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Salt of the Earth Part 1
Last week in “Salt of the Earth I,” we addressed some of the irrational fears about salt, specifically the flimsy evidence linking it with high blood pressure. The unfounded maligning of salt in our country has been spearheaded more by our food-neurotic culture and extremist health concerns than by documented science. This week I wish to leave the anti-salt cult in the shadows and focus on the types of salt and their culinary uses.
Common or edible salt, as well as the salt in the oceans, is sodium chloride, a crystalline structure of sodium and chlorine secured by ionic bonds. Table salt is mined from salt deposits within the earth. It is fine grained and contains components to keep it free-flowing. It may also contain iodide, a mineral necessary for normal thyroid functioning. Without it, humans develop goiter, (an enlargement of the thyroid gland), and other maladies. Opponents of table salt site it’s impure, harsh, and sometimes metallic taste, inevitably arising from its additives. Chefs also don’t like its extremely fine texture which makes it more difficult to control; it slips through the fingers much like sand. The only culinary application where I actually prefer table salt is in baking. Items like biscuits and pie crusts only require a pinch of salt thus rendering any taste difference between salts a moot point. Moreover, because of its fine grain, it incorporates better into the dry ingredients of baked goods.
Kosher salt is a favorite among chefs and the workhorse of many professional kitchens. Kosher salt has larger grains and no additives. Its coarser structure allows for better finger control when seasoning. Despite its larger granules, kosher salt dissolves better than table salt. If a recipe calls for table salt and you wish to use Kosher, the general substitution ratio is 2-1, Kosher to table. However, an even wiser rule is simply to cook to taste. It is always prudent to add in increments, tasting in-between.
Finally there is sea salt, the choice of gourmands everywhere. Sea salt obviously comes from the sea and is harvested when sea waters flood coastal beds and then evaporate. Sea salts contain a variety of other dissolved minerals; the particular ones and combinations thereof vary from location to location. But it’s precisely this geographical variability, its “terroir” if you may, which gives each sea salt its unique taste.
The procedures for producing sea salt are more costly. Sea salts can range from the simplest at a few dollars a pound, to the coveted Fleur de Sel at over $30 a pound. Basic sea salt can be used in place of anything you would use table salt for. There’s no dispute that it tastes better. As for the expensive sea salts, their exquisite nuances should be saved as a finishing touch on food, so their flavor can be directly experienced and preserved. Adding such sea salts during cooking would be analogous to pouring an expensive Bordeaux in a punch bowl. One of my favorite gourmet sea salts is Hawaiian sea salt. I use it to top off all sorts of food as well as in salad dressings.
Salt has countless uses in the kitchen, the first and most obvious of which is seasoning food. “Seasoning” refers to salt, not herbs and spices. With the exception of the above mentioned gourmet sea salts, always season the food prior to cooking. Taste tests by reputable culinary institutions heave demonstrated that food tastes better when salted prior to cooking. This allows the salt to integrate with the food more thoroughly. As stated, you should always salt your food before cooking and then assess for additional salt along the way.
When sweating vegetables, salt is indispensable. “Sweating” as opposed to sautéing, is cooking food over low heat with the goal of softening it, not browning it. Salt facilitates the release of the food’s moisture and thus furthers its breakdown.
Salt is the pivotal element in a brine (basically salt water), whish is used to increase foods’ moisture level. Meat, chicken and fish can be submerged in a brine to boost their juiciness. Via the process of osmosis, the salt causes the food to absorb some of the surrounding fluid. Brining is a life saver for the overly lean and dry pork chops that they sell these days and especially for turkey, the most arid meat of all time.
Always include salt in your pasta water or when blanching or boiling vegetables, such as when making mashed potatoes. Much like pre-salting a steak before searing it, salt in the cooking water will infiltrate the food better and produce superior flavor in the finished dish. And this includes beans. The belief that salt toughens beans when added prior to cooking is a myth.
Salt is used in making a dry rub, i.e., a mixture of dry spices used to coat foods. It can also be chopped with garlic to produce a garlic paste. Chop some garlic with salt. Then work the side of your knife back and forth over the garlic alternating with more chopping to create a spreadable garlic paste. Whole fish can also be encrusted in a thick layer of salt and baked. This seemingly unusual procedure actually produces very tender, and amazingly, not overly salty fish.
As much affection as I have for salt, over-salting is a dreadful, and virtually irreversible state of affairs. Of course “over-salting” is subject to interpretation. A common homespun remedy for a salty soup is to add some potato and simmer it; the idea being that the potato will absorb the excess salt. Yeah OK. Put this one in with the salt & hypertension and making beans tough category. The only surefire way to rescue your salty soup is to add additional water or unsalted stock.
When preparing food for a number of guests the challenge is finding the right degree of salt for each person. This is a nearly impossible task since a variety of factors, both psychological and biological cause great variation in people’s palates. You can always play it conservatively and add a little salt to the cooking process and then allow your guests to add more at the table if they like.
I hope I have dispelled some of the unwarranted paranoia about salt. I cannot stress enough the role salt plays in bringing the flavor of foods to life. Indeed, sometimes it is the linchpin in a dish’s success. But to be a seasoned cook, your mind must be as receptive to salt as your taste buds.
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