Yes, considering it’s half of the title of my blog (and that I have a damn salt tattoo!), salt is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. But I am not alone in my affinity for this simple mineral. Apart from water, salt is the most important ingredient in the culinary world. When applied directly to food, it enhances color and flavor. It can be used to preserve foods. It’s instrumental in certain types of fermentation. And yet it’s still so misunderstood by so many of the people who don’t use it professionally. As chefs, the salt-related feedback we get is fascinating, and the questions are even better. Let me try to demystify this essential ingredient by first explaining the different types of salt.
First is kosher salt: Good ole’ sodium chloride. Nothing fancy here. Kosher doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ordained by a rabbi in accordance with the laws of kashrut, but instead is a reference to the coarse size of the grain of salt that was historically used to kasher meat. This is arguably the most popular kind of salt used in professional kitchens worldwide, and is commonly mined, likewise all over the world.
Next up, is table salt. At its core, this salt is no different than kosher salt, except that the grains are finer. Table salt is also frequently labeled as “granulated” or “iodized” salt. These days though, most table salt is iodized (meaning trace amounts of iodine have been added to it, in the form of potassium iodide). This was a technique first developed by Morton’s Salt in 1924. Iodine, in addition to being integral to the human diet, is an anti-clumping agent. I remember growing up and seeing salt-shakers in diners with saltine crackers in them. That’s because that particular place was using non-iodized salt (or they thought they were).
One of the main things salt does is absorb water, so if it was a particularly humid day, the salt in the shakers would absorb the water in the air, and clump. The cracker was there to absorb the moisture so the salt wouldn’t clump, allowing it to remain loose and dry. When Morton’s figured out how to introduce this anti-clumping agent to their salt, it allowed salt-shakers to pour freely without the use of a cracker. It also gave some marketer the opportunity to grant Morton’s its remarkably clever slogan: When it rains, it pours.
As the national interest in food and advanced cooking has taken off in America since the start of the 21st century, so has the general fascination with sea salt. Sea salt is interesting, because fundamentally, it’s usually 95% sodium chloride. However, depending on the type/source of the salt, there will be little chemical impurities on it: trace amounts of evidence, indigenous to wherever it was harvested. These impurities, typically unique to the source, are what gives each type of sea salt its unique flavor (and sometimes color). These impurities, however, tend to be relatively delicate, and they tend to die off in a cooking process, which is why sea salts tend to be used exclusively after cooking. Black coral sea salt
smoked gray sea salt
Maldon French sea salt
and Himalayan pink sea salt
are all different forms of sea salt, each with their own subtle difference in flavor. It is the last one mentioned, that can potentially lead to a very dangerous result when confused with…
Curing salt! Also known as sodium nitrate, curing salt frequently has the same pale pink color as Himalayan pink sea salt. Curing salt is particularly unique, because in large doses, it’s toxic, and can be lethal. That being said, for a person to feel negative medical effects stemming from curing salt that was correctly used in food, they’d have to eat far more of the food its correctly used in, than a person could possibly eat. But if someone were to accidentally use curing salt, thinking it was pink sea salt, that’s a different story. For this reason, in kitchens where sodium nitrate is used, it is labeled very clearly, and typically stored in a place it wouldn’t be accidentally found. As such, in kitchens I’ve worked, I’ve refuse to allow any salt to simply be labeled “pink salt”.
Curing salt is meant to only supplement regular salt, not replace it entirely. In my experience, recipes calling for the use of sodium nitrate, require roughly a 9:1 ratio of sodium chloride to sodium nitrate. Having said that, any meat you’ve ever seen that has an alluring pink-ish color to it, prior to (and in many cases after) being cooked, have such a color because they’ve been cured with sodium nitrate. Bacon, salami, ham, Spam, corned beef, and even some jerkys all have been partially seasoned with curing salt.
As far as using salt in cooking goes, all of these different types have their places, and for good reasons.
Something many people might say that drives chefs crazy, is “please don’t put any salt on mine; I don’t like salty food.” Salt only makes food taste salty, if you’ve used too much! The correct amount of salt to be added to any food is, “as much as you can without being able to taste it in the final product”.
As mentioned before, pure sodium chloride brings out flavor, as well as extracting/neutralizing water from/in food. It’s for this reason that kosher salt is most commonly used in seasoning meats, liquids and starches.
Speaking of starches, different foods absorb different amounts of salt. Anyone who has watched a chef season mashed potatoes or stewed lentils, probably said something like, “wow! That’s a lot of salt!” or something to that extent, only to taste the end result and somehow find yourself reaching for the salt-shaker. This is because starchy foods generally absorb a ton of salt.
On the other hand, most salad dressings tend to require very limited amounts of salt, because most fresh vegetables typically found in a salad do not absorb much at all. Each food has a particular amount of salt that is right for it, and some methods of cooking are more forgiving than others, when it comes to getting that amount right or wrong.
But then when we revisit sea salt, you might be wondering: if sea salt is so flavorful, why isn’t it used in place of kosher salt? As I mentioned before, the impurities that make sea salts so unique and flavorful, tend to be neutralized in the cooking process, so all you would have used it for would be to become pure sodium chloride (kosher salt). That’s why sea salts tend to also be referred to as “finishing salt”. The way most fine restaurants season meat for example, is that before cooking, they are seasoned with kosher salt — at about 50-75% of the amount of salt a particular piece of meat will ultimately require. Once that piece of meat is done cooking, it will then receive that remaining 25-50% of salt in the form of sea salt. That way, the correct amount of seasoning will have been added, and the subtle flavors of a particular sea salt will be preserved for the diner to enjoy.
Likewise, a nice mixed green salad might typically be dressed with olive oil, and (instead of kosher or table salt) be seasoned with a light sprinkle of sea salt, because it will never be exposed to the high levels of heat that would negate the flavors unique to the sea salt.
Hopefully, this post has given some insight as to how important salt is to the world of cooking and ergo, why chefs all over the world hold it with such exaltation.
One thought on “Salt 101”
Thanks, very interesting. As an amateur I found that adding a pinch to vanilla pudding for pudding or pie filling it makes a difference. It brings out the flavor in so many things.