Knowing how to salt your food, some would argue, is one of the most (if not THE most) important culinary techniques to learn. Salt is the ingredient used most to bring out the flavor and enhance food. The difference between food that tastes blah and food that tastes great is often due to the amount of salt used. When I took courses at a local culinary school, learning to season with salt was talked about continually. I learned the importance of salting throughout the cooking process—it takes your cooking to a new level—beginning when you first sweat your onions.
As salt is an essential nutrient, it has the ability to awaken our tastebuds. Our bodies need salt to survive. Since our palates have become highly attuned to salt, we enjoy eating it. However, too much (or too little salt) can affect our health. A diet high in processed foods, which often contain large amounts of salt (sodium), can lead to a number of health problems (hypertension, for example). There are a variety of reasons to avoid eating processed foods, high sodium content is just one of them. If you eat a balanced diet based on whole foods—avoiding highly processed foods—and do not have health concerns (like high blood pressure, for example) you should be able to salt your food to whatever tastes best for you. However, first check with your doctor if you have any health concerns.
After you prepare your mise en place and begin cooking, start thinking of salt as it will draw moisture to the surface of food, helping to extract natural juices of ingredients. Salting food is no doubt a culinary art. The right amount should enhance food without compromising its flavor. Keep in mind, you should never actually taste the salt.
Salting is not an exact technique, that is, it’s hard to say how much salt should be used in any given dish. It’s really up to the cook and taste preferences. A general rule… salt to taste. To learn how to salt requires practice— a lot of thinking, tasting and comparing, and tasting some more. As its best to salt throughout the cooking process, it’s recommended to measure with your fingers—a pinch or two, instead of using measuring spoons. Some cooks prefer to use coarse salt because coarse salt is easier to hold and control than fine salt. Some prefer fine grain sea salt as it dissolves more quickly in liquid than coarse salt. Whichever you use is a matter of preference, just remember that a tablespoon of fine sea salt can weigh twice as much as coarse salt. Pay attention to this if following recipe that call for one or the other.
Types of Salt
Of the many different types of salt, most professional kitchens either use sea salt or kosher salt.
Unrefined sea salt is loved for its natural flavor that comes form minerals and elements form the sea. Some come in fine grain, large flaky crystals, or others have a wet sandy feel. Keep in mind, not all sea salts are unrefined. Check your labels to ensure there are no additives. Sea salt that has been highly processed is not much different than generic table salt. Unrefined sea salt is more expensive than table salt, but the quality and difference in flavor is definitely worth it.
Prized for its clean and bright flavor, kosher salt is also preferred by many cooks as it allows them to be more precise during seasoning. The texture of kosher salt allows one to get a feeling of how much is being used. Like sea salt, kosher salt is sold in fine and large (coarse) granules.
This is the most processed of salts. It is the most commonly used generic, granulated salt. Some, you’ve no doubt noticed, are fortified with iodine. Please do not use iodized salt. Its chemical taste is not good for food. If you eat a balanced diet, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting enough iodine in your diet. Generic granulated table salt should also be avoided because it contains additives, like anti caking agents, that don’t necessarily taste good. Again, read your labels; some even contain sugar! Also, something to keep in mind, a tablespoon of finely granulated table salt is heavier and more intense than a tablespoon of kosher salt. That is, a pinch of kosher salt is less concentrated than a pinch of table salt.
Fleur de Sel, harvested in France, and Maldon salt, harvested in England, are both favorites for a variety of reasons. Fresh and clean in flavor, they also provide visual and textural pleasure with their delicate crunch.
As a recap, if there’s one ingredient that can enhance your cooking, it’s salt. And, knowing how to season your food is crucial to cooking. Learning how to salt will do more than any other single culinary technique to improve your cooking. Remember, lightly (just a pinch or so) salt throughout your cooking process. Keep in mind that salt does not evaporate or diminish during cooking, so add your salt mindfully. Taste as much as possible—from beginning to end. Salt should not overpower your dish so you don’t need a lot, just enough to bring out the flavors of your ingredients. Finally, salting is not something that should be done at the table, after you’ve finished cooking. Ideally, salt should be at your side in the kitchen, not at the table while you dine.
Tip: Have easy access to your salt while cooking in the kitchen. Keep a small bowl of salt nearby, ready for pinching and adding to your cooking process. Just remember to be food safe!