The famous chef and restaraunteur Emeril Lagasse has stated many times “I hate one sided seasoned food!” What chef Lagasse is talking about is the fact that many people, chefs included, not only don’t know how to season foods such as chicken breasts or steaks but also how to season other basic foods they are cooking and eating. Many people do not understand when it is important to season, why it is important to season, or what salts and spices are to be used. Therefore this month’s article will be dedicated solely to seasoning food and specifically the most important seasoning agent, salt. Before discussing different aspects of seasoning while cooking, I would like to give you a brief education about salt and its socio-economic implications found throughout the history of mankind as well as its uses outside of cooking.
Salt’s ability to preserve food was a foundation of civilization thus eliminating the dependence on the seasonal availability of food. This can be seen even in todays cuisine with cured meats like prosciutto, salami, pancetta, chorizo, anchovies and salt cod. Moreover, it can be seen even in vegetables we still eat today such as olives, pickles, suaerkraut, tofu, and kimchi (the Korean staple of cured and spicy cabbage).
However, salt was difficult to obtain, and so it was a highly valued trade item. It is believed that Roman soldiers were at certain times paid with salt, and this is still evident in the English language as the word “salary” derives from the Latin word salarium that means payment in salt (Latin sal). The Roman Republic and Empire controlled the price of salt, lowering it to be sure that the poorest citizens could easily afford this important part of the diet or increasing it to raise money for wars. In fact, salt has played a prominent role in determining the power and location of the world’s great cities. Up until the twentieth century, salt was one of the prime movers of national economies and wars.
The different types of salts also have different purposes – some used for cooking while others used for healing and cleaning. Basic table salt can be used if you just had a tooth pulled or a sore finger or an open blister on your foot. The salt will help to draw out any infection and promote healing. Salt not only has medicinal uses but also has incredible and various cleaning applications as well. After a wine spill, immediately cover the spill with salt and later you can rinse out the stain in cool water. While still hot, sprinkle a mixture of salt and cinnamon to remove offensive odors from your stove burners and oven and sprinkle a bit more salt in your oven before scrubbing clean. Have you ever burned your expensive, enamel coated cast iron Le Creuset pan? No worries as you can soak it in salt water overnight and boil salt water in it the next day to remove the burned-on stains.
The versatility of salt is evident in its various uses when cooking. Below are some useful tips to remember when cooking and how salt can help:
- When boiling eggs, add a little salt to the water so that if an egg cracks, the salt will help to keep the white inside the eggshell
- Add a pinch of salt when beating egg whites to make them fluffier or add a tiny pinch of salt to whipping cream to make it whip more quickly.
- Before removing scales from fish, soak it in salt water and the scales will come off easier
- To set desserts quickly, place over ice that has been sprinkled with salt.
- A pinch of salt improves the flavor of cocoa.
- Sprinkling salt on both sides of meat just before broiling or grilling will draw some moisture from the center, making it browner on the outside.
The different types of salts that abound should also be used for different purposes when cooking. For example, regular table salt is made up of sodium chloride much like other salts, however it also contains additives such anti-caking agents (so lumping won’t occur when humid) and iodine. Due to this, regular table salt is useful for its effects rather than trying to impart flavor. For example, regular table salt is useful when looking to reduce bitterness in food such as when salting slices of eggplants. The salt helps draw out the bitter juices inside the eggplant and thus leaves you with a palatable vegetable to cook with.
Kosher Salt has a much larger grain size than regular table salt, and a more open granular structure. Like common table salt, kosher salt consists of the chemical compound sodium chloride. Unlike common table salt though, Kosher salt typically contains no additives such as iodine. Because of the absence of iodine, kosher salt tends to make flavors cleaner and brighter than iodized salt, which has a slightly metallic flavor.
Kosher salt gets its name not because it follows the guidelines for kosher foods as written in the Torah, but rather because of its use in making meats kosher, by helping to extract the blood from the meat. Because kosher salt grains are larger than regular table salt grains, when meats are coated in kosher salt the salt does not dissolve readily. Instead the salt remains on the surface of the meat longer, allowing fluids to leach out of the meat. Chefs and even home cooks often prefer kosher salt because its texture allows the chef to pinch a larger quantity of salt on food and thus control the seasoning.
Lastly is my favorite type of salt, Sel marin (French sea salt) – in particular Fleur de sel (flower of the salt), which stems from the flower formations that are created by the myriad of salt crystals from sea water that’s pooled into basins and then evaporated on France’s Brittany coast. Hand harvested, Fleur de sel’s first layer produces the finest and most mineral rich crystals to ultimately be sprinkled on dishes just before serving. The fresh salt has an extremely soft texture that literally melts under the tongue. Although expensive ($10 for a small tin) the difference in the rich and sweet flavor it imparts is worth the price.
For those of you who have high blood pressure and need to monitor your salt intake you can still infuse food with natural seasoning ingredients such as citrus zest, pepper, or fresh herbs. I hope you find the tips and information above useful for the next time you season your food and cook.