Why do “gourmet” home cooks crave a Big Mac on occasion? Could it be the texture of the overcooked meat squashed with the spatula until all the juices run out? Or aroma of the processed buns and styrofoam tomatoes? What could be missing from our organic, from-scratch home cooking that is found in the pit of despair known as McDonald’s?
The answer is simple.
“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 sprinkle it over fish, roasts, and even salads, their eyes get wide with shock. But the real surprise comes when they taste the food. “Wow, I expected it to be too salty, but it tastes so good.” 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 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 does lack of exercise and caffeine. So I suggest, we stop guzzling coke, walk at least 3 miles each day, and stop eating junk food -- there is nothing worse than wasting your salt intake on Doritos. I bet that will help with blood pressure much more than bland food.
The trouble with learning to season properly is that cookbooks, magazines, and food TV programs leave you in the dark about how much salt to use. Since most home cooks started their cooking careers with Campbell’s soup and fajita seasoning mix (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 the seasoning dilemma, I tried measuring salt when testing my recipes, but 20 million types of salt that hit our market lately sabotaged my efforts. Even saying “1 tsp kosher salt” is not specific enough. Is it Diamond Crystal or Morton’s Kosher salt? Believe it or not, there is a significant difference. And what if someone doesn’t have kosher salt, should I give the conversion to table salt? Eventually I threw in the towel and reverted to using vague, but universal “Salt and pepper to taste.” My conscious always bothered me about quitting like this. How could I sleep at night knowing that all those people might be out there eating less that optimal food even when following my recipes? Since my mission in life is to promote deliciousness, I finally decided to do something about it – I decided to write this post about salt.
Learning to season perfectly (in other words, coaxing the most flavor out of your ingredients without leaving a salty aftertaste) is a sensual process that is akin to learning to have an orgasm. Once you have one, you’ll know what it feels like and will be able to do it again. Until then, it all seems like smoke and mirrors. The porn (sex and food kind), and voluptuous prose of romance novels and food literature are great at turning you on or making your mouth water. But descriptions of how he unbuttoned her dress and how the first bite of shrimp exploded like fireworks in her mouth will not make you a better lover or cook. What will make you better is experimentation.
I wish I could take credit for this brilliant exercise, but I didn’t come up with it. It’s something I found on The Experimental Kitchen by Rebecca Faill, who teaches baking at King Arthur's education center in Vermont.
Here is what you’ll need:
1 cup UNSALTED home-made chicken stock – the reason you can’t use store bough stock is that it already has salt, and even the low-salt varieties have additives that can complicate matters. If you don’t have home-made chicken stock on hand, combine 4 cups cold water, 1 skinless chicken breast, 1 carrot, 1 celery stick, and 1 onion in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil on the stove top, then immediately reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, occasionally removing impurities that rise to the top. It’s not really a chicken stock, but it will do just fine for this exercise.
Diamond Crystal Kosher salt – Diamond Crystal is cheap, available in any supermarket, dissolves quickly, and doesn’t have additives. That’s the salt used in the restaurant industry and cooking schools. If you can’t find it, you can use Morton’s kosher salt, though it 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? Just kidding, there is no polka dot salt, but the gourmet world has been going a little crazy with salt lately (I didn’t make up the thing about pink and black salts). 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.
Here is how you can practice seasoning:
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 1/2 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” – 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 1/2 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.
Perfectly seasoned food should be vivid and intense, like the last few moments before an orgasm. It should fill your whole being with pleasure and leave you wanting more.
Other tips on seasoning:
Throw away your salt shaker – salt shakers don’t work for kosher salt and don’t give you the fine control you can get with your hands. Keep a small bowl of salt on the counter and use your hands to pinch salt and sprinkle it on your food when cooking. Large pots of soup or water for pasta will take way too many pinches, so use a spoon.
Be generous when seasoning thick cuts of meat, like 1-2 inch steaks. Remember that the seasoning is only on the outside and it has to be intense enough to compensate for unseasoned inside. Be even more generous when seasoning large roasts like a prime rib or a whole chicken.
Solid foods (fish, chicken, meats) are generally seasoned before cooking to intensify the flavor.
Liquid foods, like soups, sauces, and even risotto, are generally seasoned after cooking because the evaporation of water can make them more salty than you intended, particularly if you are reducing a sauce.
Since you can’t taste meats and fish in their raw state, seasoning them is a bit tricky. Try 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher (DCK) salt per pound of seafood, and 1 tsp DCK salt 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.
May 20, 2008 correction:
I think my original estimate was a tad low. After using measuring spoons to test the above suggestion, I found that it's not seasoned enough to my taste. What I actually use seems to be closer to 1+1/4 tsp DCK salt per pound of seafood and 1+1/2 tsp DCK salt per pound of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. I use a little less if there is a sauce that goes along with the protein since the sauce is usually seasoned with salt too. If the sauce contains soy sauce, fish sauce, or some other very salty ingredient, I drop the amount of salt that I sprinkle on the protein appropriately.
Keep in mind that all salts are different! 2 tsp DCK = 1 tsp table salt = 1.5 tsp Morton's Kosher (roughly). For all other salt, you have to experiment to find the right amount.
Leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are seasoned after cooking since they are mostly made of water that evaporates during cooking leaving the dish more salty than you intended if you seasoned it up front.
Don’t forget to season your salads. Since many home cooks are used to salty store-bought dressings they don’t realize that they need to add salt to their salads if using a home made dressing. You’ll have much finer control if you salt your greens, than if you salt your dressing. Even with store-bought dressings, you might have to add salt if you like your salads lightly dressed.
And most importantly -- Taste, Taste, Taste!