How on earth did salt get so complicated? I’m sure some of you have got to be thinking that! Growing up in my hometown in Iowa, there were two kinds of salt: table salt and salt for the deer… oh, and maybe salt for your water softener. Now there is a section in the grocery store devoted to salt and the price range is absolutely staggering! So which salt is best, and what makes salt so important?
What Salts to have on Hand
There are countless brands of salt out there but rather than focusing on brands, I wanted to focus on categories. I’ve outlined what I think are the three general categories of salt and how to use them.
1. Kosher Salt: This medium-flaked salt is what we use to preseason meats before we cook them. We use it in water for boiling pasta. We season sauces and soups or rub on potatoes before we roast them.
2. Fine Sea Salt: We use this salt when you want it to dissolve quickly and evenly. It’s perfect for baking, confections, mayonnaise or vinaigrettes.
3. Big Flaked Sea Salt: Large flaked salt is used to finish foods after they have cooked or where we want more of more of pop of salt. For example, you may toss some in a salad or finish a ribeye after it was already seasoned and cooked. You may choose this for baked potatoes instead of kosher salt for a less salty finish but rather little pops of salt on the crust.
These are general rules, but you can interchange these salts as long as you keep in mind that a teaspoon of fine salt has a whole lot more salt in it than a teaspoon of big flaked sea salt, hence the expression "Salt to taste". Consider this rule of thumb always with salt: “You can always add more, but you can never add less.”
What Does Salt Do?
I am not going to get into everything salt does in cooking such as brining, curing, etc. but rather focus on salt as a seasoning. Salt's main function is to elevate the flavors in the dish. Think of it this way, when you sprinkle salt on a tomato it tastes more like a tomato. We all know it's great on a potato chip but salt enhances flavor of any dish including cakes, chocolate and cookies. Balancing doesn’t mean having your cookies taste like salt, unless that is what you want. What it means is that it allows the flavors to work together more harmoniously. Chocolate on its own is very bitter but with some fat and salt, it is brought to a state of glory!
How to Use Salt
Everyone’s taste for salt is different but the goal is to understand when you can employ salt to enhance your food's taste. I am covering that subject in my two upcoming hands-on classes, Cook the Book: Salt Fat Acid Heat, based on Samin Nostrat’s best selling cookbook. In her book, she does a compelling job of dispelling salt fears and helping us understand how to use it to our advantage.
When do I want to kick up the salt?
1. The fattier the food, the more salt it requires, just like French fries and potato chips. Rich food tastes incredibly flat and greasy without a good amount of salt. If you are trying to watch your salt intake, you may as well watch your fat level too because a good ribeye isn’t very good without some salt. You may want to stick to a beef tenderloin because it has so much less fat, you are less likely to miss the salt.
2. If a dish tastes too sweet, flat, bitter or sour, try adding more salt. To the point I made above, salt balances these natural qualities in food. Consider a salad. Most people would agree that arugula is bitter but iceberg lettuce is also very bitter. We might think the creamy dressing is what balances that bitterness, when in fact, the salt plays an even bigger part in the job. Blue cheese has a lot of salt in it and so does bacon so that wedge salad we all love is so creamy and delicious in part because of all the salt!
Does it matter when I add the salt?
1. Season ahead of cooking. The richer the meat, the longer ahead you salt it before cooking. I might salt a short rib many hours before I cook it where a piece of salmon or chicken breast I would salt right before cooking, perhaps only 15 minutes would be required.
2. Salt is often used through multiple parts of the dish. I might use fine sea salt in my salad dressing, kosher salt on my roasted chicken for the salad and a few big flakes of sea salt added to the salad as I am tossing it.
3. When you are salting a soup or sauce, the point is not to add salt until you taste the salt. You add salt until what you are tasting is flavorful. Salt will not salvage a poorly executed dish, but it will bring one to fruition.
When do I want to drop down the salt?
1. Consider that when you add these ingredients to your dish, you are adding salt to your dish. You should consider each individual ingredient's salt content:
- Condiments: soy sauce, Ketchup, mustard, ranch dressing
- Pickles, olives, capers
- Canned goods: pasta sauce, canned tomatoes, salsa
- Bouillon cubes or stock bases
2. Clearly there are health implications to the use of salt, especially when used excessively. Our body needs salt to function but even low doses for some people can send their blood pressure sky rocketing. I take these concerns very seriously and also understand that we have countless classes that can support our student’s health and wellness goals. Consider the number one way to achieve flavorful and healthful results in your cooking is to understanding proper cooking techniques such as the ones we teach on our week-long Culinary Boot Camp. Once you understand the basic techniques in cooking, you will be better able to coax out maximum flavor in your dish with or without the presence of salt!