Essential for life, salt has played a role in human history that easily outshines petroleum in terms of sheer power factor. Wars have been fought over it. Fortunes have been made from it. Currency has been literally made from it. Historians have speculated that civilization, as we know it, was formed in part because of the quest for salt.It’s the only rock we can eat, and so important that one of the five major tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami—is named after it. But, when it comes to cooking, people often make mistakes with salt and even foodies are still relying on standard sea salt rather than testing out the plethora of options available today.
French fleur de sel, Himalayan pink, Hawaiian Black Lava, and English Maldon are just a few of the many options existing to relegate table salt to oblivion. Each has its own character, some have mineral content, and some are so very light that they seem effervescent. Each contributes to food in its own way, so it’s critical to taste them, test them with different foods and find your favorites. We’re lucky enough around here to have a number of great places to pick up interesting types of salt. The Savory Spice Shop, Navidi’s, Whole Foods and Newport Market can all help with this.
So can this little experiment. Try roasting or grilling some fresh veggies without salt. Taste them. Sprinkle a little salt on them and taste again. What do you notice? The idea is to experience those flavors being pulled out at you from the salt. Try it again, this time using fresh tomatoes, or melon.
What you find is that salt is a critical component to cooking. But there are some pitfalls. The first thing I want to say is, taste your food before you add salt. Whether you are preparing food or eating it, adding salt before tasting can lead to over salting. If you can taste salt, there is too much. Salt’s job is to pull out and enhance the flavors that are within the food, not to become a flavor itself. If it tastes salty, you have used too much. If that does happen, add some sugar and hope for the best.
It is also possible to under salt, and miss out on the flavor potential of a dish. I learned this the hard way. One night, while I was a young line cook working at a fancy spot in San Jose, I had a dish returned. It was cooked perfectly, but the customer sent it back because the grilled zucchini on the dish lacked zing. The chef had me taste the vegetable in question.
It was okay. I mean, it was zucchini, how exciting could it get? But the chef sprinkled a little kosher salt on it, and asked me to taste it again. Wow. Zing. The flavor, and I mean the real flavor of squash meets grill, popped out at me. Before words could form in my head, I understood. Never would I underestimate the value of proper salting again, and neither should you. The flavor will be its own reward.