My friend Jo Ann and I meet several times a week at a gym, where we catch up on People magazines in the lounge, walk an indoor track and grouse about people who shriek while they’re bench-pressing the equivalent of our combined weights.
Recently, on our second pass under the gym’s egalitarian TVs (set on CNN, Fox, ESPN and HGTV), she suddenly asked: “How much salt do you put in your food?”
I believe I can say without fear of getting a 5-pound weight dropped on my foot that Jo Ann does not live to cook. She has been known to go for nearly a week before using enough dishes to fill her dishwasher.
But as they say, out of the mouths of babes come simple yet complicated questions.
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Salt is so many things. Using it to preserve country ham, salted cod and other foods kept our ancestors alive in lean times.
Completely omit salt from popcorn, and it’s like chewing cotton balls.
I found a recipe online for a natural weed killer that was a combination of salt, vinegar and dishwashing detergent. As I prepared to attack invading ivy in the backyard, The Hub said that the ancient Romans would salt the lands of conquered peoples to prevent them from growing food. “My point exactly,” I said, and started spraying. Percuteret hederam!
(Finally, I’ve used those years of Latin for something other than evading the college math requirement.)
So, salt is a preserver and destroyer; a flavoring of its own and an enhancer. It’s part of just about everything we cook, and it’s a chemical that we place on the table to add at will.
Preference for and sensitivity to salt varies a lot from person to person, according to “On Food and Cooking” by food scientist Harold McGee. Age, genetics and experience are all factors. The preference for salt is innate, but the individual taste for it can be altered through constant exposure to a different salt level. McGee says it takes two to four months to make the change.
As important as salt is, few people other than professional chefs are taught how to use it besides the classic instruction “salt to taste.” (Using salt in baking is a whole other thing, a Salt 2.0-level class, so follow your recipe in that case.)
I know a few chefs and food professionals, so for salt advice I consulted what a friend calls the “hive mind”: Facebook.
The consensus was that no matter what your personal preference for salt is, don’t wait until the dish is cooked to add it, and taste at every step.
To use salt to its best advantage and bring out the flavors of your food, add some all along as you cook. For example, add it when frying onions and garlic for a pasta sauce, then a bit more when the tomatoes go in and taste the sauce again after it has simmered a while – it might need more.
Caterer Rochelle Myers in West Virginia wrote: “I try to salt moderately as I add ingredients to a recipe. This allows the salt to draw flavor from each component gradually. Also, most meats benefit greatly from salting and resting before cooking. A steak that gets a chance to soak up salt flavor for an hour before going on the grill will taste better – and need less salt – than one salted after cooking. I don’t really buy the saw of “people who like salt can add it at the table.” Salt on the surface is not the same as salt added gradually.”
Sandra Gutierrez and Sheri Castle, local cookbook writers and cooking teachers, agreed about salting as you go. Castle said: “Taste, taste, taste the food as you go. … It is nearly impossible to catch up on seasoning at the end.”
Richmond, Va., cookbook author Kendra Bailey Morris made a good point about being aware of the other ingredients in the dish: “There are so many other factors and ingredients that can affect and even amplify salty flavors in cooking (vinegar, citrus and other acids, for example, as well as broths and canned soups that already contain salt) that can lead to an overly salted, ruined dish.”
If a dish tastes like it’s missing something, that something is usually salt, said Brian Adornetto, a chef and cooking instructor. He added that most people think salting means merely a dash or a sprinkle. “You need to start with a good three-finger pinch,” he wrote.
That’s one reason that chefs like kosher salt – it’s coarser than fine table salt and they can pick it up more easily in their fingers. Oh, and that sky-high sprinkling thing that you see on TV – it’s not just for show. Sprinkling salt from way above the food allows it to be distributed evenly instead of clumping in one spot.
So there’s your answer, Jo Ann. Can we go back to reading about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner?