The Zen of Salt
Salt is the single most important flavor enhancer. This tiny water soluble rock reduces the taste of bitterness, balances sweetness, actually 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).
Salt is a 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 right now 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. 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. Too little salt in your diet can result in nerve and muscle damage. An average human has about seven tablespoons 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, salt is hydrophilic, meaning it attracts the hydrogen (H) in water (H2O), so too much salt in your blood can cause your body to hold too much water, and that excess water can put pressure on your vascular system causing elevated blood pressure. Because most packaged and prepared foods are heavily salted in order to enhance flavor, most of us consume far more than the recommended one teaspoon of salt per day.
There are a lot of people worried that Americans consume too much salt. That's because prepared foods like frozen dinners and fast food from restaurants have so much added.
But is salt intake something to worry about? Shockingly, research indicates there may be a greater risk in limiting salt intake as overindulging. In June 2012, Gary Taubes, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Independent Investigator in Health Policy Research and the author of "Why We Get Fat" wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he documented the research on the topic. 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 researcch, and reported that there is no reason to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day. In fact, the group said low sodium diets may be as risky as high sodium diets. Click here to read an analysis of the report in the New York Times, and click here to read the original report.
If you remain worried about too much salt in your diet, the secret is to control it yourself. The secret is to 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.
I say stop picking on salt!
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.
Table salt has small uniform grains and anti-caking agents have been added so it works well in salt shakers. It also has iodine as an additive to help prevent iodine deficiency, a leading cause of mental retardation, thyroid problems, decreased fertility rate, increased infant mortality.
Kosher salt has larger 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. Because it has the fewest additives and impurities, it is the best choice for pickling.
Sea salt. First of all, all salt comes from the sea, so technically all salt is sea salt. But in the marketplace nowadays, the term is usually used to describe salt that has been made by evaporating salt water. Sea salt usually has minute amounts of minerals from the sea that can give it subtle flavors and colors ranging from pink to black. Grain size can vary significantly from producer to producer. Some grains can be quite large, and they can provide pops of flavor when used at the table. But beware, large grains can feel gritty 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 recipes. Sea salt can also be very expensive.
Pink curing salt #1 or Prague powder #1. This not the same as pink Himalayan rock salt. This stuff is 93.75% sodium chloride with 6.25% sodium nitrite, and yes, it is pink. It was a necessity for killing the botulism bug in the days before refrigeration. It's not easy to find in groceries, but butcher shops, sporting goods stores where they sell sausage making gear, and Amazon.com carry it. It kills bacteria, especially the botulism bug, and it is needed for the bright pink color we associate with corned beef and bacon. You can skip it and just replace it with table salt. The meat will taste the same, but it will be tan in color. It is sometimes called Prague Powder #1, and it is not the same as pink curing salt #2 which has both sodium nitirite and sodium nitrate. It is also different from saltpeter which used to be used but isn't used much any more, nor is it the same as Morton Tender Quick, which some people use. Click here for more info on nitrites and nitrates.
Morton Tender Quick is a blend of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and propylene glycol to keep the mixture uniform. It is used as a curing salt and is not a meat tenderizer. It is not a direct substitute for pink curing salt.
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 sea salt that I keep on my dining table. It is super on potatoes, pastas, veggies and other dishes. Click here for my recipe for Seasoned Salt.
Cooking with salt. Most people cannot tell the differences in the tastes of salt, especially when it is cooked. 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.
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 fine grain, contains less air than one teaspoon of Morton's kosher salt, which is a larger grain and therefore there is 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 almost twice as salty. If the recipe calls for salt by weight, like 8 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.
1 teaspoon Morton's table salt = 1.9 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
Here's the inverse:
1 teaspoon Morton's Kosher Salt = just a bit more than 1/2 teaspoon 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 pinch less than 2 teaspoons. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of Morton's Kosher Salt and you want to substitute Morton's Table Salt, use just a pinch more than 1/2 teaspoon.
Notice that there are some differences between brands. Diamond brand Kosher Salt is a larger grain than Morton's, so you need to use more than the Morton's.
For this reason, it is best 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
1 teaspoon Morton's table salt
= 1.5 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
= 1.8 teaspoons Diamond Crystal Brand Kosher Salt
= 1.8 teaspoons Morton's Pickling Salt
= 3 to 4 or more teaspoons of sea salt
Here's the inverse:
1 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
= 2/3 teaspoon of table salt
= 1.1 teaspoons Morton's Pickling Salt
= 1.1 teaspoons Diamond Crystal Brand Kosher Salt
= 2 to 3 teaspoons or more of sea salt
1 cup table salt = 8 ounces (1/2 pound) by weight
1 teaspoon Morton's table salt = a pinch less than 2 teaspoons Morton's Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon Morton's Kosher Salt = a pinch more than 1/2 teaspoon of table salt
Salt is 2.16 x density of water
For thick cuts like beef prime rib. 1 teaspoon of table salt per pound, refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours
For medium thick cuts like pork loin or turkey breast. 1/2 teaspoon of table salt per pound, refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours
For thinner cuts like steaks and chops. 1/3 teaspoon of table salt per pound, refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours
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 submerged in brine for 1/2 hour in the refrigerator
1" thick meat should be submerged in brine for 1 hour in the refrigerator
2" thick meat should be submerged in brine for 4 hours in the refrigerator
3" thick meat should be submerged in brine for 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 9/17/2010
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