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Grain of salt

(article, Helen Rennie)

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p(blue). Editor's note: Helen Rennie wrote the Front Burner column from January to June 2007.

Why do “gourmet” home cooks occasionally crave Big Macs? Could it be the texture of the overcooked meat squashed with the spatula until all the juices run out? Or the aroma of the processed buns and Styrofoam tomatoes? 

What could be missing from our organic, from-scratch home cooking that's available instead in the pit of despair known as McDonald’s?

The answer is simple: Salt.

[%image promo-image float=left width=350 caption="Use your hands to measure salt." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/lisegagne"]

“I barely use any salt,” most home cooks proudly tell me, as if their food is so good it doesn’t need it. When my students see me grabbing salts by the handfuls (no salt shakers, thank you very much) and generously sprinkling it over fish, roasts, and even salads, their eyes get wide with shock. But the real surprise comes when they taste the food. 

That’s right. Salt makes food taste good. Without salt, you are eating everything in black and white. With salt, you are eating it in color. 

And even though we don’t like to admit it, a Big Mac in color is better than an all-natural grass-fed beef burger in black and white.

Being a salt activist is not likely to score me any popularity points. We all know how bad salt is for you. Or is it? Sure, salt might raise your blood pressure, but so do lack of exercise and caffeine. So I suggest we stop guzzling Coke, walk at least three miles each day, and stop eating junk food.

The trouble with learning to season properly is that cookbooks, food magazines, and celebrity chefs on TV leave you in the dark about how much salt to use. Since most home cooks started their cooking careers with Campbell’s soup cans and fajita seasoning mixes (this includes me, by the way), they never developed intuition for the right amount of salt to use when cooking from scratch. 

In an effort to help people with this seasoning dilemma, I tried measuring salt when testing my recipes. But the 20 million types of salt that've hit the market lately sabotaged my efforts. Even saying “1 teaspoon kosher salt” is not specific enough. Is it Diamond Crystal or Morton’s Kosher salt? (Believe it or not, there is a difference.) And what if someone doesn’t have kosher salt? Should I give the conversion to table salt? Eventually I washed my salty hands of the matter and reverted to using the vague-but-universal “Add salt and pepper to taste.” 

Still, my conscience nagged at me. How could I sleep at night, thinking of all those people out there eating less-than-optimal food, even when following my recipes? Since my mission in life is to promote deliciousness, I finally decided to do something about it. In other words, I decided to write it all down. 

Learning to season perfectly (i.e., coaxing the most flavor out of your ingredients without leaving a salty aftertaste) is, like all cooking, a sensory-training experience. So here's a training exercise to practice your salting. (I wish I could take the credit for this exercise, but I didn’t come up with it. It’s something I found on Rebecca Faill's The Experimental Kitchen.)

For this exercise, you will need one cup of unsalted, homemade chicken stock. (The reason you can’t use store-bought stock is that it already has salt, and even the low-salt varieties have additives that can complicate matters.) If you don’t have homemade chicken stock on hand, combine 4 cups cold water, a skinless chicken breast, a carrot, a celery stick, and an onion in a small saucepan. Bring this to a boil on the stovetop, then immediately reduce the heat to low. Simmer uncovered for one hour, occasionally removing the impurities that rise to the top. It’s not really a chicken stock, but it'll do just fine for this exercise.

You will also need Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Diamond Crystal is cheap, available in any supermarket, dissolves quickly, and doesn’t have additives. It’s the salt used in the restaurant industry and in cooking schools. If you can’t find it, you can use Morton’s kosher salt, though Morton's is coarser and doesn’t dissolve as quickly. 

What’s wrong with regular table salt? Even though it looks very fine, it doesn’t dissolve as quickly as kosher salt and has additives that give it a metallic aftertaste. 

What about sea salt? Pink salt? Black salt? Polka-dot salt? Sure, if you want to spend big bucks on salt and buy a salt grinder, be my guest. But for most uses, it’s a waste of money and effort.

Okay, then, here's the training exercise:

1) Warm up your stock to the temperature at which you like to eat soups. When seasoning foods to taste, make sure they are at the temperature you will be serving them. As a general rule of thumb, hot foods will need slightly less seasoning than cold foods, since we perceive flavors more intensely at higher temperatures.

2) Pour half a cup of the stock into a bowl and taste it. It should taste kind of blah — flat and uninteresting.

3) Now try adding salt a tiny pinch at a time, stirring well to dissolve it, and tasting the stock after each addition. The flavors should start to come into focus with each addition of salt. Concentrate and try to remember what the stock tasted like after each addition.

4) Keep adding salt a little at a time until the stock tastes salty — in other words, the taste of salt overshadows other flavors.

5) Remember what the stock tasted like right before you added that last pinch of salt and made it too salty? That was the perfect seasoning stage. Try to use your memory to recreate that taste using the second half-cup of stock. Pour it into a clean bowl, and start adding salt a little at a time, constantly tasting. But this time, stop adding salt when the stock tastes just right, before it gets too salty.

Mastered the exercise? Then keep the following tips in mind.

[%image saltspoon float=left width=300 caption="Use a spoon for salting large pots of liquid." credit="Photo courtesy Helen Rennie"]

Throw away your salt shaker. Salt shakers don’t work for kosher salt, and don’t give you the fine control you get from your hands. Keep a small bowl of salt on your counter and use your hands to pinch salt and sprinkle it on your food when cooking. (Large pots of soup or water for pasta, however, will take way too many pinches, so use a spoon for these.)

Since you can’t taste meats and fish in their raw state, seasoning them is a bit tricky. Be generous when seasoning thick cuts of meat, like steaks. (The seasoning is only on the outside, and has to be intense enough to compensate for the unseasoned inside.) Be even more generous when seasoning large roasts, such as prime rib or a whole chicken.

Try half a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per pound of seafood, and one teaspoon of the same per pound of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. This will give you a starting point, and next time you’ll be able to fine-tune your seasoning. Use the measuring spoons to measure out the salt, but use your hands to sprinkle it on food. This will help you develop an intuition for how much salt to sprinkle on raw foods when you can’t taste them.

Season solid foods (fish, chicken, meats) before cooking, to intensify their flavor.

Season liquid foods (soups, sauces, even risotto) after cooking, because evaporation can make these dishes more salty than you intended, particularly if you're reducing a sauce.

Season leafy vegetables, such as spinach and Swiss chard, after cooking; again, these veggies are mostly made of water, which evaporates during cooking.

Don’t forget to season your salads — and remember that you’ll have much more control over the end results if you salt your greens instead of your dressing. Even with salty store-bought dressings, you might have to add salt if you like your salads lightly dressed.

Perfectly seasoned food should be vivid and intense. It should fill your whole being with pleasure and leave you wanting more.

p(bio). Helen Rennie is a food writer and cooking teacher living in Boston. This column was adapted from a post on her blog, Beyond Salmon.

Elsewhere on Culinate: Mark Kurlansky's bestselling book Salt and Helen's column on making salad.

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