Grain of salt

Sodium makes food taste better

June 1, 2007

Editor’s note: Helen Rennie wrote the Front Burner column from January to June 2007.

Why do “gourmet” home cooks occasionally crave Big Macs? Could it be the texture of the overcooked meat squashed with the spatula until all the juices run out? Or the aroma of the processed buns and Styrofoam tomatoes?

What could be missing from our organic, from-scratch home cooking that’s available instead in the pit of despair known as McDonald’s?

The answer is simple: Salt.

Use your hands to measure salt.

“I barely use any salt,” most home cooks proudly tell me, as if their food is so good it doesn’t need it. When my students see me grabbing salts by the handfuls (no salt shakers, thank you very much) and generously sprinkling it over fish, roasts, and even salads, their eyes get wide with shock. But the real surprise comes when they taste the food.

That’s right. Salt makes food taste good. Without salt, you are eating everything in black and white. With salt, you are eating it in color.

And even though we don’t like to admit it, a Big Mac in color is better than an all-natural grass-fed beef burger in black and white.

Being a salt activist is not likely to score me any popularity points. We all know how bad salt is for you. Or is it? Sure, salt might raise your blood pressure, but so do lack of exercise and caffeine. So I suggest we stop guzzling Coke, walk at least three miles each day, and stop eating junk food.

The trouble with learning to season properly is that cookbooks, food magazines, and celebrity chefs on TV leave you in the dark about how much salt to use. Since most home cooks started their cooking careers with Campbell’s soup cans and fajita seasoning mixes (this includes me, by the way), they never developed intuition for the right amount of salt to use when cooking from scratch.

In an effort to help people with this seasoning dilemma, I tried measuring salt when testing my recipes. But the 20 million types of salt that’ve hit the market lately sabotaged my efforts. Even saying “1 teaspoon kosher salt” is not specific enough. Is it Diamond Crystal or Morton’s Kosher salt? (Believe it or not, there is a difference.) And what if someone doesn’t have kosher salt? Should I give the conversion to table salt? Eventually I washed my salty hands of the matter and reverted to using the vague-but-universal “Add salt and pepper to taste.”

Still, my conscience nagged at me. How could I sleep at night, thinking of all those people out there eating less-than-optimal food, even when following my recipes? Since my mission in life is to promote deliciousness, I finally decided to do something about it. In other words, I decided to write it all down.

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Learning to season perfectly (i.e., coaxing the most flavor out of your ingredients without leaving a salty aftertaste) is, like all cooking, a sensory-training experience. So here’s a training exercise to practice your salting. (I wish I could take the credit for this exercise, but I didn’t come up with it. It’s something I found on Rebecca Faill’s The Experimental Kitchen.)

For this exercise, you will need one cup of unsalted, homemade chicken stock. (The reason you can’t use store-bought stock is that it already has salt, and even the low-salt varieties have additives that can complicate matters.) If you don’t have homemade chicken stock on hand, combine 4 cups cold water, a skinless chicken breast, a carrot, a celery stick, and an onion in a small saucepan. Bring this to a boil on the stovetop, then immediately reduce the heat to low. Simmer uncovered for one hour, occasionally removing the impurities that rise to the top. It’s not really a chicken stock, but it’ll do just fine for this exercise.

You will also need Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Diamond Crystal is cheap, available in any supermarket, dissolves quickly, and doesn’t have additives. It’s the salt used in the restaurant industry and in cooking schools. If you can’t find it, you can use Morton’s kosher salt, though Morton’s is coarser and doesn’t dissolve as quickly.

What’s wrong with regular table salt? Even though it looks very fine, it doesn’t dissolve as quickly as kosher salt and has additives that give it a metallic aftertaste.

What about sea salt? Pink salt? Black salt? Polka-dot salt? Sure, if you want to spend big bucks on salt and buy a salt grinder, be my guest. But for most uses, it’s a waste of money and effort.

Okay, then, here’s the training exercise:

1) Warm up your stock to the temperature at which you like to eat soups. When seasoning foods to taste, make sure they are at the temperature you will be serving them. As a general rule of thumb, hot foods will need slightly less seasoning than cold foods, since we perceive flavors more intensely at higher temperatures.

2) Pour half a cup of the stock into a bowl and taste it. It should taste kind of blah — flat and uninteresting.

3) Now try adding salt a tiny pinch at a time, stirring well to dissolve it, and tasting the stock after each addition. The flavors should start to come into focus with each addition of salt. Concentrate and try to remember what the stock tasted like after each addition.

4) Keep adding salt a little at a time until the stock tastes salty — in other words, the taste of salt overshadows other flavors.

5) Remember what the stock tasted like right before you added that last pinch of salt and made it too salty? That was the perfect seasoning stage. Try to use your memory to recreate that taste using the second half-cup of stock. Pour it into a clean bowl, and start adding salt a little at a time, constantly tasting. But this time, stop adding salt when the stock tastes just right, before it gets too salty.

Mastered the exercise? Then keep the following tips in mind.

Use a spoon for salting large pots of liquid.

Throw away your salt shaker. Salt shakers don’t work for kosher salt, and don’t give you the fine control you get from your hands. Keep a small bowl of salt on your counter and use your hands to pinch salt and sprinkle it on your food when cooking. (Large pots of soup or water for pasta, however, will take way too many pinches, so use a spoon for these.)

Since you can’t taste meats and fish in their raw state, seasoning them is a bit tricky. Be generous when seasoning thick cuts of meat, like steaks. (The seasoning is only on the outside, and has to be intense enough to compensate for the unseasoned inside.) Be even more generous when seasoning large roasts, such as prime rib or a whole chicken.

Try half a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per pound of seafood, and one teaspoon of the same per pound of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. This will give you a starting point, and next time you’ll be able to fine-tune your seasoning. Use the measuring spoons to measure out the salt, but use your hands to sprinkle it on food. This will help you develop an intuition for how much salt to sprinkle on raw foods when you can’t taste them.

Season solid foods (fish, chicken, meats) before cooking, to intensify their flavor.

Season liquid foods (soups, sauces, even risotto) after cooking, because evaporation can make these dishes more salty than you intended, particularly if you’re reducing a sauce.

Season leafy vegetables, such as spinach and Swiss chard, after cooking; again, these veggies are mostly made of water, which evaporates during cooking.

Don’t forget to season your salads — and remember that you’ll have much more control over the end results if you salt your greens instead of your dressing. Even with salty store-bought dressings, you might have to add salt if you like your salads lightly dressed.

Perfectly seasoned food should be vivid and intense. It should fill your whole being with pleasure and leave you wanting more.

Helen Rennie is a food writer and cooking teacher living in Boston. This column was adapted from a post on her blog, Beyond Salmon.

Elsewhere on Culinate: Mark Kurlansky’s bestselling book Salt and Helen’s column on making salad.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Holly on Jun 4, 2007 at 8:33 AM PDT

I love Helen Rennie’s attitudes toward flavors and pleasurable eating, and I love that she disregards the newfangled negative attitudes toward salt and fats in food. I’m considered a good cook by friends and family, but it frustrates me to no end when someone asks me for a recipe, I give it to them and they complain that “Mine just didn’t come out as good as yours!” Well, duh, you left the salt out and used margarine and egg substitute!

I wish people would realize that eating a small amount of well-prepared food with all the good fats and flavors intact is a helluva lot more satisfying than all the low-fat cookies in the world. I’m so glad to see this article about seasoning.

2. by Elizabeth Yarnell on Jun 7, 2007 at 9:50 AM PDT

Helen has hit the nail on the head about the importance of salt as a primary and essential seasoning. But she didn’t mention that the human body actually needs salt to maintain a healthy fluid balance. Too much or too little salt can cause swelling, confusion, balance issues, etc.

I’m personally a big believer in the health benefits of using sea salt vs. table salt. Sea salt provides 80+ trace elements and minerals that the body can use to replenish itself, while ordinary table salt, as Helen mentioned, has had all the nutritional value stripped out and often contains metallic additives which can be toxic to health.

I like to advise people to become sea salt connoisseurs and sample the different flavors based on where the sea salt was harvested. It’s a fun hobby! :)

3. by susan on Jun 21, 2007 at 7:19 PM PDT

Well. I just purchased Diamond Crystal kosher salt last weekend after reading this column, and I am sold. What a great tip.

4. by anonymous on Nov 29, 2007 at 11:07 AM PST

Here here to Elizabeth’s comment above! I agree completely and I don’t think it is good to encourage people to eat the table salt because it can have hundreds of chemicals including bleach in it so that it looks so nice and “salty”. There are actually some affordable sea salts and you really don’t need that much of it anyway. I buy the Eden Organic Sea salt for about 5 bucks a jar and it lasts me for about 3-4 months...perhaps longer! Thanks!

5. by anonymous on Jan 18, 2011 at 5:07 PM PST

All this doesn’t sound particularly healthy. I’m no authority on the matter, but isn’t salt linked to high blood pressure?

6. by Jay Lingo on Mar 8, 2011 at 3:42 PM PST

This is bull. You don’t need salt to eat a delicious meal. The idea that you would us pure folly, and quite frankly, offensive. I like to eat extra salty foods on occasion, but it doesn’t mean you have to drizzle it all over food to make it edible. Learn to cook using organic foods and you’ll see where all the flavor has been hiding. Trust me, you won’t need salt.

7. by anonymous on Dec 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM PST

I don’t understand the stigma with salt. On the other hand, I wouldn’t liberally pile it on everything I cook. Some things taste great with salt, like (as stated) spinach; it helps make a great “crust” (for lack of better words) for foods such as fish or steak. However, I think there are foods that it is best omitted. An omelet, for example, has enough flavor to hold its own. The delicate eggy flavor seems to get lost with any amount of salt. Meats also generally have enough sodium to carry themselves without salt. I tend to leave it out with skillet dishes that are primarily beef. Salt is definitely a must with anything with tomatoes though.

I think it really depends on the dish.

8. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2012 at 8:23 AM PST

My mother-in-law never puts salt in any or the food she prepares, cooks or bakes, and everything she makes tastes awful. If I mistakenly forget to add salt to my pancake mix, I immediately know it. Unless I’m starving to death, why would I want to waste calories on food that tastes awful? I think there may be some who really just don’t have sensitive taste buds, and therefore think unsalted food tastes perfectly fine.

9. by Shannon on Jul 21, 2012 at 3:44 PM PDT

This is totally ridiculous. You do not need salt to enjoy food. If you are a good cook you can make your way around salt by using other spices. High blood pressure is serious and I have it. I eat minimal amounts of salt and the food is still tasty. There is no reason to dump salt all over your food. If you are healthy and have no risks then by all means do what you do. But this article was a bit insulting for those of us who do not use salt.

10. by anonymous on Aug 9, 2012 at 7:59 AM PDT

Sodium is already in everything that you eat naturally, though in varying amounts. Sodium doesn’t really exist much in nature by itself, because it binds molecularly to almost anything it comes in contact with, hense sodium chloride, or table salt. Every leaf of lettuce you eat, every tomato, every stalk of celery, all have some sodium already. Your body need sodium, or it cannot function properly; it’s how we’re built. Your body chemistry must have salt, and you’re getting it even if you “don’t use any salt.” Salt binds to the food molecules and makes the flavor come out of them, so your tongue tastes not the salt, but the salt-food combo, and you taste the food more.

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