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Article

The Power of Salt

Learning to salt properly is a simple skill— with a great impact on your cooking

Fine Cooking Issue 49
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you doubt the fundamental power of salt—its uncanny ability to make foods blossom into their full flavors—here’s a little experiment for you. Pour two quarts of water into each of two pots. Add two teaspoons of salt to one, none to the other. Bring the water to a boil and cook a couple of ounces of spaghetti in both pots. Drain the pastas and taste. Notice a difference?

Pasta cooked without salt is dull and flat, not quite itself. No amount of salt added to a sauce or to the pasta after cooking will compensate. Pasta cooked in salted water tastes not of salt, but of wheat, coaxed into full flower by the mildly briny liquid. No one knows exactly how salt does this, how just a pinch boosts the flavor of almost ev-­ erything, from simple, sliced tomatoes to complex sauces, soups, stews, and even sweets. In the end, salt remains, like taste itself, mysterious.

Mastering the use of salt is arguably the most im-­ portant skill a cook can develop. Whenever you taste a great chef’s flawless dish you are, in part, savoring the results of proper salting. The best chefs add salt at each stage of preparation. They do so intuitively, holding their hands high above the food for even distribution, using their fingers to add a pinch here, a pinch there, and tasting all the while. The final step is to taste and correct the seasoning, that ubiquitous but essential instruction that ends countless recipes.

Learn to add salt at every stage of cooking

Fortunately, you don’t have to become a professional chef to learn how to salt properly. It’s merely a matter of habit, of learning to salt in stages. For example, if you’re making a marinara sauce, salt the onions and garlic as they sauté in olive oil, and add a little more after stirring in the tomatoes. Just before you take the sauce off the heat, taste it. If it hasn’t quite come together, add a pinch more salt. If you’re adding a salty ingredient—such as capers or olives—add them before your final adjustment with salt. Just don’t wait until a dish is ready to serve before adding the salt. Salt needs time to pull flavors together; otherwise, the dish will just taste salty.

Conversion basics

Teaspoon for teaspoon, kosher salt contributes less salt to a dish than table salt simply due to its bulk—the larger flakes take up more volume. If a recipe calls for table salt, convert to kosher salt by multiplying by 1-1/4 times to 1-1/2 times, depending on the brand of kosher salt and how large the crystals are.

Get some kosher salt and store it where you’ll use it—next to the stove

If you’ve been sprinkling table salt from a shaker, you should stop. Stash the table salt in a back cupboard to use in emergencies, and get some kosher salt. Table salt, iodized or not, is sharp and one dimensional in taste. Sprinkled from a shaker, it’s unwieldy and difficult for the cook to gauge. Conveniently, kosher salt is too coarse for a shaker. Store it in a wide bowl, a wooden box, or a ceramic salt pig and set it next to your stove. To use for general seasoning, pinch the coarse salt between your thumb, index finger, and middle finger, hold it high over your pan, and then rub your fingers back and forth to release the salt while circling your hand over the pan to distribute it evenly. For substituting kosher salt in recipes that call for table salt, see the box below left for simple conversion instructions.

When buying kosher salt, I recommend Diamond Crystal brand because its hollow flakes dissolve quickly (which is especially important in baking). Other brands of kosher salt have harder, slow-­dissolving flakes.

Guests will want salt at the table, too, and so you should have a salt cellar—simply, a little open container of salt—at hand. A grinder is also an option, but don’t expect freshly ground salt to taste better. Salt is a rock. Unlike black pepper, it isn’t made up of essential oils, so its flavor doesn’t deteriorate or dissipate if ground or left exposed. And don’t take offense when someone adds salt to a dish that tastes perfect to you. The perception of salt is highly personal, based on the salt content of an individual’s saliva.

Season meat and fish by sprinkling on salt—or by using a rub or a brine

Whether grilling, searing, sautéing, or broiling, add salt to seafood, poultry, and meat immediately before cooking. After turning, sprinkle on a little more. Some experts advise against salting meat before cooking, saying that salt will draw out moisture and result in dry meat, but experience says otherwise. Overcooking, not improper seasoning, is what dries out meat. For salt to have a drying effect—as it does in a variety of preserved meats—it must be heavily applied and left to sit on the meat for days, or even weeks, depending on the cut. Salt penetrates meats at the rate of about one inch a week. The real problem with salting too far ahead is that it causes some moisture to bead up on the surface of the food, which would inhibit browning.

Salt is also used to add succulence and juiciness to meat, poultry, and fish through brining. Immersed in a brine solution of salt and water, the proteins in poultry or fish will unravel, freeing up space for some of the salty water to be absorbed and retained. With a dry brine, the salt is rubbed on and left to sit on the meat overnight. The salt rub draws moisture out to-the skin, where the salt crystals dissolve into a mild brine. Eventually, this brine also becomes absorbed in the meat. Both dry and wet brines offer up the same benefits—a heightening of flavor and moistness.

When cooking beef and lamb, you can use salt to form a hard crust on the meat, which will also help it retain its juices. Prime rib prepared in this way is a classic dish. Many whole fish lend themselves to a similar preparation, although instead of applying a cloak of salt directly to the fish, as with prime rib, the fish is buried in salt. In such preparations, salt acts like a tiny oven rather than as a flavoring agent; inside, the fish retains its juices and flavors.

Where to salt—and when

Salad greens: Add salt and toss before dressing. When making a vinaigrette, add salt before whisking in the oil so it can dissolve in the vinegar; it also helps the vinegar emulsify with the oil.

Raw vegetables (tomatoes, radishes, fennel, etc.): Add salt just before serving.

Green vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, etc.): Salt the water before blanching or boiling; if steaming, salt after cooking. Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic: Add salt while sweating or sautéing.

Roasted or grilled vegetables: Add salt before cooking.

Boiled root vegetables, pasta, rice, and other grains: Salt the water before cooking. Beans and other legumes: Soak in salted water, cook in salted water, and add salt to taste before serving. (It’s a myth that salt toughens beans.)

Eggs: Add immediately before or during cooking. Seafood, poultry, meat: In general, season with salt just before cooking.

For large roasts: Add salt just before cooking and season lightly after slicing.

For whole birds (roaster, broiler, turkey, etc.): Salt all over—inside the cavity, outside on the skin, under the skin where applicable, such as on the breast and thigh meat.

Homemade broth or stock: Salt broth and stock ingredients before sweating, sautéing, or roasting; add salt to the finished broth before straining but after reducing.

Can this oversalted dish be saved?

If a dish has too much salt, there are a few ways to rescue it. If you know instantly that you’ve added too much, don’t stir it in. Grab a large spoon and lift out the salt. You can often remove nearly all of the unwanted salt in this way if you work quickly. More often, you’ll find out a dish is too salty after tasting it. At this point, if the recipe calls for an acid—lemon juice, vinegar, wine, buttermilk—you can try adding a bit more to balance the salt. (Likewise, a dish with too much vinegar or other acid can be balanced by adding salt.) If salt still dominates, you might con-­ sider adding more liquid and other ingredients to dilute. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to chalk it up to experience and begin again.

If all this salting seems like a lot, don’t worry

When you add a little bit of salt in several stages, you actually end up using less salt than when you add it only at the table. And it’s worth the small effort it takes to become adept at the process. A perfectly seasoned dish is one of life’s simplest and most satisfying pleasures, thanks to the magic of salt.

With so many salts now available—countless sea salts, flavored salts, salts-from France, England, Wales, Italy, Portugal, Hawaii, India, Mexico—the marketplace can be confusing. Most artisan salts are primarily “condiment” salts, best used as a seasoning just before serving. Their flavor nuances and distinct colors and textures are apt to be lost when added during the cooking process; plus, they’re a bit expensive to pour into the pasta pot. Here’s a guide to some of the more commonly available ones and their best uses.

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