Processed foods are another story. It is impossible for you to add as much salt as they do and still have the food be edible. 75% of the salt we eat comes from processed foods, 10% is in the foods already, and, only 15%, from salt we add ourselves. If we reduce our processed food intake and salt our food ourselves mindfully we have nothing to fear and, in fact, would reduce our salt intake dramatically.
2. Skew the use of salt toward the end of food preparation.
Adding salt towards the end of preparation means it will be less dissolved, will create a more layered flavor, and, we’ll actually be inclined to use less. Once you start salting mindfully you will instinctively adjust the amounts you use to meet your nutritional needs and taste preferences.
3. Only use natural, unrefined salts.
Unrefined salts created by artisan producers have higher mineral contents and are therefore nutritionally beneficial and have more carefully crafted crystalline structures which play off the food you are cooking. Better flavor and better nutritional value – win/win. In addition, “Once you get hooked on the beauty of natural salts, it is nearly impossible to sacrifice that beauty on substandard ingredients.”
4. Make salting a deliberate act.
“Never salt by rote. Aim to make whatever you are cooking better than the last time.”
5. Use the right salt at the right time.
There are two aspects to salting. The chemical and physical modifications that salt imparts to food and the way that salt and food interacts with our senses. Salt in cooking causes chemical changes that you can control whether you are roasting, baking, boiling or even curing. Finishing, on the other hand, is less about the chemistry and more about that immediate sensation that a salt crystal dissolving in your mouth creates. Think about the salt on the rim of a margarita, for example. We will talk a little more about right salt, right time in the practical applications section.
The categories of salting include Uncooked, Curing, Grilling, Brining, Roasting, Frying, Boiling, Baking, Salt Crust, Cooking on Salt Blocks, Saucing, Confectionary, and Drinks. We won’t cover each of those categories but we will touch on a couple and also talk about strategic salting. I’m going to quote an entire passage from Bitterman here because I can’t say it better or more succinctly.
Salt is the most potent, versatile, and able-bodied ingredient in your kitchen, utterly unique in its collaborative powers. Salt binds moisture to protein in meat. Salt controls fermentation in baking, cheeses, and pickles. Salt is a preservative, warding off harmful organisms. Salt develops and protects the colors of everything from cured bacon to blanched string beans to baked bread crust. Salt develops textures, strengthening gluten in bread, firming cheeses, tenderizing meats, and hydrating a variety of foods. And, of course, salt improves flavor. The miracle is how the right amount of the right salt can heighten the flavor of food without changing its character, making ingredients communicate more truthfully and passionately. Whatever you are preparing, how you salt, when you salt, and what kind of salt you use all make a difference.
There are three important characteristics of salt when finishing a dish.
Crystal, Mineral, and Moisture.
The goal is to match the characteristic to enhance the dish you are preparing.
Crystals come in a variety of forms. Sel Gris is granular. Depending on the variety some crystals are larger, some smaller, some harder, and some softer. The mineral content affects the flavor and there is, in fact, a terroir, or more accurately, merroir, to salts based on locality, like wine.
And moisture has two effects. One is mouth feel and the other is resiliency – or how fast the crystals dissolve on food. Dry salts wick moisture from your mouth or your food while wet salts “loll about.” The second sensation creates a nice mouth feel and the first generally not so much.
So keep these characteristics in mind when choosing a finishing salt –
Fleur de Sel is delicate and balanced,
Flake Salt is bright and sparkling but fades quickly,
and a Sel Gris is the bass drum of the trio.
Selected Guidelines and Recommendations for Salting Food
Steaks – Sel Gris, lightly, at least 10 minutes before cooking.
Burgers – Sel Gris of Fleur de Sel mixed in before cooking and a little more after cooking.
Sauces and Soups – Add salt slowly, taste at each addition, if a finishing salt is desired (like a fleur de sel floating on top) then lightly under salt while cooking.
Cucumbers, Eggplant, Cabbage – use a fine salt to macerate (remove excess water) by sprinkling with a small amount of salt, draining, and patting dry before further cooking or processing.
Non-starchy Vegetables – Salt to about a 3% solution before boiling. This creates osmotic pressure and keeps the nutrients in the vegetables while promoting even cooking.
Starchy Vegetables – don’t salt the water when boiling larger pieces of potato. Using a 3% solution will result in mushy outsides and undercooked insides. Instead salt after boiling.
Pasta – The rule of thumb is generally to make the water as salty as the ocean. Pro Tip. Most oceans are about 3.5 percent but the Mediterranean Sea is actually 3.8%. That is about a half cup of salt per gallon of water. When you do this it reduces the stickiness of the pasta and minimizes the gelation of the starches which means less nutrients leach into the water.
Legumes – soaking in a 1% solution prior to cooking (about 2 teaspoons per quart) displaces magnesium from the pectin in the cell walls, makes them easier to dissolve, and therefore speeds up the softening of the beans.
So that was a lot. Isn’t salt amazing. Feed back is absolutely welcome. Please let me know what you thought. Too much, not enough, just right? Next up Black Pepper….
Your homework? Make some scrambled eggs or slice up some cucumbers and try each of the salts. Maybe even kosher or table salt if you have it. If you don’t have Sel Gris, Fleur De Sel and a Flake Salt on hand then I’ve got a free plus shipping offer for you. Click Here.
As always, Thank you!
This is going to be delicious!
Part 1: The Art of Salting
Part 2: Salt Pairings
*Inspired by numerous books and influences but in particular Mark Bitterman and Barb Stuckey.
*Cover Image "Salt Field in Tainan, Southern Taiwan" by Timo Volz via Unsplash