Salt in Cooking: The Most Important Ingredient

March 02, 2015

salt in cooking

Salt in Cooking

If this seems too simple, it’s not.  The use of salt in cooking, and how to salt food is one of the most important things you learn in cooking school.

It matters. A lot.

Salt in cooking brings out the flavor of food.  It takes a simple ingredient and brings out its natural essence.

Chefs know this.  Most home cooks do not fully realize how important salt is.

Too much sodium, you say?

If you are cooking most of your food from scratch and you have healthy kidneys, you don’t have to worry about your sodium consumption.

Why?  Because processed foods are packed with sodium.  Like sugar, salt makes everything taste better.

So stay away from salted butters, processed cheese, processed condiments, high sodium soy sauce (I use low sodium tamari or coconut aminos) and boxed stocks.

But if you’re cooking a lot from scratch, using the right salt in the correct amount will make your food taste the way it was intended to.

What kinds of salts are there?

There’s hundreds of kinds of salts, but I’m going to talk about the ones you’re likely to find in your grocery store.  There’s grey salts and pinks salts and everything in between.  Unless you’re a serious chef, there’s no point in diving deep into this.  The idea is to learn to season foods properly, and this doesn’t require fleur de sel.

Also, I’m not going into the nutrition of salt – as long as you’re not using salt with a bunch of additives, the goal here is to add flavor, not trace minerals.

What you really need to know is which salt to use, how much, and why it’s important to make your food taste good.

Table Salt

Sometimes otherwise known as iodized salt.  It is the most refined salt.  It is ground way too small to season properly. It is overly salty and has metallic taste.  In other words, it’s nasty stuff.

Throw it away.

Sea Salt

Sea salt is harvested from evaporated sea water. There are hundreds of types of sea salt, ranging from fine to thick grind.

I like sea salt for seasoning pasta water or the water used blanch or steam veggies.  But I do not use it to season meat, because it’s much harder to control how much you use.

Kosher Salt 

Kosher salt is harvested by mining dried up oceans or sea beds.  It has a coarser grind than table salt.  For salting meat, it is the perfect, flaky grind.  It passes through your fingers in a way you can control.

Most chefs prefer kosher salt.  It’s reliable, inexpensive, pure, and seasons foods perfectly.

Finishing Salt

Finishing salt is meant to be sprinkled at the end of the dish.  It’s delicious on a piece of steak, a tomato, or a chocolate chip cookie.

It’s salt that’s light, has pyramid shaped structure with the perfect crunch.  It’s just the right amount of salt and texture for a delicious burst of flavor.

Tamari or Soy Sauce

Tamari and soy sauce is used in place of salt in a lot of Asian cuisine.  In a stir-fry, for example, I rarely use salt because I season the meat and vegetables with a low sodium tamari instead.  You can also use fish sauce in the same way, though not quite with the same gusto since it’s fishier than soy sauce.

Which kind of salt should you use?

I recommend using one type of salt for seasoning meat, fish, pastas, etc. Diamond Crystal Kosher is my salt of choice. I strongly dislike the Morton’s brand (not coarse enough, harder to gauge how much to use.) The reason you should buy one kind and stick with it is simple: different salts have different grinds.

Which means that every salt you use has a learning curve.  For example, if I season my meat with Morton’s, I have learned I need to use less.  The grain is less coarse, and thus if I use the same amount as I do with Diamond Crystal, the result will be too salty.

Now to salt pasta water, water to blanch veggies, etc – the type of salt you use matters less.  Sea salt, kosher salt – use what you want (but no iodized salt, please!)

I also love Maldon Sea salt as a finishing salt.  It’s easy to control, not too expensive, a little goes a long way and it adds a great crunch and burst of flavor.

How much salt should you use?

1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat is appropriate.  NO LESS, people.  Especially if you’re seasoning chicken, pork, beef or lamb, which can all benefit from a thorough salting.  I would say that per pound, you could even go up to 1.5 teaspoons in that case.

Tofu and fish should be around the teaspoon mark, but no more – these are more delicate proteins, and can more easily end up too salty.

For pasta, Serious Eats recommends using 1 1/2 tsp to 2 tbsp of Diamond Kosher salt by 1 liter of water.  I would go somewhere in between this amount.  And I would use a similar ratio for blanching or steaming veggies.

My cooking students are often shocked when they see how much salt I put on food.  That’s because it’s essential to the finished product.  And most chefs will tell you the exact same thing.

Food shouldn’t be salty, it should taste the way it was intended to.  Salt brings out the subtleties of ingredients.

If you want your food to go from bland to blossomed, learn to use salt in your cooking.  It’s a game changer.

 A few last tips on salt

  • Always keep a bowl of salt on the counter.  You need to use your fingers to figure out how much salt you’re putting on food.  A salt shaker is not going to cut it.
  • Use minimal or no salt if there is soy sauce or fish sauce in the recipe, otherwise you’ll end up with an overly salty dish.

Even if you don’t technically “like” salt (people love to give me this excuse for not adding enough) it’s important to consider.

What’s your stance on salt in cooking?  Do you use it?  Are you unsure how much to use?  What’s your favorite kind?

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