It's About How You Use Salt
Salt is the building block of flavor. Which is funny because salt doesn’t have a flavor. But it does enhance the flavors around it. Salted cucumbers taste fresher. Bitter dark chocolate tastes sweeter with flaky sea salt. Meat has more umami when it’s been salted in advance.
So salt makes food taste better. But that doesn’t mean using more salt is always the key to delicious food (though sometimes it is!).
How you use salt is just as important as how much you use.
When You Use Salt
A smaller amount of salt added early on more thoroughly seasons food than salt added at the end.
Think about pasta. 🍝 Heavily salting your pasta water makes it so salt is absorbed while cooking. You get pasta seasoned throughout instead of it being salty on the surface.
That’s why it’s crucial to salt cooking liquids for rice, noodles, or other grains while they cook and not just after. Be warned. I’ve been known to get pretty salty with people if they don’t! 😉 I know, I’m sodium funny. 🥁
But it’s not just grains.
Meat should be salted in advance. When you salt a whole chicken or a pork chop in advance, a magical thing happens. Unlike other seasonings, salt molecules are small enough to actually travel into the meat if given enough time—usually at least 40 minutes. It’s a mix of osmosis and diffusion that makes it happen! (Check out this past newsletter letter issue to learn more about salting meat in advance.)
A little bit of salt applied the day before will more thoroughly season meat than a bunch of salt added right before cooking. That’s the beauty of salt within the meat and not just on the surface!
Salting in Multiple Ways
There are different ways to add salt to a dish. And I’m not just talking about sea salt vs kosher salt. 🧂
This is an important one to remember. Salt comes from more than just the rock. You can season a dish via salty ingredients like:
- Soy or fish sauce
- Capers or olives
- Pickled veggies
- Cheese (like pecorino, parmigiano, or feta)
- Cured meats (like bacon or prosciutto)
In fact, I’d say these “types” of salt are my preferred way to season food. Why? Well, these salty ingredients bring more to a dish than just salt. Pickled veggies and crispy bacon bring a crunch too. Anchovies and soy sauce bring umami. Salty cheeses also add creaminess.
Season your food with one of these ingredients, you’ll be layering salt throughout the dish. So it’s important to consider all sources of salt when planning a meal. Speaking of that...
Planning for Salt
You know dumping a bunch of salt on at the end is not the key to tasty food. So you’re already planning on salting throughout the cooking process and using multiple “types” of salt.
But, still. How do you know how much salt to use? Here’s how: (1) taste as you go (2) then think about the dish as a whole.
Let’s say you’re making a simple tortilla soup. You’ll start by sauteing some veggies and some chorizo. You’ll then add spices and hardy herbs. And lastly, you’ll add your stock and simmer away. Then right before serving you’ll garnish it with tortilla chips, cotija cheese, and avocado. Yum!
Now let's talk about your salt plans. You’ll want to add salt to your veggies as they cook. How much? If you’re adding chorizo to the mix, probably not much since it’s another source of salt.
After the spices go in and bloom for a bit in the fat, I’d taste the veggies. Then I’d think about the stock. Is it already salted? A lot? If not, I’d want the veggies to be a bit salty at this point.
Then once the soup is done simmering, I’d taste it again. Does it taste bland? I’d add some salt. Well seasoned? Then I’d think about my garnishes for the soup. Tortilla chips and cotija cheese both have salt. So if I realize the soup just needs a touch more salt after tasting it, I’d stop there. My garnishes will bring it home!
My goal with this newsletter isn’t to teach you the “rights and wrongs” of cooking. Cooking is subjective. Because if it tastes delicious to you, then you did it right! No matter how you got there.
But I do want to help you be more thoughtful about how you cook and why you do what you do in the kitchen. It’s something I’ve been working on personally. And it’s made me a better cook. But more importantly, it’s made cooking more fun! So instead of just following steps in a recipe, use your brain and senses to create something delicious. 🧠👃👀👂