Let’s Talk About Salt, The Only Rock We Eat

By 4 m read
Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
(Photo by Erich Boenzli)

 

Salt is one of those things we take for granted. Salt brings food to life. Learn how to use it and your food will taste great! We don’t really think about it. It’s there when we want it. We know too much is bad for you and not enough is bad for you too.

 

Salt shaped civilization from the beginning. Salt was the first traded commodity, salt was used as a currency, and salt was the cause of wars. There’s so much more to salt than we ever realized, and luckily there’s a fantastic book to learn more about it: “Salt – A World History” by Mark Kurlansky.

 

Every person that enjoys cooking will one day ask themselves: When do I add salt, how much salt do I use, and what kind of salt should I use?

Fleur de Sel from the Camargue, France (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Fleur de Sel from the Camargue, France (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

When do I add salt?

As general rule, add salt while you cook and taste as you go. When you’re finished, you can always add some finishing (Maldon) salt if you think your dish needs some extra pizzazz. Except for steaks…steaks are salted before cooking. There are only two ways to do this right: Salt them right before cooking. This way, the salt has no time to dissolve, so you’ll get a nice, hard sear. Or, you can salt your steaks for at least 40 minutes before cooking (overnight is fine, too). Salting for this longer time will draw the juices from the meat’s fibers to the surface and has time to be reabsorbed into the meat. Cooking a steak that has been salted between these times will lower your surface temperature when you add the steak to the pan (due to the large amount of liquid on the outside of the steak) and the steak won’t sear properly. I learned this technique from an article on seriouseats.com, by J. Kenji López-Alt

Salted Steaks, Chef’s version (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Salted Steaks, Chef’s version (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

How much salt do I use?

Depends if you’re looking for an answer from your dietician or from a chef. Dietician: use less salt. Chef: use more salt.

 

What kind of salt should I use?

For me, this is the most interesting question. Do you use it to enhance flavor (always), add texture, or add color? Just as there are many different coffee beans that have different origins and flavors, the same goes for salt. A supermarket might carry “regular” Morton salt, sea salt, and kosher salt…that’s pretty straightforward. But when you go to a gourmet or a delicatessen store, you suddenly find black Hawaiian, pink Himalayan, Fleur-de-Sel from the Camargue in France, etc. There are roughly 150 different salts out there and if you really want to dive into it. I recommend the book “Salted – A manifesto on the world’s most essential mineral, with recipes” by Mark Bitterman.

Black Hawaiian Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Black Hawaiian Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

So yes, over the years I’ve tried a lot of different “boutique” salts and paid for them accordingly, in the hope that my dishes would suddenly, miraculously taste way better that my cooking would allow. But the placebo effect wore off quickly. So, I went back to the basics:

 

For everyday cooking, you can get away with two salts that will work for everything. For pasta water, soups, stews, etc, stay with the one you already use every day (I use Diamond Crystal’s Pure Kosher Salt). But for finishing dishes, salads, fruits, and salting meats, I’m so happy to have found Maldon salt. It’s a flaky, white salt that has a clean, fresh, oceanic flavor. Just do yourself a favor, buy a box, and let me know what you think. It’s sometimes hard to find in a supermarket, but easy to get online. And it’s not that I figured out all by myself that this is a great salt. I read a lot of interviews with chefs, and when asked about their favorite salt, the answer is overwhelmingly Maldon.

Maldon Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)Maldon Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Maldon Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Interesting Facts

  • Every cell in the body contains salt – an adult contains about 8.8 oz
  • In old Japanese theatres, salt was sprinkled onto the stage before each performance to prevent evil spirits from casting a spell on the actors
  • Salt bars were the standard currency of Ethiopia
  • Salt was used to preserve Egyptian mummies. Greeks used to exchange slaves for salt – starting the expression “he is not worth his salt.”
  • In Tibet, tiny cakes of salt were pressed and used as coins
  • Roman Legionnaires were paid in salt (salarium, the Latin origin of the word salary)
  • In 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama was buried sitting up in a bed of salt
  • In India, a gift of salt is considered a potent symbol of good luck
  • Salt baths are recommended for pain relief from sprained muscles
  • Sodium (salt) is the key factor in the operation of all signals from, to, and within the brain
  • Sodium is responsible for smooth and trouble-free movements (contraction and relaxation) of the heart muscles
  • You need to eat salt to replace what you lose when you sweat
  • Excess salt can affect heart function.  The kidneys help remove any excess quantity from your body.
Pink Himalayan Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Pink Himalayan Sea Salt (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

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