A (not so) Small Spiel about Salt
While not as sexy as a lot of other ingredients, salt is an important part of our cooking and it has changed the way we prepare and store food. It preserves, enhances flavour, and even changes the texture of food. It really is a hugely important part of cooking. But salt is one of those things that many people take for granted or avoid as it has been given a bit of a bad rap. As a mammal, we need salt to regulate some of our basic bodily functions like fluid levels as well as muscle and brain functions. However, consumed in excess, salt can lead to issues like hypertension, and high blood pressure. So as with everything, moderation is the key. Australians consume about twice as much salt as we need, this is mainly due to the amount of salt in processed foods. In a Wholefood diet, salt can do some amazing things and if used wisely, can enhance how we cook and how much we can enjoy our food.
Let’s get to the basics
All salt is basically just sodium chloride, whether it is lake salt, grey salt (sel gris), fleur de sel (salt flakes), or pink salt. The thing that can change the character of salt - like colour or flavour - are the other trace elements, like iron, calciom and magensium. While these are great things to have in your diet, there aren’t enough of those trace elements to affect the overall “healthiness” of salt (unless you eat it by the kilo and then you are in for whole other set of issues). So rather than spending way too much money on these fancy salts you are better getting these elements from the food you eat. Unless of course you love the taste of the sales, then have at it.
So the choice in salt comes down to what you want to do with it. Is it for cooking, baking, seasoning, fermenting or pickling? Each one has a different need and each one has a salt best suited. To understand what salt to use, we need to understand the science behind what it does to your food.
First and foremost, salt is used as a seasoning to enhance the flavour of food. It makes bland foods such as carbohydrates (bread, pasta, etc) tastier and it helps to bring out the natural flavours in other foods.
How does salt affect the flavour of food?
In several ways. Salt is one of the five basic tastes that we can detect; along with bitter, sweet, sour, and umami. Beyond just cranking up its saltiness, salt can also reduce the taste of bitter foods by suppressing our perception of bitterness, as well as balancing other tastes like sweet and sour (this is why salted chocolate is so great). Salt also denatures the tight spiral structure of proteins, by increasing their surface area you can increase your ability to detect their flavour.
Even the texture of salt enhances the taste of food. Flake salts give crunchy bursts of saltiness that enhance the soft texture and mild flavours of lettuce leaves and other vegetables. Surprisingly, salt can bring out aromas, by releasing aromatic molecules from food into the air, thus increasing how much we can smell our food.
Salt is an important natural preservative and has been used for centuries to preserve meat, fish, dairy products and many other foods. Long before we had fridges, salting - like pickling - was used to increase the shelf life of food. Salt does this by dehydrating bacterial cells, altering osmotic pressure and inhibiting the development of bacterial growth – meaning it will take longer for food to spoil.
Salt inhibits the growth of clostridium botulinum, the bacteria responsible for serious food poisoning – botulism. Salt helps to prolong freshness making food safer for longer.
Even with the development of refrigeration, this is an important property to keep food from spoiling.
How does salt preserve food?
The easiest way to understand is to run a little experiment (or I could just talk you through it 😉). Sprinkle a little salt on a sliced cucumber; within a few minutes, you will see the salt dissolve in a pool of cucumber juice. The reason this is happening is that the water flows through the cell walls towards greater concentrations of dissolved particles, proteins, and pigments (osmosis). 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 is how they make cured meats like 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 mould and bacteria, thereby lengthening the storage life for months.
This osmotic process is what is happening when you make sauerkraut or kimchi. The salt draws out the moisture and when packed in an airtight jar, the moisture creates an anaerobic environment that becomes acidic and allows the Lactobacillus bacteria to outcompete other bacteria that naturally live on the cabbage leaves. This produces more lactic acid, which drops the pH below 3, making the sauerkraut kimchi/sauerkraut uninhabitable to other bacteria
Makes meat juicier
In the section above we were talking about how salt helps to dry meats, but it can also make them juicier. WHAT?! Yeah told you salt is great. In brining, the moisture flow described above is reversed. The concentration of salt in the water (brine) is less concentrated than the protein-rich liquid inside the meat cells, and so the brine moves into the flesh (rather than out from the flesh as discussed earlier). We are still talking about osmosis, but we are just altering the concentration, so the liquid will always travel to the more concentrated solution. So the salt moves from the less concentrated brine and bonds to the proteins, resulting in juicier meats. As salt enters the meat cells, it alters the structure of the muscle fibres and proteins, swelling their water-holding capacity by about 10%. Since most meat loses about 20% of its moisture during cooking, brining meat can cut moisture losses by almost half.
Salt not only promotes the development of colour in foods such as ham and bacon but also enhances the golden colour in bread crust by reducing sugar destruction in the dough and increasing caramelisation.
Salt strengthens gluten in bread dough, providing uniform grain, texture and dough strength, allowing the dough to expand without tearing.
It improves the tenderness of cured meats such as ham by promoting the binding of moisture by protein. It also gives a smooth, firm texture to processed meats. Salt develops the characteristic rind hardness and helps produced the even consistency in cheese.
In baked products, salt controls fermentation by retarding the growth of bacteria, yeast and moulds, slowing wild fermentation. This is important to stop your sourdough from over fermenting as well as reducing the opportunity for harmful bacteria to multiply.
With cheese, salt helps to assure the dominance of the desired flora, and controls the rate of lactic acid fermentation, aiding the development of flavouring, body and texture. In blue cheeses, salt is the reason you get those beautiful blue moulds without all the bacteria that would lead to the cheese going bad.
When and how to use salt
Ok, so you have all this information about this magic ingredient, but how and when should you salt your food? The answer to this question will depend on what you’re cooking.
Raw vegetables - Salting crisp, juicy vegetables, like cucumbers or cabbage, before tossing in a salad rids them of moisture that would otherwise water down the dressing. Make sure you give the veggies a little squeeze before you add them or else you are in for a whole lot more water. This also works if you want to make a raw kale salad, salting and massaging your kale with salt (I add a bit of oil as well) will wilt the kale and remove the excess liquid so it has a softer texture. This also removes your perception of any bitterness as well.
It is a myth that salting eggplant reduces its bitterness by releasing the bitter alkaloids with the drained water. The reduction in bitterness is due to salt’s ability to reduce our perception of bitterness on the palate. So you can transfer this knowledge to any bitter foods, just add a little salt before you cook it and you won’t even notice the bitterness.
Seasoning meats - A salt or a salty spice rub draws out protein-rich juice that dries on the surface during cooking, creating a crisp, deeply seasoned crust, as well as helping it to brown, thus bringing out more of its flavour.
When cooking vegetables - Salting the water for boiling or blanching vegetables speeds up cooking by hastening the breakdown of cell walls. Because pure water draws salts and other soluble nutrients from the interior of vegetables, salting vegetable cooking water also minimises nutrient loss.
When cooking onions - Add a bit of salt (just a pinch) to your onions when frying them off will bring out their juices and sweeten them up allowing them to caramelise a bit more.
When cooking starchy foods - Salting the water for boiling these starchy ingredients improves their flavour by allowing the salt to permeate the ingredients more deeply. This means they require less salt after cooking; so less salt overall. Also, when dried pasta hits boiling water, starches on the surface gelatinise and become sticky. Salt limits this starch gelation, so liberally salting pasta water reduces stickiness while at the same time, flavours the pasta.
When using starch to thicken sauces - Thickening a sauce with flour reduces its flavour. This is because the long-chain carbohydrates in the flour bond sodium ions to themselves, reducing our perception of sodium and other aromas in the sauce. You can correct for this by adding a little more salt.
For seasoning only - If you’re adding salt solely for seasoning and not for any of the reasons mentioned above, the best time to do it is just before serving. This will allow the salt hit your palate directly, and you get the greatest flavour impact with the least amount of salt. Also, by salting at the end of cooking, it’s easier to salt to taste and avoid over-salting.
For seasoning, it is best to use unrefined, unground salts Salts like blossoms, flakes or freshly ground rock salt due to their non uniform sizes. This way they dissolve on food at different rates and across your palate over time.
Guide to salt
There are two broad types of salt.
• Mined Salt like “Himalayan Salt” (quotes here because Himalayan salt is actually from Pakistan not the Himalayas), is mined from the earth by excavating in deep tunnels with explosives or mining equipment or pumping water into salt deposits to dissolve the salt, then evaporating the resulting brine in vacuum chambers to recrystallise it.
• Sea salt is harvested from ocean water that’s evaporated in open-air pans, in vacuum chambers, or by a kiln. Within these main categories are several subcategories of culinary salts.
There are also river and lake salts, but they pretty much fall into the same category as sea salt as they have similar methods of harvesting (albeit at a much smaller scale). Also being from an enclosed body of water they tend to have a greater concentration of minerals than that of sea salt.
We will talk more about sea salt as mined salt has a whole host of social issues we don’t really have time to get into here (this post is already way too long). Here are the most common types:
Less refined sea salt is evaporated in open-air pans and left unwashed so it retains trace minerals and other components that provide unique flavours, aromas, colours, and crystal structure. This category includes fleur de sel, grey salt, salt blossoms, and some flavoured salts. This salt should be used as a finishing salt and should be added at the point of serving.
Table salt is tiny, uniform, granulated crystals of refined salt containing around 99 per cent sodium chloride with a silica-based anti-clumping agent. This one is best used for people that use salt shakers. Table salt is also often supplemented with potassium iodide to prevent iodine-deficiency conditions like mental impairment and goitre. in areas where fish and sea vegetables (primary sources of iodine) are scarce, iodised salt remains the most effective method of preventing iodine-deficiency diseases.
Cooking salt - This one is pure sea salt, with no anti-clumping agents. Often referred to as Kosher salt. It has slightly larger crystals, not super uniform. But this is the salt you use when you are asked for a volume measure in a cookbook (tsp, tbsp etc). With the larger crystals, there is more space between each grain, therefore, giving you less salt per teaspoon than fine salt. The larger crystals also allow you to grip an even amount per “pinch’. The large crystals also give a greater concentration of particles, therefore, drawing more moisture from the surface of your food. This salt is great if you like to sprinkle your salt, or are following a recipe that calls for a percentage of a teaspoon or a pinch.
Fine Salt - same as cooking salt, but with a change in how you use it. This is the salt you use when you are cooking by weight (baking, pickling, fermenting). The finer particles dissolve more easily. It is perfect for baking, bread making, as well as cheese and butter making. With its finer particles, if you were to use it by the teaspoon, you would end up with more salt per volume and end up with about 50% more salt than you need as there is less space between the particles.
To make things simple, cooking salt is all you really need for actual cooking, curing and pickling. If you like to bake, have a bit of fine salt in the house so it spreads through out your cooking and dissolves more easily (don’t forget to weigh it rather than measure it). Leaving all the other fancy salts of unique tastes and textures for seasoning.
Hopefully, this reduces the “option paralysis” when you see all those different salts around. If you want to see what salts we use click the button below and have a look.