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Tales from the Kitchen: Needs More Salt

By Chef K. Marie Paulk

I could not even start to count how many times I have heard the phrase “needs more salt,” from chefs, restaurant owners, wait staff, peers, customers, known foodies and, most importantly, family. I was never a heavy salter until I attended culinary school. When I started my first year at culinary school, my dishes were graded poorly due to one factor, salt. The chef would simple say, “Needs more salt,” and I understood. It just took a few times (I caught on very quickly). Salting your food is simple, but learning to do in it stages while preparing your dish is the trick. When making a sauce, salt the onions and garlic in your oil. After adding your main ingredient, like tomatoes, add a little more. Then at the end, taste it and add more if needed to pull the flavor together. Remember, do not add just before serving or your sauce will just taste salty; you need to give it time to work into your sauce.

Salt, i.e. sodium chloride (NAC1) is said to be essential to life. What is essential is the sodium. Salt has three uses to us: it seasons our food, preserves food and provides sodium and chlorine which are nutrients we need to balance our fluids, muscle and nerve activity. Now I know what you’re thinking – we all consume too much of the recommend daily allowance of 2,300 mg which equals about 1 teaspoon of salt. So, part of the trick is to reduce the amount of processed, prepared and restaurant food, just by simply cooking more at home with fresh ingredients. In the Old Testament you will read that salt was so precious that the Roman soldiers were given salt as an allowance. The English word salary is derived from the Latin salarium, or “salt money”.

Kosher salt is my salt of choice. I was told time and time again it was the choice of most chefs, since it was the most consistent. Kosher salt contributes less salt to a dish than table salt simply due to its bulk. The large flakes take up more volume. In using kosher salt in baking I have learned to convent the salt by multiplying by 1¼ times to 1 ½ times, depending on the size of the crystals. You also should store your salt in a dry place so it will prevent it from solidifying or caking. Do not store your salt in silver salt shakers because the chlorine in the salt will react causing a green discoloration. I found a great salt vessel at the Meyers annual sale they hold every December. It has two spaces, one for salt and one for coarse pepper, plus a great cover that twists over for easy access. I also have a small salt container on the dinner table for those who require more salt. Just remember – salt is a rock and, unlike black pepper, it isn’t made up of essential oils, which means the flavor does not deteriorate. So you can make your perfectly salted sauce salty, but salt is a highly personal taste based on the salt content of a person’s saliva.

You should always salt proteins right before you cook. The real problem with salting too far ahead is that it causes moisture to bead up on the surface of the food, which could inhibit browning.

Salt is also used when brining, which adds succulence and juiciness to the protein of your choice. You can either use a salt water brine or a dry brine both of which require salt. In a water mixture the proteins will unravel, allowing some of the salty water to be absorbed. With a dry brine, the salt is rubbed directly onto the meat and allowed to sit overnight. The salt draws moisture out to the skin where the salt dissolves into a mild brine.  Regardless of which brine you chose, each one will add the same benefits, a heightening of flavor and moisture.

There are numerous types of salt and about half of all salt production comes from the sea and the other half is mined. To name a few: iodized salt, table salt, flake salt, Kosher salt, sea salt, fleur de sel, and flavored and colored salts.

Also important points to remember

•      Salt added to raw ingredients will draw out moisture.

•      A small amount of salt can be used to enhance sweetness, i.e. salt on watermelon (yum)

•      Salt added to a liquid which will be reduced will have a stronger effect after the reduction (so be careful not to over salt).

•      Take into consideration what other condiments you’re using that may have a salty effect, (soy sauce and capers come to mind I cook with both of them frequently).

So let’s face it – salt is like no other substance we eat. Sodium chloride is a simple, inorganic mineral: it comes not from plants or animal or microbes, but from the oceans and from the rocks that erode into them. A very simple pleasure. Just be careful not to over salt.