Professional chefs are different from the rest of us, but the way they use salt really sets them apart. It’s worthwhile to follow their lead, because salt is just about the closest thing we have to a magic ingredient. Let’s take a closer look at three key ways that salt works wonders:
1. Salt tastes good—and makes everything else taste good
Why does salt taste good to us? According to the experts at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, it boils down to biology. We like the taste because our bodies need sodium chloride.
And sprinkling a bit of sodium chloride onto other foods ensures that we’ll consume lots of other essential nutrients, too, because salt makes pretty much everything else taste better. Thanks to its chemical nature, salt has the amazing ability to intensify agreeable tastes and diminish disagreeable ones. What more could a cook ask for?
Perhaps you’ve heard the old saw about salt bringing out the flavor of a dish. Well, the scientists at the Monell Center say it’s absolutely true. The reason: Some flavor compounds are too subtle to detect, but when you add even just a teeny amount of salt, neurological magic happens: Suddenly, our taste receptors can detect flavors they weren’t able to sense before.
So, when you add salt to roasted squash, the squash doesn’t merely become salty; rather, the myriad complex flavors of the vegetable come to the fore. Add a bit of salt to bread dough, and likewise, the bread doesn’t necessarily taste salty; it just tastes the way bread should.
And the salt in recipes for cakes, cookies, tarts, puddings, and other sweets isn’t there to make these treats salty; it’s there to ensure that they taste good.
When’s the best time to salt?
For the best-tasting soups, braises, and other slow-cooked dishes, add salt gradually throughout the cooking. That gives the salt time to disperse and interact with the molecules in the food. Sprinkling salt onto food just before you eat it does give you a big, up-front flavor bang, but not necessarily the deep, subtle seasoning you’d get from adding the salt while cooking.
2. Salt enhances sweetness and blocks bitterness
In addition to being a general flavor amplifier, salt has a special ability to enhance sweetness in foods. Taste two chocolate puddings that are the same in every way except that one contains a bit of salt and the other none: The one with salt will taste sweeter. That’s because sodium ions zero in on bitter flavor compounds and suppress them, making the sweet flavors seem stronger.
For the same reason, salt makes bitter foods more palatable. So it’s always a good idea to pair bitter foods or drinks with something salty, be it curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano atop grilled radicchio or a well-seasoned steak when you’re drinking a big, tannic Cabernet (the salt from the steak actually improves the flavor of the wine because it tones down the bitter tannins). And if you ever find that some of your roast’s pan drippings have become too deeply browned (though not burned), don’t despair. If you season it well you can still make a delicious pan sauce, because the salt will balance much of the bitterness.
3. Salt can make meat juicier
I’m no culinary genius, but my friends think I am. Why? Because my roast chicken is always juicy. My secret? Salt. Before I roast a chicken, I treat the bird to a leisurely soak in salty water (a.k.a. brine). Of course, brining is no secret these days; in fact, it’s all the rage, because it really works.
Meats that tend to dry out during cooking—e.g., chicken, turkey, pork, shrimp—stay juicy and delicious if you brine them first. When you soak meat in brine, the salt water flows in, and the salt goes to work on the protein cells, altering them by loosening and unwinding the strands of protein and allowing them to sop up the brine. If you weigh your meat before and after brining, it will weigh more afterward, thanks to the liquid it has absorbed.
Of course, all this extra moisture would be useless if it were lost during cooking. But therein lies the magic of brining: The moisture isn’t lost during cooking. Well, some is—that’s inevitable because heat causes proteins to shrink and squeeze out liquid—but much less than if the meat hadn’t been brined. The result is moister meat that’s more flavorful, too, because the saltwater that the meat soaked up tastes good. For even better flavor, savvy chefs add other flavorings to their brine, like sugar, herbs, and spices; meat will drink in those flavors, too.