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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

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Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

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GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone

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Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips or pellets or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke to whatever is above. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

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Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $289 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

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Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

Amp Up The Smoke

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Gold BBQ AwardMo's Smoking Pouch is essential for gas grills. It is an envelope of mesh 304 stainless steel that holds wood chips or pellets. The airspaces in the mesh are small enough that they limit the amount of oxygen that gets in so the wood smokes and never bursts into flame. Put it on top of the cooking grate, on the burners, on the coals, or stand it on edge at the back of your grill. It holds enough wood for about 15 minutes for short cooks, so you need to refill it or buy a second pouch for long cooks like pork shoulder and brisket. Mine has survived more than 50 cooks. Click for more info.

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The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the AmazingRibs.com imprimatur. Click for more info.

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The Science Of Salt

"Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all." Nelson Mandela

By Meathead Goldwyn

Salt is the single most important flavor enhancer of them all. Period. This tiny water soluble rock reduces the taste of bitterness, balances sweetness, physically expands taste buds, and just a small amount can really wake up a dish. It can also aid in moisture retention during cooking and even tenderize meat (see my article on brining). As we know, there are also health issues associated with its overuse.

Salt is a natual mineral, NaCl, a crystal made of one ion of sodium (Na) and one ion of chloride (Cl). There are many kinds of commercial salt, but all salt is sea salt. That's right, all salt originally came from sea water which is about 4% saline containing about 1/4 pound per gallon.

Salt is so vital to society and health that the words salt, saline, and salary have the same root, the Latin word salarium which was the money paid to a Roman soldier to buy salt.

Salt is not evil

I know that a lot of health experts are taking potshots at salt because it makes food taste better and can entice us to eat too much. I know that many of us have been told to limit salt intake because it can raise our blood pressure, but before you swear off the stuff and start posting the "you idiot" comments below, know this:

Salt is vital to all living things. It is called an "essential nutrient" for humans, which means that our bodies do not make it, so all our salt must be ingested. From the Mayo clinic: "Your body needs some sodium to function properly because it: Helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body; Helps transmit nerve impulses; Influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles."

When dissolved in water, salt conducts electricity and it is essential for aiding the transmission of signals along your nervous system and in your brain. On average we all have about seven tablespoons of salt in our systems. That's why all your bodily fluids are salty: Blood, sweat, and tears.

Salt is also a preservative and antimicrobial, which is why so many meats and vegetables were brined, pickled, or packed in salt before refrigeration. Think prosciutto and corned beef. Salt raises the temperature at which water boils and lowers the temp at which it freezes, and it is also a heckuva stain remover.

On the flip side, too much salt in your diet can increase your blood pressure, a condition that has been implicated in cardiovascular disease. Because of this, there are a lot of people worried that we consume too much salt, especially because prepared foods like frozen dinners and fast food from restaurants have a lot added. But the correct amount of salt consumption is still not known, varies from person to person, and its impact on our health is still being explored. In 2013 an expert committee, organized by the Institute of Medicine at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studied the research, especially recent research, and reported that there is no reason to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day (about 1/10 an ounce) as some doctors recommend. In fact, the group said low sodium diets may be as risky as high sodium diets, although it would be hard to avoid enough salt to endanger yourself. Click here to read an analysis of the report in the New York Times, and click here to read the original report. In addition, my article on undertanding what you read about diet and health might be helpful.

If you remain worried about too much salt in your diet, the secret is to control it yourself. The secret is to cook! Buy unprocessed foods and season them yourself. If you avoided fast foods and processed foods, you will never have to worry about too much salt in your diet.

The different kinds of salt

There are many types of salt, but when they are used in cooking it is almost impossible to taste the differences. But there is an important reason to pay attention: All salts are the same when you measure by weight, but most recipes measure salt by volume (teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, etc.) and this can cause a problem if you are not careful.

Table salt is sea salt that has usually been mined from salt domes found underground. It is dissolved in water, refined and "purified" and ground into small uniform cube shaped grains. Anti-caking agents have been added so it works well in salt shakers. Some also also have iodine as an additive to help prevent iodine deficiency, a leading cause of mental retardation, thyroid problems, decreased fertility rate, and increased infant mortality. Not all table salt has iodine.

Kosher salt has larger flake shaped grains and also has small amounts of anti-caking additive but no iodine. Many chefs prefer kosher salt because the larger grains make it easier to pinch. There are two popular producers of Kosher salt, Morton's, and Diamond Crystal. Their grain size is different, so I have standardized on Morton's in all my recipes.

Pickling salt dissolves well in cold water so it is a good choice for brines. It lacks iodine and anti-caking additives, so it is the best choice for pickling.

Sea salt. The aura surrounding sea salt is a bit of a scam. All salt comes from the sea, so all salt is sea salt. But in the marketplace nowadays, the term is usually used to describe salt that has been made by humans creating shallow ponds and allowing the water to evaporate. It does not just happen naturally. Usually the grains are large.

salt flats in san francisco bay

If you've noticed the rainbow colors on the water on the south shores of San Francisco Bay as you fly into SFO, you're looking at salt drying ponds. Sun dried sea salt usually has minute amounts of minerals from the sea that can give it subtle flavors and colors ranging from pink to black. According to Castro and Huber's, Marine Biology textbook sea salt usually contains sulphate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, bromide, borate, strontium, and fluoride, in descending order. It can also contain other impurities including metals, pollution, fish poop, microbial spores, and even radioactive elements such as radium, uranium, and polonium. Whatever is in the sea. But what the heck, it's "natural". The kciker is that some "sea salt" is refined in a similar fashion to table salt.

Grain size can vary significantly from producer to producer, but large grains can provide pops of flavor when used at the table. But beware, large grains don't dissolve easily and can feel gritty, even rocky, between your teeth. But in the same bag of large grains there can be fine powder. That is why I don't use it in cooking. It is impossible to regulate quantities. I use it only as garnish at tableside. Sea salt can also be very expensive.

Seasoned salts. Grocery stores sell seasoned salts like garlic salt (approximately 3 parts salt to 1 part garlic powder) and celery salt. I never use them in cooking since I prefer to control the amount of all ingredients. That said, I make a seasoned salt with herbs and large grain salt and I place them on my dining table as a finishing salt. It is super on potatoes, pastas, veggies and other dishes. Click here for my recipe for Seasoned Salt.

Pickle salts. Another fun technique to make unique salts is to take pickle juices, dry them in a dehydrator or by just leaving them in a non-reactive pan to evaporate. Then scrape them up. You can use them like this, or grind them in a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or blender. Try making them from the juices left after you empty a jar of dill pickles, sauerkraut, pickled mushrooms, pickled peppers, onions, whatever you can find!

Curing salts

Curing salts should never be used to season food in the cooking process or at the table. Curing salts were created centuries ago, before refrigeration, as a method of preserving meats such as bacon, hams, and corned beef. They all contain salt and nitrite, and some contain both nitrite and nitrate. Both these preservatives are very effective against the deadly botulism bug, a common problem with improperly cured meats. Most curing salts are colored pink with a small amount of red dye so you don't confuse them with table salt. The small quantities used in curing meats is harmless, but in large quantities can be lethal. Pink salts are not the same as pink Himalayan rock salt which is pure salt with trace elements that give it the pink color! You can skip the curing salts and just replace them with table salt, but I strongly recommend that you do not. The meat will taste pretty much the same, but it will be tan in color and you will need to smoke it at more than 200°F and keep it refrigerated or frozen. A lot of people fear nitrites and nitrates based on research that has been contested. Click here for more info on nitrites and nitrates.

Some important words of caution. Curing meat is not like any other recipe. It is not like brining a turkey or chicken for a few hours. Please read my article on the basics of curing meats.

Prague powder #1 or Insta Cure #1 or Pink curing salt #1. This is the standard for quick curing meats. It is approximately 94% plain old sodium chloride with approximately 6% sodium nitrite with some anticaking agents and a touch of red dye that makes it pink so you won't mistake it for table salt or sugar. It's not easy to find this stuff in groceries, but butcher shops, sporting goods stores where they sell sausage making gear, and this link to Amazon.com carry it.

Prague powder #2 or Pink curing salt #2. This has approximately 6% sodium nitirite, 4% sodium nitrate, and the remaining 90% is plain old sodium chloride with some anticaking agents and red dye. The exact precentages may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. It is usually used in sausages and other meats that will be kept for weeks or months. The nitrate breaks down into nitrite with time so it remains active over months. It is used to extend shelf life. Insta Cure #2 has only about 1% nitrate.

Saltpeter. Another name for potassium nitrate, saltpeter was once used extensively in curing meats. It has been replaced by curing salts. It cannot be used as a substitute for curing salts in any of my recipes.

Morton Tender Quick is a blend of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and anticaking agents. Despite the misleading name, it is a curing salt and is not a tenderizer. It is not a direct substitute for Prague powder #1.

Readycure is common in Canada and it is only 1% nitrite, so it is not a good substitute for curing salts that are typically 6% nitrite.

Measuring different salts

You must be aware of which salt you are using when you follow a recipe that measures by volume because the grain size can make huge difference on the amount of sodium, i.e. saltiness. For example, one teaspoon of table salt, which is a small cubic shaped grain, contains less air than one teaspoon kosher salt, which is a larger flake and has more air between the grains. So if the recipe calls for a teaspoon of Morton's kosher salt and you use a teaspoon of table salt, the results will be saltier. If the recipe calls for salt by weight, like eight ounces, it doesn't matter which salt you use, the volume may be different, but the amount of sodium will be the same!

1 cup table salt = 8 ounces by weight

Here's an approximate conversion table for when you are measuring by volume according to Morton's website.

1 cup Morton's Table Salt = 1.25 cups Morton's Kosher Salt

Here's the inverse:

1 cup Morton's Kosher Salt = just a bit more than 0.8 cup of table salt

This means that if your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of Morton's Table Salt, but you want to substitute Morton's Kosher Salt, use just a bit more than a teaspoon. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of Morton's Kosher Salt and you want to substitute Morton's Table Salt, use just a tiny bit more than 3/4 of a teaspoon.

Notice that there are some differences between brands. Diamond brand Kosher Salt is a coarser grain than Morton's, so you need to use more than the Morton's.

For this reason, it is far better to measure salt (as well as sugar and flour) by weight rather than volume. If I knew that every kitchen had a good digital scale I would switch to salt by weight in my recipes in an instant. I use the OXO Good Grips Stainless Food Scale with Pull-Out Display. Here are some more useful conversions

Salt
1 teaspoon Morton's table salt
= 1.25 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
= 1 teaspoons Morton's Pickling Salt

Here's the inverse:

1 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
= 0.8 teaspoon of table salt
= 0.8 teaspoons Morton's Pickling Salt

1 cup table salt = 8 ounces (1/2 pound) by weight
Salt is 2.16 x density of water

Brines

Dry brine. Sprinkle the meat with about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per trimmed pound, wrap in plastic wrap to keep other foods from contacting meat juices, and refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours depending on thickness.

Basic wet brine. Add one cup of hot water to a two cup measuring cup. Then pour in salt, any salt, until the water line reaches 1.5 cups. Produces a 6.3% brine.

1/2" thick meat should be brined for about 1/2 hour in the refrigerator
1" thick meat should be brined for about 1 hour in the refrigerator
2" thick meat should be brined for about 4 hours in the refrigerator
3" thick meat should be brined for about 12 hours in the refrigerator

Briners beware of double salt jeopardy!

Rubs are a great way to add flavor to meat. Brines are also a great way to add flavor as well as moisture. Rubs often contain a lot of salt. You can use both a rub and a brine, but beware of double salt jeopardy. If you use a brine and then a rub, you should make your own rub mix and leave the salt out of the blend. A salty rub on top of brined meat can make the meat unbearably salty. Never brine meat that is labeled "enhanced" or "flavor enhanced" or "self-basting" or "basted" because they have been injected with a salt solution. Remember, you can always add salt, but there's no taking it away.

Adding salt to pasta and potatoes

It is common to add salt when cooking pasta or potatoes and many other foods. If you add the salt while the water is cold it can sink to the bottom and cause pitting. All-Clad and other manufacturers recommend adding the salt after the water is boiling.

This page was revised 4/22/2014


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About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, spice rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, accessories, and thermometers, edited by Meathead.

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