Salt to Taste

For the home cook, there is no ingredient more important than salt.Salt does more than just make food taste salty. It helps draw water out of vegetables when you cook them while minimizing nutrient loss. How many recipes start with, “sauté the onions…”? And many times the next step is, “sprinkle salt over the onions.” You need heat plus salt to sweat them. Once the moisture is completely out of them, the onions will become translucent. Keep cooking, and they will turn golden brown.

Salt also makes the onions sweeter. Salt makes everything sweeter, from onions and tomatoes to sugary desserts. It also hides the bitterness in kale. That’s because the sodium ions in salt subdue the bitterness, making the natural sweetness of most foods stand out.

Have you ever eaten a steak without salt? I don’t recommend it. Salt improves the texture and flavor of nearly every type of meat. Now, with steak especially, you don’t want to salt too soon before you cook. The salt does the same thing with meat as it does with vegetables — it draws the juices out. The best time to salt the steak is right before you put it on the grill or in the broiler, although you can marinate it hours before cooking. Waiting to salt just before cooking helps the meat retain its characteristic juiciness.

Brining — using a mixture of salt, water and your favorite spices to tenderize meat — helps bring the benefits of salt to every bite, not just the surface.

The salt first draws the moisture out of the meat, then the brine is slowly drawn into the meat, helping the seasoning to penetrate the whole piece of meat and creating a more complex and savory flavor.

Different types of salt have their own particular salty tastes.

Table salt — also called regular salt or refined salt — is an all-purpose salt for cooking and baking. Use table salt when you’re boiling water — say, for pasta — because it dissolves quickly. Salt also adds flavor to pasta as it boils. But it won’t make your water boil faster; in fact, it slows it down, but it raises the boiling point of the water so that when you add your pasta, it will cook better.

Most of the off-the-shelf Cajun and Creole seasonings list table salt as their first ingredient. Then there are seasoning salts from national brands like Lawry’s, McCormick and Morton’s, and we make a Rouses blend, which is what I use. It’s a mixture of table salt, herbs and spices.

Seasoning salt is best used for those times when you’re trying to get dinner on the table in a hurry, but still want the dish you’re making to have a complex flavor. It’s a good shortcut for when you just don’t have time to work your usual seasoning magic.

I use unsalted butter and unsalted chicken stock because I like to control the amount of salt in my food. Kosher salt is my everyday go-to — I use it almost exclusively when I cook. Kosher salt has bigger, coarser flakes than table salt, which gives it a different mouthfeel, and it also has a less salty taste. It melts beautifully into foods. If you were wondering, kosher salt is not necessarily kosher; it’s so named because it’s the kind of salt used in the meat koshering process.

Kosher salt makes a great salt crust for fish too. You can use any whole, oily, thick fish like salmon. The fish is covered in a thick layer of wet kosher salt and placed in a hot oven, where it steams in its own juices. You would expect it to taste salty, but it doesn’t; the salt adds just a bit of flavor. This salt-roasting technique also works especially well with whole chickens.

Sea salt, which is harvested from evaporated saltwater, also has larger, coarser flakes than table salt. Add sea salts — like Himalayan pink sea salt – at the end of cooking potatoes, vegetables, eggs or meat to add a burst of flavor. A little goes a long way.

Another salt I use is rock salt, but not for cooking. When we hear the words “rock salt,” most of us think of homemade ice cream, because you mix rock salt with ice in your old-fashioned ice cream maker. But I use rock salt to keep beer cold. Add it to the ice in your cooler — it will keep the ice from melting quickly, as well as keep your drinks and the ice super-cold.

Salt really does bring out the best in food. But properly salting food isn’t always as simple as it sounds, especially when a recipe says, “salt, to taste.” Salt should always be added during cooking so it has a chance to blend with the other ingredients, but use a light hand and sample your dish periodically during the cooking process. You can always add more at the table if it’s not salty enough for you! On the flip side, if you add a little too much salt, there are some tricks to counteract it. Try upping the sweetness, sourness or spiciness of the dish. Adding a little more water to dilute the salt can also help. But your best bet is to taste-test periodically as you cook — just the way home cooks have always done.