Salt shouldn’t make your food taste salty – if it does, you’ve added too much (unless it’s popcorn of course, and you want to taste the salt!).
When you salt foods, a chemical reaction happens in your mouth – the salt reacts with your saliva (ionization) and acts to amplify the taste receptors on your tongue. Now that your taste buds are fully engaged, all the foods that pass over them are heightened even more.
Another characteristic of salt, is that when salt and butter (or any fats) are combined, the salt actually lessens the oily taste in your mouth. You can try this by tasting a bit of salted butter and unsalted butter.
Salt also acts as an anti-caking agent, an emulsifier, reduces our perception of bitterness, and it can improve the texture of foods.
Cooking With Salt
There are specific reasons to salt certain foods before, during or after cooking. Once you know the right time, you may be able to reduce the amount of salt you add at the table.
Meats: Salt improves the texture of the meat as it helps to breaks down the tough proteins, thus tenderizing the meat. Another benefit of a salt rub is that when the meat is grilled, some of its protein rich juices are drawn out of the meat which helps to create a crusty sear on the meats surface.
Vegetables: If you are making a cucumber dip or cabbage coleslaw, you may want to salt those vegetables in order to draw out their excess moisture. Otherwise you can end up with a very watery dressing: Toss 3/4 tsp of salt with the grated veggies, place in a colander. Place something heavy on top and let it sit for 20 minutes. For cucumber, up to 3 Tbsp of liquid can be removed from 1 grated cucumber! You can leave the salt on, or quickly rinse it off then pat dry the veggies.
Eggplant is also routinely salted to remove its moisture, but the salts main purpose is to reduce our taste buds perception of the vegetables bitterness.
Beans: To soak dried beans, add 2 tsp of salt for every 4 cups of water. The salt acts to draw out the magnesium within the cells and replaces it with sodium. This allows the cells to dissolve quicker, making them soften faster when boiled.
Vegetables: If you salt the water you boil the vegetables in, it will do two things – reduce the cooking time and reduce nutrient loss.
The salt breaks down the hemicellulose, which is the substance that keeps the vegetables fibers together. The sooner these fibers break down, the quicker the vegetables soften and are ready to serve.
Vegetables boiled in unsalted water will actually cause all the water-soluble nutrients within the vegetables to be drawn out. However if the water is salted, reverse osmosis prevents those nutrients from being drawn out. If you do choose not to salt the water, try and use the water to make stock or sauces with so you can utilize the nutrient-rich water.
Starchy Foods: By salting the water while cooking bland foods like pasta, rice and potatoes, their flavor will be greatly improved as the salt will be drawn further into them. If you added 2 tsp for each 8 cups of water used, the overall amount of sodium that will be absorbed into the food would be ~60mg of sodium. By salting during the cooking stage, these foods may not need any extra salt at the dinner table, which will help reduce your overall salt consumption.
Sauces: When making starch thickened sauces, adding salt will help to thicken and emulsify the mixture. It works because the long-chain carbohydrates in the starches bond with the sodium ions, thus thickening and keeping the mixture from separating.
If you choose to salt for seasoning only, do it at the table. If you do it before or during cooking you could be adding more than you need to, especially if your first reaction when you sit down to eat is to grab the salt shaker even before tasting the food.
Baking with Salt
Although most baking recipes call for a minimal amount of salt, you may think why even bother adding it. But salt isn’t added as a seasoning in baking, it’s added to enhance the color, the flavors, and to improve the texture of your baked goods.
Rate of Rise: In bread making, salt actually plays a very important role. Because salt kills yeast, it works to control the rate of the yeasts fermentation. If you didn’t add salt, when the dough is left to rise it could eventually spill up and over the sides of the pan -gluten free doughs do not have the same strength and structure (as wheat doughs) to allow the dough to rise straight up into a huge pillow. Instead they spread more than they lift which is why they can potentially spill up over the pan.
Color: Salt improves the appearance of dough and pastry, by giving the final product a deeper golden color. You can further deepen the color in those recipes that call for an egg or milk wash, by adding a pinch of salt in the wash you use to brush over the dough or pastry before it’s baked.
Texture: Gluten free flours have a very low protein content in comparison to wheat flour. Salt works to strengthen the proteins in the gluten free flours and allows air pockets to form (and most importantly be maintained, thus rising), which creates a light and delicate crumb – instead of falling flat which would make a dense crumb.
Types of Salt
Salt is harvested from two different sources – evaporated sea water (sea salt) or mined underground (rock salt). Both are chemically the same, sodium chloride, but each vary greatly in flavor, color, texture, and mineral content, depending on the minerals that were present from where they were harvested.
In terms of sodium content all types of salt are relatively the same, although sea salts that do not have their minerals removed will have less sodium per weight simply because of the higher mineral content.
To see how sea salt can be harvested, check out this interesting (and quick) video from Aztec Salt. Harvested for generations by hand, their sustainable and ethical method produces the purest and highest quality sea salt on the market today.
When choosing salt, you need to think about what you’re using it for. Each type of salt has their own unique characteristics and flavors, are best matched to specific uses and dishes.
|Category||Common Names||Characteristics||Uses (Baking vs. Cooking)|
|Fine Table Salt||Iodized*||Contains a small amount of potassium iodide and dextrose as a dietary supplement/anti-caking agent. Fine grains||For all cooking and baking because of its neutral flavor and it dissolves easily|
|Coarse||Kosher**||Large grains, slower to melt||All cooking|
|Coarse||Kosher||Large grains, slow to melt||All cooking|
|Crystalline (fine or coarse)||White,
Black, Himalayan, Hawaiian, Sel Gris, Grey Salt
|Color and flavor dependent on minerals present in sea water where it was harvested.||Fine white – use in all cooking and baking.Colored and coarse varieties, use only in cooking or as a finishing salt (their natural impurities can impart a briny, sweet, or even bitter flavor to foods).|
|Flake (hand harvested)||Fleur de Sel, Maldon, Halen Mon Gold||Earthy tasting, mineral rich, color variations dependent upon where it was harvested, its large and irregular flaky shape dissolves slowly on your tongue and on your foods. Distinctive delicate crunchy texture.||Used in cooking or baking as a finishing salt only. The flavors of certain types of baked goods (chocolate, caramel) and fruits greatly enhanced from a light sprinkling of this delicate salt.|
*Since the 1920’s North American salt companies have been adding iodine to their salt in response to the depression-era governments concern of increasing thyroid problems due to iodine deficient diets. However with today’s diet, the 225mg of iodine our bodies require daily is easily attained by eating seafood, dark leafy greens, as well as using sea salt – which naturally contains iodine.
** Kosher salt is named as such because its large crystals make it perfect for the process of curing meat―which is a step in the Jewish koshering process.
One thing to be aware of when buying sea salt is that not all are 100% pure. The majority of sea salts on the market are refined and have been stripped of many of their minerals. Read more from the Salt Revolution to find out what to look for when buying sea salt.
Which Salt to Use?
When choosing salt for cooking, it can be classified into two types – cooking and finishing salt. Cooking salt is used in the food preparation, whereas finishing salt is lightly sprinkled over cooked food at the table.
When cooking, your favorite fine or coarse salt will do. But when you want to add a hint of unique flavor, color or texture, try experimenting with some of the sea salts harvested from the oceans around the world. I have recently discovered Aztec Salt, and absolutely love the taste and quality of this ethically and environmentally responsible product.
You can even use salt as a baking tool – check out this tasty recipe for Rib Steak in Salt Crust to see how they pack salt around the steak (whole fish can also be done in this way) and bake it in the oven!
For baking, choose a fine grain rock or white sea salt. These salts dissolve quickly and have a neutral flavor that won’t affect your baked goods overall taste.
Flake or finishing salts are quite expensive and should only be used for seasoning at the table, as their distinctive texture and unique flavor can easily be lost if added during the cooking or baking process. Because of their irregularly shaped flakes, they melt on the foods at varying speeds, resulting in a prolonged and fuller flavor impact. The high cost of finishing salts prevents them from being used as an everyday salt, so set it out only for special occasions or use on those dishes that would benefit from its unique qualities.
For desserts, finishing salt can actually brighten and intensify certain foods. Their delicate light flakes react with the taste buds to significantly enhance chocolate or caramel flavored dishes, like in our Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart. Citrus fruits, melon and tomatoes are also heightened in flavor with a light sprinkle of this flaked salt. Besides the combination of flavors, the subtle ‘crunch’ of this salt adds another layer of dimension to the overall taste experience.
The Final Word on Salt…
Salt balances flavors by tempering bitterness, affects the moisture of the food by bring liquids into foods (like in a brine), or pulling it out so as to concentrate the other flavors in your dish. Salt even enhances sweetness, making chocolate desserts taste even more chocolaty – even like this chocolate ice cream!
As you can see, salt does so many things to our foods beside flavoring, that you don’t want too little, and you don’t want to much. The trick is to find the right balance, and to know when and where to salt for maximum flavor and texture value.
If asked, I’m sure most people would say they eat too much salt. So if you start by making healthy choices at the grocery store, there may still be some room in your daily allowance to allow some salt in during the cooking and baking process.