The single most important ingredient in my kitchen.
(After wine, of course, but that’s for me, salt is for the food.)
Recently, a very talented home cook whipped up a gourmet meal for his guests.
As he was plating, he said, “I don’t know, it might need salt.”
He was PLATING, and he hadn’t TASTED it. (Insert screechy noise here.)
Calmly, I screamed at him, “WHAT! You’re putting food on the plate that you HAVEN’T tasted?”
(It’s a fact: chefs yell at their cooks all the time, some more than others, but yelling is a chef prerequisite, along with the ability to stand on your feet 16 hours a day, skip bathing occasionally and touching excruciatingly hot pans — repeatedly — without crying.)
The point is, a cook’s best asset is his palate, and salt is money in the bank.
Salt is a mineral that we cannot live without; ergo, it is a nutrient, but I’m no health expert. I am a cooking expert so I will talk about another role salt plays: flavor enhancer.
Harold McGee, a food scientist with impeccable credentials, explains why salt is a flavor enhancer in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (a book you should have in your library if you’re the curious, geeky type of cook.) Something about highlighting aromas while diminishing bitterness, positive and negative ions, and yadda, yadda.
All I know is that when I taste a sauce or vinaigrette or any dish, I’m thinking, “how does it taste?”
Add a pinch of salt, stir and taste again. Wow — difference. Flavors pop. Add a little more salt and repeat until the tastes buds say, “that’s perfect.”
Learning when enough is enough is a trial and error process. Taste, add, taste, add. Stop! Dang, too salty. It happens.
You won’t learn if you don’t experiment. It’s impossible to learn if you transfer food from pot to plate without tasting it.
Which kind of salt you use is really a matter of personal preference. I attended a salt tasting once and came away with a head full of salt notes and a burned out palate.
Table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, flavored salt, handcrafted salt — salt is salt.
There are nuances to salts, whether it’s the pinkish Murray River salt from Australia, the red clay salt from Hawaii, Fleur de Sel from France, Mauldon English salt and hundreds of salts in between.
I prefer plain old kosher salt for everyday cooking and seasoning. It’s clean (no additives), the larger crystals dissolve quicker than table salt, and it’s inexpensive compared to sea salt or specialty salts.
That said, I do like to use the specialty salts as a finishing salt, sprinkling on at the last minute for appearance and taste.
If you’re interested in stocking your pantry with specialty salts, check out The Meadow, a gorgeous salt boutique in Portland and New York.
Whichever salt you use, taste your food before and after and soon you’ll build your own salt flavor bank.