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.