Salt, the only rock we eat, is more than just a seasoning—it’s an essential flavor in our food. It can intensify aromas, balance other flavors, make meat taste juicier, and preserve food for months or even years. Yet a heavy hand with salt can easily ruin a dish. Here’s how to cook wisely with the world’s most vital mineral.
How does salt affect the flavor of food?
In a number of ways. Salt is one of the five basic tastes that we’re hard-wired to detect (along with bitter, sweet, sour, and umami or savory). It enhances foods by essentially turning up the volume of their salty flavors. Salt can also dial down the taste of bitter foods by suppressing our perception of bitterness, and balance other tastes like sweet and sour (salt added to desserts or vinaigrettes, for example). Salt also unravels (or denatures) the tight spiral structure of proteins, making their flavors tastier and more aromatic.
Even the texture of salt enhances the taste of food. Flake salts like Maldon or Halen Môn Gold sprinkled over a green salad transmit crunchy bursts of saltiness that enhance the soft texture and mild flavors of lettuce leaves and other vegetables. And surprisingly, salt brings out aromas, too, because it helps release aroma molecules from food into the air. These stimulate our olfactory receptors, helping us to smell things.
How does salt preserve food?
Picture what happens when you sprinkle salt on a sliced cucumber; within a few minutes, the salt is dissolved in a pool of cucumber juice. That’s because water flows through food cell walls towards greater concentrations of dissolved particles, proteins, and pigments. When you rub salt on a vegetable or meat, it dissolves in the food’s exterior moisture, creating a concentrated solution that draws more water from the interior to the surface.
This process illustrates salt’s role in preserving meat for jerky, ham, or hard-cured salami. The salted meat is placed in circulating air, which evaporates emerging water so the meat dries out. Because microorganisms need moisture to survive, drying meat makes it inhospitable to molds and bacteria, thereby lengthening the storage life of some sausages and hams for months.