“Chefs agree that the most elementary skill in all of cuisine is the ability to properly season food, that is apply salt” –Alton Brown
It wasn’t until I started working in kitchens that I solved a nagging childhood mystery – why did a simple salad taste so much better in restaurants than at home? We had farm-fresh greens, made our own vinaigrette…what was the trick? As it turns out, there was no sleight of hand, but there was a little bit of magic, and the secret ingredient was salt.
Seasoning: The Art of Adding Salt
Off the Table
Ditch your salt shaker in favor of a small, wide-mouthed bowl or ramekin filled with kosher salt. Keep the dish accessible while you cook, think of it as your right-hand man. The open top provides easy access for measuring spoons, but more importantly, it allows you to dig in and pinch. While “a pinch” of salt may seem like a rather arbitrary measurement, the tips of your fingers are remarkably accurate tools.
If you want to graduate from the small bowl, I highly recommend a wood or bamboo salt box, which draws moisture away from the salt to prevent clumping.
Season as You Go
Rather than seasoning a dish during its final stages of cooking, or individually at the table, add a bit of salt during each step. Not only will this magnify the distinct flavors of your food, salt also draws out moisture, which aids in everything from sweating onions to searing steaks.
How much salt to add? Trust your senses, literally. Taste all along the way (with the exception of raw meat and eggs, and baked goods which require precise measurements). Once you’ve seasoned a few dishes, tasting as you go, you’ll begin to register the connection between the amount of salt pressed between your fingers and the level of saltiness that that pinch will add to the dish.
Seasoning salad is an excellent way to get the feel of your pinch. Don’t add salt to the dressing; instead place greens in a large bowl, add a splash of dressing and a pinch of salt and toss with clean hands, then taste a leaf and proceed accordingly. If you get overzealous, throw in another handful of greens.
Season to Taste
Many recipes end with the instruction, “season to taste.” Consider this fine-tuning. If needed, add salt a pinch at a time, tasting between each addition, until the dish pleases your palate. Remember, you can always add more, but once a dish is over salted it’s difficult to salvage.
Salt and Pepper?
While salt and pepper often (or, too often) go hand in hand, they are not inextricably linked. Pepper is a spice to be used when appropriate. Pepper adds; salt transforms.
The Essential Salt Pantry
If I had to bring one salt to a desert island (well, a fresh water island) it would be kosher. Utilitarian, and additive-free, kosher salt is the right choice for everything from salting pasta water to baking cookies.
A note on baking with kosher salt: when a recipe does not specify a type of salt, some would recommend slightly increasing the amount if using kosher rather than table. I have found this generally unnecessary, and simply substitute kosher salt in any and every recipe.
Try It: Along with moisture, salt attracts some proteins, which are responsible for that caramelized crust on meats. For the best sear, salt steaks about 10 minutes before cooking, it will improve browning and prevent sticking on the pan.
All the rage among foodies, specialty salts like pink Himalayan and red Hawaiian have distinctive flavor characteristics imparted by their natural surroundings, like trace minerals and algae.
In order to appreciate these subtle (and pricey) nuances, specialty salts should be used like condiments, as a finishing touch at the table or for dressing a salad, rather than in cooking.
Try It: Grind grey sea salt (using a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder) with fresh rosemary and sprinkle over popcorn.
Keep a box of rock salt on hand for de-icing the walkway or salt-roasting shellfish.
Try It: Heat an even layer of rock salt in shallow baking dish at 425 degrees for about an hour. Place assorted shellfish on top of hot salt and return to oven until shells open. The briny steam will perfectly season the meat.
Pretty Please with Salt on Top
Regarding salt and sweets, please do! A bit of salt tempers the sweetness and enhances the nuttiness of chocolate and makes any dessert pop.
Table Salt: Salt that has been refined into small, dense grains. The taste perception of table salt is that it is “saltier” than kosher. This is due to the size of table salt, not its content. One pound of table salt contains about 5,370,000 crystals, while the same amount of kosher salt has only 1,370,000. Because table salt is so finely ground, your tongue is exposed to a greater surface area of salt crystals, so you experience it as saltier.
Much of the table salt on grocery store shelves bears the label iodized. The addition of iodine to table salt is a relic of the 1920s effort to reduce then epidemic levels of hypothyroidism, a condition which is rarely seen today.
Kosher Salt: A coarse salt with jagged-edged flakes that stick well to food. Kosher salt has no additives and dissolves slowly, so it won’t wilt salad greens before they make it to the table.
Pickling Salt: Tiny, uniformly shaped cubes of salt that dissolve easily in cold water, making pickling salt ideal for brining solutions.
Sea Salt: (Fleur de Sel): When sun and wind combine to naturally evaporate the water in shallow seaside pools, it produces rocks of salt, which are harvested manually with rakes.
Rock Salt: Large pieces of mineral rich salt extracted from underground salt mines.
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