your ability to salt is a major culinary skill
You've probably noticed that throughout my writing, I keep saying the word "seasoning". I hope I haven't confused you.
Seasoning is to "add salt" and salt is seasoning. They're interchangeable. Salt is the medium and bridge that we use between our taste buds and the food we're eating. Imagine it to be a conductor, a revealer, a form of matter that brightens and intensifies the natural flavors of a food.
Get a box of Kosher salt, preferably with no additives, and definitely no iodine. Iodized salt lends itself to an acrid sort of taste, which detracts from foods. There are some brands of Kosher salt (Morton) that use an anti-caking agent. I generally just avoid these. I use Diamond Kosher salt, which comes in a red box. It's been tougher and tougher to find nowadays, but I know for sure that Whole Foods carries it. So does Amazon, but at a higher price.
Get a salt pig. A salt pig is just a bourgeois way of saying "a bowl that your salt sits in". Make sure it's large enough that you can pinch the salt, and rub it between your fingers. This will become the intuitive way to determine how much salt you're adding and also the ability to uniformly spread the salt over the food.
Get some tomatoes, eggs, and non-salted saltines.
A simple experiment is to slice a fresh tomato into wedges. Taste one wedge first, no salt. Rinse out your mouth. Sprinkle some non-iodized Kosher salt on the second wedge, and taste it. What's the difference?
Let's do another taste test. Make two fried eggs. One with no salt, and another one, salted. What's the difference?
Last test. You guessed it. Do the same thing with those saltines. What's the difference?
You might've noticed that the salted items just simply tasted more like the food item itself. I wouldn't necessarily say that the tomato, egg, or saltine tasted "better", but the tomato tasted more like tomato, the egg was really eggy, and the saltine tasted more saltine-y than just cardboard.
That is the power of salt. Think of it as a channel that reveals a food's true tastes. If you learn how to salt correctly, great cooking can be had with just one ingredient. Take that tomato as an example. If you have a great ingredient and some salt, you actually don't need much else. Maybe some olive oil, but that's pretty much it. A great tomato with the help of salt, can really stand out on your taste buds.
how do you do it?
If you got the right salt and a salt pig, you're pretty much almost there.
You'll want to:
- use your fingers and pinch the salt
- run the salt between your fingers and allow it to fall uniformly
- mix and taste
- you might fuck it up, but it's ok
Uniformity and how the salt is spread is very important as to how salt affects your food. If you don't spread it evenly, then the some parts of the food will be saltier than others, and well, that doesn't lead to a good experience.
Uniformly sprinkling doesn't necessarily mean laying everything out and painstakingly sprinkling everything carefully. It does generally mean salting at a height. It could also mean throwing it all in a big metal bowl, adding some salt, and tossing it up. The height strategy works well for meats, and the bowl strategy works for food items that are drier and don't stick to salt very well. A great example is raw carrot. Salt doesn't stick quite well to it, so I generally throw sliced carrots in a metal bowl, add some olive oil, and then salt and toss.
what's really going on?
Let's use salting meat as an example.
Salt, broken down to its constituent parts, is one part sodium and one part chloride. The chloride ion (a negative charge), attaches itself to the muscle fibers of the meat. The sodium (a positive charge) denatures the protein structure and allows it to hold additional water with much more ease.
There are two quick scientific concepts to understand here:
- Opposite charges attract and identical charges repel one another.
- Osmosis is the net movement of water from an area of low concentration to high concentration.
This is what's happening:
- You salt your pork butt.
- There are negative charges on the meat fibers, and negative chloride ions from your salting attach themselves to the meat fibers. Positive sodium ions are also chilling around, attaching to the pork butt.
- The concentration of salt on the surface of the meat is suddenly very high. Water begins moving from the meat to the surface to equalize the concentration. This is osmosis.
- The negative charges on the meat are repelling one another, pushing the fibers apart.
- The water that moved to the surface of the meat plus the salt, now have enough space between the meat fibers to move back in. Think of a thin layer of salty water on the meat that moves back in.
- The pork butt proteins also have been denatured by the sodium ions, so they are well equipped to hold the water.
- These steps most likely occur asynchronously, but either way, your pork butt is going to taste better.
The process above is essentially what Serious Eats calls a "dry brine". You're seasoning the meat but not through a means of a very salty or acidic liquid. Just salt on the surface and the movement of salt and water back into the meat. This cuts down on the amount of water that could potentially move back in and dilute out the meat flavor.
It would be cool to see this in action one day under some kind of live microscope and not just have a theoretical understanding. For now, you and I can trust that salted pork butt tastes more porky than unsalted pork butt. History and every restaurant in the world also is evidence of this.
These are important understandings about salt. If you remember nothing else:
- Salt denatures proteins. Denaturing means changing the structure, which means tenderizing and increasing the water retention of proteins.
- Salt initially causes water to come out via osmosis, but eventually it is re-absorbed.
- Too much salt tastes acrid, too little salt tastes bland.
- Sprinkle and taste at every stage.
Now that you have a better understanding of the concepts, you cooking will take a quantum leap forward. Yes, you don't need super fancy 20-ingredient recipes to make good food. Buy some great ingredients, salt right, and it will taste great.
salting meats & fish
I use a dry brine for all my meat and fish.
For meats, I do the dry brine overnight so that it's ready the next day. For thinner meats, right before they hit the pan and a light sprinkling after is usually fine.
For fish, I generally do a generous, uniform sprinkle on both sides right before it goes in the pan. It's also possible to do it overnight, but it's highly dependent on the texture and denseness of the fish.
Eggs, I do as they're cooking, and then a small smattering after I'm done.
We can surmise that the dry brine process is very similar for vegetables as well. For some vegetables, it's hard to get a uniform sprinkling on them, since salt just doesn't stick to certain raw vegetables. This is why I generally salt them after oil or a vinaigrette, so the seasoning sticks.
Blanching or par-cooking vegetables is a opportune moment to ensure that the water you're cooking the vegetables in is also seasoned. Similar to pasta, I make sure that the cooking water is as salty as sea water. Seasoned water leads to seasoned food. I taste the vegetables after they come out, and as I finish them in the pan, I season them again.
other forms of salt
Salt doesn't necessarily just mean Kosher salt. It can mean anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. Natural sources of salt exist, so it's good to know when you use these items so you don't over-salt your dish.
if you learn nothing else
- Get the right kind of salt (Kosher salt), no additives.
- Pinch and sprinkle uniformly.
- Taste, add, repeat.
How do I know when I have reached the correct amount of seasoning?
With time and with experience, the food that you season should taste "vibrant" and more like the food itself. Alone, the food item with salt should be good. Anything under and it'll be slightly bland, as if the flavors aren't "popping" out of the food.
How do I know when I have overdone it?
Take a tablespoon of pure salt and just put it in your mouth. Note the acrid taste and your response. As you get closer to this response, you are overdoing it.
How else can I practice?
The next time you go out to eat, try and figure out where on the spectrum the chef has salted your meal. Is it bland or too salty? As you enjoy more foods at home with the proper amount of pure unadulterated Kosher salt, you'll begin to calibrate your tastes.
Simple foods at home is also a great way to experiment. Similar to the tomato, saltine, and egg experiment in the beginning, try your raw foods with and without salt. Sardines with and without salt. Blanched vegetables with and without salt. Baked zucchinis with and without salt. Homemade chicken broth with and without salt. You'll be surprised that the right amount of salt makes for great cooking.
Back to map of content (cooking)