Table Salt – Strangely Not for the Table

Posted by on Oct 14, 2011 in Culinary 101, Food Journal

Table Salt – Strangely Not for the Table

In my childhood and, I suspect in most of yours, I was trained to use the iodized salt that comes in the blue cylinder. You know the one. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I found out about Kosher salt and not until Culinary school that I found out about all the other wonderful salts out there. So, I thought today I would give everyone some salt basics. With just a few simple tips you will see a change in your cooking.

First lets talk about what salt is. Salt is a chemical compound (NaCl – Sodium Chloride) that occurs naturally in the Earth. All of us come equipped with taste receptors in our mouths to enjoy it with. It is important in food preservation, and it also makes food good. I would go on about the chemistry behind salt and where it’s collected, but you may not all be food nerds like me. If you are into the chemistry check out my recommended books and choose one on food chemistry. And now moving on……..

There are 3 very basic salts that no kitchen should be without, good old fashioned table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt. They all have specific and practical uses

-Table salt (can be iodized or not) is very small and has a smooth texture. It melts quickly on hot food and dissolves easily in water. I had a chef in culinary school who I think about every time I boil pasta. He would come around and taste our cooking water and he would say ” How salty should this be? As salty as the salty sea!” (you have to say the answer loud and with a heavy French accent). He was right though. If you want to see an immediate improvement in the taste of your boiled pasta or potatoes, salt your water. I’m not talking about a little bit of salt like I was shown as a little girl. I’m talkin’ like SALT your water. It should taste like the ocean. I don’t really measure, but I would say that I use somewhere around 1/4 of a cup of table salt to 7 quarts of water. Warning – it is totally possible to over salt you water. I found this out when teaching my kids about salting their cooking water. Our spaghetti tasted like a salt lick, of course my husband and I choked it down anyway because they made dinner. It may be beneficial to you to, just for fun, boil 2 small pots of pasta. Salt one and not the other and then do a taste comparison. You will be amazed by the taste difference. Also try salting the unsalted noodles after they’re cooked. You will quickly see that the best time to salt them is in the pot while they’re cooking. This is when the starch expands and soaks in the flavor.  This will also give you a better understanding of the importance of salting your water. The other main use for table salt is fried food. You want to sprinkle it over your fried food immediately when you take it out of the oil. The heat from the oil will help it melt and it will make your food yummy. No real trick to the amount, just start with a little, taste it and if you want more, add it. One note about table salt is that it comes both iodized and regular. The iodized has iodine added to it. This is a necessary nutrient that some of our diets lack – easy solution, use iodized salt.

-Kosher salt is the most common in professional kitchens. It is larger then table salt, has no additives and has a coarser texture. It is used before cooking as well as during the cooking process. This is the salt that you want to be using to season meats before cooking. For example, if you are about to throw a beautiful steak on the grill, just a few minutes before you do, sprinkle it with Kosher salt. Don’t cover it completely, just a light sprinkle on both sides and try to make it even. You don’t want one salty bite and then a bland bite – gross. The best way to accomplish an even sprinkle is to put a little salt in the palm of your hand and pinch and sprinkle with your other hand. Kosher salt is very easy to “control” this way.   You have probably seen chefs do this on television. Also, as silly as this may sound, practice on a plate or something first to get a feel for it and to see how evenly you sprinkle. Add a little ground pepper, flip your steak and do the other side. Once you have added the salt you don’t want to wait too long before cooking because  the salt will draw moisture out of your steak. Not a good thing for steak, but for some other things, exactly what you want your salt to do. Kosher salt is also great for just about anything else you cook in the kitchen too. Keep in mind though that most ingredients like salt to be added to them as they are being cooked. With few exceptions, every time you add an ingredient into the pan, it should be followed by a little salt and a little pepper. This helps the ingredients absorb the salt and also helps you evaluate what the final flavor will be during cooking. This does not mean add a teaspoon of salt every time you add something to the pan. Just a light sprinkle, each time, over the new addition. For example, say your recipe says something like saute the onions then add the mushrooms. You would put your onions into the pan with a little salt (and pepper). Saute them until the desired consistency, add your mushrooms along with a little salt and then the next ingredient and so on. You get the idea right? Oh, and taste the food as you cook to check your seasoning (not if there’s raw meat in it please). One person who overrides the salt as you go rule is your doctor. If  you have been advised to use less salt in your diet, listen to the Doc and not me. So I bet your wondering by now, is Kosher salt really “Kosher”? The answer is YES it is! Kosher salt meets Jewish eating requirements.

Salts in My Cabinet

-Sea salts can come in either beautiful little flakes, or crystals and are prized by chefs. There are two common methods for how sea salt is “harvested”. The traditional technique involves sea water being collected into shallow basins. It is then left there to evaporate from the heat of the sun. The salt on the bottom is affected by the clay or other substrate that is on the bottom of the basin. This often causes unwanted discoloring. Take note here that there are many salts that have color for other reasons that are desirable.The salt that forms higher up in the basin and has not had contact with the bottom stays pure white. This is where the more expensive “fleur de sel”comes from. I always tell people that sea salt is for finishing a dish and for using at the table. This is where it’s flavor can be most detected and appreciated. If you are wondering if you can use sea salt for cooking in place of Kosher – yes you can in most cases however it is not necessary and is cost prohibitive for most of us. My two absolute favorite sea salts are Maldon from England and Fleur de Sel Camargue French sea salt. You may also want to check out a “starter set” of salts that offer a variety of different sea salts.

OK. Now that you know your salts, let me just give you a few extra pointers.
-use a little less salt then normal if you will be adding a salty ingredient later like soy sauce or parmesan cheese
-the more you reduce a sauce or a soup, the more concentrated the salt becomes
-when you add salt, it draws out moisture, this can be good or bad depending on what you’re trying to do
-most importantly, have fun when you cook, food cooked with love always tastes better

Happy Cooking!

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